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Jerzy Pałosz

The Military Cemetery as a Form of the Cult of the Fallen Soldier [...]

20 August 2014
  • Poland
  • Great War
  • First World War
  • World War I
  • cementaries
  • Austria-Hungary

The Military Cemetery as a Form of the Cult of the Fallen Soldier: The History of the Idea and Its Destruction on the Example of Austro-Hungarian Cemeteries in “Russian Poland”


Fundamental changes occurred in the ways in which fallen soldiers were dealt with in the latter half of the nineteenth century in Europe and the USA. This evolution ran from their original apprehension as the “muck of history,” buried anywhere, in whatever fashion was available, to the cult of the fallen soldier, which reached its apogee in the era of the Great War. The culminating point was “the ideology of the military graveyard.” Since World War One, we have witnessed the gradual disintegration of this idea. The development of nationalism led to a decline in the equable treatment of war casualties, regardless of their nationality. The great cemetery-monuments (at Redipuglia and Tannenberg) are products of a different ideology. In the countries of Central and Eastern Europe different processes took place, linked to the cult of a nation’s own soldiers, felled in the struggle for the freedom of their homelands. This process was particularly strong in Poland, and was tied to the cult of Marshal Piłsudski and the Legionnaires. As a result, the cemeteries from the Great War were physically destroyed, and where they survived, they became – to borrow a metaphor from Paweł Pencakowski – “the forgotten graves of no one’s heroes.” This process, which continues to this day, will be described using the example of Austro-Hungarian cemeteries on the former territory of the Kingdom of Poland.

In his work concerning death in Western civilization, Michel Vovelle poses a fundamental question: How does a nation state perceive its soldiers slain on the battlefield? Does it merely ensure them glory, or does it use them for other aims? (Vovelle 2008, 610).

In 1914–1918 the governments of the warring nations, terrified by the massive number of casualties, created the idea of the military cemeteries as the highest (though not exclusive) form of the cult of the fallen soldier. The key principles of this idea were: the right of every soldier to his own grave, and – insofar as this was possible – that it be marked with his first and last name, with equal treatment for the bodies of the opposing army, their burial in shared cemeteries, though generally in separate areas, and the recognition of the battlefield – the place of the soldier’s death – as the most worthy place to lay him to rest. The fallen soldier (der Gefallen) had become a hero (der Held). This went for the enemy as well. The Germans marked a boulder in the section containing fallen Russian soldiers in Piotrków Trybunalski (in the Lódź voivodeship, Poland) with the inscription: “In praise of a brave opponent” (Ehre dem tapferen Feinden). In all the surviving grave inscriptions in “Russian Poland” the opponent is always “brave.” This form of the cult of the fallen soldier had surely transpired for the first (and, unfortunately, the last) time in the modern history of Europe. What happened to it after the war’s conclusion, particularly in Eastern Europe, where nation states had replaced the great powers? I will use my own research to try to illustrate the processes that occurred, based on the examples of military cemeteries in part of what was once the Kingdom of Poland, that is, the region that Germans and Austro-Hungarians called rusische Polen.

The Austro-Hungarian “Russian Poland” – the MGG

After the summer campaign of 1915, the Russian armies were pushed back from the lands of the former Kingdom of Poland. This region was subdivided into two occupied zones: a larger one to the north, administrated by the Germans, and one half the size, administrated by the General Military Governorship in Poland (Militärgeneralgouvernement in Polen – MGG), with its headquarters first in Kielce, and, after 1 October 1915, in Lublin. The Austro-Hungarians also administrated the Jasna Góra Monastery in Częstochowa. This town was located in the German administrative zone, but because of its special religious importance for the Poles it was handed over to the Catholic Habsburg Monarchy. The governor appointed by the Emperor was directly answerable to the Commander-in-Chief of the Army (AOK).

In this area, measuring nearly 45,000 square kilometers and divided into twenty-four regional commands (Kreiskommandos), 729 cemeteries and mass graves have been located, in which 148,129 casualties were laid to rest before 1917 (AGAD, MGGL, cat. 1166, unpaginated). By October 1918 another 11,000 bodies had been located, making for a combined total of 159,633 casualties buried here. There were surely more of them; the remains of soldiers were found in the interwar period, and are still being found to this day. Thus, to the question: How many soldiers fell and were buried in this area?, our only honest reply is: We do not know. We might well mention another number established by the Austro-Hungarian administration – 491 Polish legionnaires were among the fallen. In August 1916 the Tenth Division of Military Graves was created by the MGG. It answered to the Ninth Division of Military Graves in the Ministry of War. Military Grave Divisions with various Kreiskommandos were also active in the area.

The Genesis of the Ideology of the Military Cemetery

To begin, we ought to cite R. Koselleck’s reflection which, though it may concern monuments, is equally applicable to other forms of the cult of the fallen soldier: the paradox of the cult of the fallen, politically speaking, is that its symbolism and function are identical, or can be interpreted in an analogous manner. Their messages, however, are always tied to the time and the place. The message can be ritually repeated, or the monument’s function can change; it can be destroyed or forgotten (Koselleck 1994,10).

It is generally accepted that the roots of this ideology reach back to the Enlightenment, and specifically, to the French Revolution and the First Empire. There is much truth to this, but as an overgeneralization, it is risky. The more or less insane concepts for commemorating the slain and those who served the revolution include Jacques Cambry’s project (1799) – a pyramid into which their ashes were to be poured – and Napoleon’s idea to engrave the names of fallen soldiers of the Great Army into a church, thus turning it into a great war monument. These were unrealistic, but they did stir the imagination. Jacques Cambry’s project made the simple soldier equal to the head of a revolution, while Napoleon’s equated him with generals and marshals and made him the object of a cult which had theretofore surrounded only leaders and rulers (Mosse 1990, 38). This period ultimately left behind the Pantheon, where the most deserving were buried, and the Arc de Triomphe, which contains the names of the marshals and generals. Nonetheless – excepting the section for the National Guard in Pere Lachaise – the problem of a dignified burial for fallen soldiers was not resolved. In this respect things remained as they were – ordinary soldiers were buried in any old place and manner, if they were buried at all.

The French managed to “infect” their opponents (in particular, the Prussians) with some of their ideas. In 1792 the Prussian King funded a monument in Frankfurt for the residents of Hesse, where the names of all fifty-five soldiers who fell in liberating the city were inscribed (Mosse 1990, 39). Gerhard von Scharnhorst’s reform of the Prussian army had the motto: “We will take victory when, like the Jacobins, we learn to speak to the spirit of the people” (Lynn 2008, 230).

In 1814 general conscription was introduced. In May 1813 King Frederick Wilhelm III had ordered all the districts, at their own expense, to hang a memorial plaque in every church with a list of those who “fell for their king and their fatherland.”

The time of the revolution and the Napoleonic Wars thus brought about the beginning of the cult of the fallen soldier. Nonetheless, a German doctor visiting the field of the Battle of Leipzig wrote of the naked bodies of the fallen, devoured by dogs and crows. Walter Scott recalled that – although the battle of Waterloo was mostly cleared – there were places of mass burial marked by an unbearable odor (Mosse 1990, 44). In 1814 the Prussians burned the bodies of four thousand casualties at Montfaucon (Thomas 1991, 175). This occurred once again in 1871 at Sedan, where the Belgians, bothered by the odor from the shallow graves, decided to exhume them, fill them with tar, and burn them (Aries 1989, 537).

The Austrian fortress of Alba Iulia (presently part of Romania, a town that has also been called Weißenburg and Gyulafehérvár) holds an 1853 monument to the soldiers of the squadron stationed there, who died between 1848–1849. The names of four officers are listed, with a characteristic note: “Mannschaft 44.” This term described soldiers who were not officers. It is hard to believe that the officers did not know the names of their subordinates. We can see that it simply did not occur to them to commemorate their soldiers.

It took another twenty years for this state of affairs to change. First in the United States, during and after the Civil War, in which – let us recall – more American soldiers died than in both world wars put together. From 1860 to 1880 changes also began to occur in Europe, albeit slowly. The massacre at Solferino in 1859 evoked terror, but ossuaries for the remains of the deceased were created only ten years later. Respect was shown for those killed in the Battle of Oświęcim during the Austro-Prussian war of 1866, who were buried alongside one another in graves marked with their names, but we ought to recall that the cemetery as it appears today was created only in 1877–1882. Of course, military cemeteries do appear, first near field hospitals (e.g. in Legnica), or, most often, in special enclosures in parish cemeteries (keeping to territories within present-day Poland, we might mention Nowa Ruda, Świebodzice, Kowary, and Chełmsk Śląski). Many of these provide the names of the fallen soldiers, and not necessarily those belonging to officers alone. It did happen that military enclosures were walled off from civilian ones, but this is more to glorify the dead, and not to stigmatize, as was previously the case (Mosse, 1990, p. 45).

What happened, then? Sometimes one encounters the view that this was a result of American experiences. This hypothesis is less than convincing, given the Eurocentric view of the world that reigned at the time. It seems we are dealing with a few coinciding events, which do bear some resemblance to those which transpired earlier in the USA:

1. The introduction of general or voluntary conscription. In 1868 it became mandatory in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in 1872 in France, and in 1874 in Russia. The soldier ceased to be the sole property of the state, and returned to his community after service.
2. The democratization of the European states, the development of the ideas of rule of law and civil rights, elective rights, and of local governments meant that the soldier – even when subject to harsh military discipline – remained a citizen. Where a civic society did not emerge, as in Russia, nor did respect for the fallen soldier, to say nothing of the living soldier.
3. The growth of literacy in societies, the development of the press and communications. Just a few decades earlier the average villager learned of a war when enemy soldiers (or their own, which amounted to the same thing) were standing at the outskirts of town. In the late nineteenth century news of war reached the smallest of villages, as did, sometimes, information on the deceased – often family members or neighbors.

The governments of the time could not remain indifferent to these changes. The soldier had the right to his own name on his own grave (insofar as this was possible). This was first made law by the Americans during their war with Mexico (1846–48), and a similar inscription was found in the Treaty of Frankfurt that concluded the Franco-Prussian War – though the degree to which it was respected is another matter entirely (Koselleck 1994, 14).

In this way the basic cult of the fallen soldier was created, reaching its apogee during the World War I period.

The Military Cemetery: Ideology and Practice

“The most dignified place for the soldier’s grave is where he has died for his Fatherland. Thus it is only natural that we find military graves and cemeteries in battlefields. And we can be sure that the all-leveling force of death never so strikes the consciousness as when, after a mortal conflict, friends and enemies are buried alongside one another,” wrote a German ideologist of the new military cemeteries (Bestelmeyer 1917, 22). This is the crux of World War I military cemetery ideology. And, we might add, it is the ideology’s Achilles heel. After the war ended, exhumations of the corpses of fallen French and English soldiers took place on a mass scale. The same concerns the cemeteries in “Russian Poland.”

Today, it is difficult to unambiguously state if, and to what degree, ideological or pragmatic concerns were decisive in creating this standpoint – the armies had more than enough logistical problems as it was without dealing with the exhumation and transport of the soldiers’ bodies as well. All the more so in that their number exceeded all expectations. The latter was certainly of greater import, though it would be wrong to disregard the ideological, or at least the psychological factor. The societies of the day were unprepared for such a long-term conflict – the European wars had theretofore concluded within the course of a few months. Nor did anyone predict that the turnof- the-century technological revolutions in the art of killing would yield such a massacre of soldiers. Nor was anyone able to predict how much of this nightmare a general conscript was capable of enduring. It is hard to dispute Paweł Pencakowski’s view when he writes that the nightmare of war required the creation of an ideological counterweight: “The notion and task of building monumental cemeteries were a logical response to the madness of destruction; their creation and construction responded to the chaos of the battlefield; the general mayhem engendered the harmony of art and nature; the wartime clamor, poetic strophes; hatred, mercy; and animosity, unity” (Pencakowski 2002, 150).

The architecture of the military cemeteries in the East differs from that of the West. This results from the different nature of the wars: in the West it was trench warfare, while in the East it was trench/maneuver warfare. This explains the larger numbers of scattered graves and small graveyards in the latter.

There are also differences between the architecture of the graveyards found in the lands once belonging to the Austro-Hungarian Empire (Galicia) and Germany (Eastern Prussia), and those found in the former lands of “Russian Poland.” This is particularly visible in the case of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, where an archipelago of 400 Galician cemeteries, each of which is in fact a work of art, clearly differs from the more humble sites in the lands of “Russian Poland.” The Galician sites (like the Prussian ones) were to serve as patriotic education in the future. In “Russian Poland,” where the political future was less than evident, they did not need to serve this role. This does not alter the fact that the basic ideological components were the same. The difference applied less to the content than the form, which was made uniform. Directives of the Tenth Division precisely outlined, for example, the shape and dimensions of the grave crosses, which were produced by favored companies.

Basic differences between the German and Austro-Hungarian cemetery concepts are also visible. Their ideological messages were derived from the divergent recent histories of either state. For Prussia, the latter half of the nineteenth century was a run of political and military successes, while the successes of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the same period were disputable, to put it lightly. Prussia’s greatest accomplishment was the building of a powerful state, while the Austro-Hungarian Empire merely succeeded in surviving. This is why the German monuments and cemeteries more often refer to glory, victory, and triumph, while their Austro-Hungarian equivalents are more likely to speak of the fallen soldier’s sense of duty and loyalty to the Emperor and the fatherland. The soldier’s devotion became an autonomous virtue whatever the outcome of the war or battle (Reichl 2007, 119–121). This is somewhat analogous to the situation in the USA after the Civil War, where the monuments erected in the north and the south differed in a similar fashion (Siedenhans 1994, p. 377).

In terms of symbolism the Germans had the upper hand over the Austro- Hungarians owing to the Iron Cross – a clear and legible mark of strength, a soldier’s valor, and eternal glory. Where circumstances allowed, grave monuments took the form of the Iron Cross, which found no opposition even among families of Jewish soldiers (Łopata 2007, 23). This was a secular symbol, not a religious one.

In practical terms, the difference between the German and the Austro- Hungarian cemeteries in “Russian Poland” were reduced to the construction materials of choice. The Germans preferred stone, in the form of cemetery walls, and the Austro-Hungarians earth and wood, which was more a result of economic concerns than ideological ones. The main component of the cemetery space was a Kurgan grave, which was essentially a mass grave for unknown soldiers, which could be seen as a response to the post-war cult of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The Brüderkreuz, developed by Austro-Hungarian designers was a powerful symbol – it was a cross of brotherhood, a composition of several crosses with interwoven arms placed on mass graves.

Over its two years of work the Tenth Division of the MGG and its local units partly managed to consolidate the scattered graves and smaller cemeteries. As a result, the number of graveyards was reduced from 729 to 687. In spite of the centrally imposed models, many interesting designs were created. Unfortunately, most of these were not executed, owing to a lack of time and, above all, funds.

The Polish State and the World War One Cemeteries, 1919–1939

The Polish state was reborn at an exceptionally unfavorable time for the survival of military cemeteries. Of the three powers fighting for its territory, two had ceased to exist, and the third – Germany – had too many domestic problems of its own to tend to the graves of its fallen soldiers on Polish lands for at least a few years. The wars, particularly those with Soviet Russia, required the total commitment of the people and public funds, and moreover, it was necessary to take care of the soldiers that were killed in them.

New circumstances emerged after the end of war operations. Above all – galloping inflation, which practically ruled out the sensible planning of activities that looked more than a few months ahead. It also turned out that the scale of the problem, both with regards to the number of tasks and the magnitude of the required financial investments, greatly exceeded the most pessimistic prognoses. This was in spite of the fact that Poland had resigned from the idea of buying back cemeteries on private lands (formally speaking, Poland was not the legal heir to the partitioning powers, and was not obliged to cover the war damages they incurred).

As in France and England, the problem of exhuming bodies from military cemeteries arose in Poland. The available documents make it difficult to estimate the scale of the problem. In the report of the inter-ministerial hearing of November 1920 chiefly devoted to this issue, there is talk of “masses of requests submitted from the families of fallen or deceased soldiers” (Central Military Archive, cat. I.300.63.228, unpaginated). Judging by the numerous and frequent legal regulations concerning exhumation (27.11.1919, 15.01.1920, 20.05.1920) the problem was a pressing one. Ultimately, a solution was adopted that resembled the Austro-Hungarian one: exhumation was permitted in the period from 1 November to 15 April, but only in single graves; the opening of mass graves was forbidden, permission from the sanitation department of the relevant General District Command was required, and there were, of course, a whole range of sanitary regulations.

Was it simple to gain this kind of permission? The available documents do not give us a clear answer. Nonetheless, this was a time of searching for a compromise between the principles established during the war and the realities of life. Poland participated in the Red Cross conference in Prague (March 1920) devoted to graves and war cemeteries, where the following compromise was adopted: in principle it was forbidden to exhume a corpse from a military cemetery, where the soldier lies amid his company in a place of honor; in particular cases, however, consent ought not only to be granted, but families ought to be given all possible assistance. It therefore seems that, as in the West, the ideology of wartime had to give way to the natural law of civilian life – the right to bury one’s loved ones in a family environment.

As far as the treatment of the First World War cemeteries is concerned, the interwar period can be divided into two sub-periods, characterized by a clearly differentiated handling of cemeteries as the loftiest form of the cult of the fallen soldier.

In the first, which ran until approximately 1928/1929, the state authorities tried to enact the principles for handling fallen soldiers developed during the Great War. It was impossible to carry them out in full, of course, as the new state had new heroes of its own, who had fallen in the border war with Ukraine and in the Bolshevik War. It is no accident that Warsaw’s Grave of the Unknown Soldier holds those who died defending Lviv, and the choice of coffin was made by the mother of three sons who fell in combat with the Ukrainians. In our part of Europe this is nothing exceptional – in Latvia, for example, the Brothers’ Cemetery in Riga became a national cult symbol, though it commemorated not the Great War, but the war for independence (Aboltis 1995, 183).

The second period began with the tenth anniversary of the end of the Great War, which Poland commemorated as the anniversary of regaining independence. This period brought an end to the idea of the military cemetery as it had been understood during the Great War. From then on, the cult of the fallen soldier focused on the monuments and cemeteries of the Legionnaires, who had won Poland’s freedom. Separate cemeteries were created for Legionnaires. The bodies of soldiers of other nationalities were brought to different cemeteries (Jastków, Czarkowy) or, in some cases, located in separate, unmarked mass graves, which over time became forgotten (Bydlin).

Immediately after independence was regained, the cemeteries and military graves were tended to by military units, which was justified by the war that was being fought. The initially somewhat chaotic system run by the Military Graves Departments, the Military Constructions Council, and the various decanates was consolidated in December 1919 by the establishment of the Offices for the Care of Military Graves (UOnGW), which answered to the General District Commands (DOG), which in turn answered to the Ministry of Military Affairs. Beginning in early 1923, the upkeep of cemeteries was assigned to civil administration, the Ministry of Public Works, which was subordinate to the local UOnGW.

The first task was to register cemeteries and military graves. Although the relevant orders were released in December 1919, no wider inventory was carried out until 1921.

The results were horrifying. People had stolen all, or a significant portion of the cemeteries’ accoutrements. The first to disappear were the wooden items – fences, gates, and crosses (where the Austrians had placed wooden ones). Of the several dozen visitation reports from the Miechów district, not a single one fails to mention a lesser or greater degree of devastation. We can assume that the robberies occurred in the winter of 1918/1919, which was exceptionally harsh.

Iron crosses had also vanished. In Wierzbnik, in the Kielce Voivodeship, police found a major stockpile of them in an estate. The policeman astutely observed that it would be hard to find any use for them in a village farm, and that they were surely stolen to sell as scrap metal.

The main damage caused by these thefts was that the name plates of those laid to rest in certain graves vanished along with the crosses. Most often these were impossible to relocate on the basis of archival materials. As a result, one of the key rights of the fallen soldier was annihilated on a mass scale – the right to a grave marked with his name. The scale of the problem is demonstrated by the fact that, among all those buried in sixty-five cemeteries and military grave areas in the four regions in the north of the Małopolska Voivodeship, only in a single case has a concrete grave been assigned to a concrete soldier (Pałosz 2012, 238).

There are also recorded examples of the dismantling of walls surrounding a cemetery. Here the explanation is simple – someone needed some wellworked stone for the foundation of his house. Father Tomasz Jachimowicz thus described his visit to the cemetery of German soldiers in Mieczysławów, in the Kozienice district: “The horror I found [...] all the monuments and gravestones destroyed, the crosses broken, and even stolen, apparently for use on farms. There was a chapel on the site that was dismantled for the foundations of huts. The iron gate no longer exists. Although the Germans are our enemies, it doesn’t matter, what is of concern in the present case is the embarrassment to our state and degradation of our national culture” (APKielce, UWK I, cat. 15221 index 68).

It was not only the military cemeteries and individual scattered graves that were at risk, but also the sections and mounds for buried soldiers in the parish cemeteries. It is hard to estimate the scale of this phenomenon in the interwar period. Complaints to authorities were made only sporadically, and generally concerned individual graves. The liquidation of larger sites was generally revealed by accident. One example is Stopnica, in the Kielce Voivodeship, where, in liquidating the Orthodox area (which was unfortunately the rule), the priest also liquidated the Legionnaire section, of whose existence he was allegedly ignorant. It seems that it was more often the case that cemetery areas were pilfered gradually. They were also devastated, though to a lesser degree than military cemeteries proper.

The state authorities fairly quickly realized the extent of the problem. At the various meetings of the heads of the General Districts (7 July and 29 November 1920) the “mournful state” of the military cemeteries was raised. Responding to the Ministry of War on the subject of military graveyards, Sub-colonel Bronisław Pieracki emphasized “society’s lack of respect and devotion to graves and their lack of cooperation in conserving cemeteries and military graves,” but also the lack of activity on the part of the UOnGW. It was proposed that councils become more active and the community become more active, particularly through the Polish Association of the Mourning Cross, created in 1920, an organization based on the Austrian Black Cross (ŐSK), whose aim was to “provide care for the graves of fallen soldiers, both Polish, and those belonging to the armies of the partitioning states.” Ranks of workers were to be organized from prisoners of war and even Polish soldiers, and cemetery guards were to be employed, often recruited, from among war invalids (CAW, cat. I.300.63.228, unpaginated).

This failed to make much of a difference. The voivodes called for the devastation to end (in 1923 and 1927), threatening harsh penalties, but to little effect. The workers were disorganized, at least in the Lublin Province, because of the exchange of prisoners with Soviet Russia and the swift demobilization. The guards that were hired were laid off in 1921 and 1922, owing to lack of funds. Only those who agreed to work in exchange for the right to the grass clippings from the cemetery grounds were kept on.

Devastation and ordinary bureaucratic incompetence affected both the graves from the Great War and the Bolshevik ones. In undated instructions from the Voivodeship Office in Lublin, hailing no doubt from 1921 or 1922, it was noted that many scattered graves were lying about which had few crosses and “practically all of their identities are unknown” (APLublin, UWL, WKB, cat. 3190, index 96). On 15 November 1920 the MPs representing the Popular National Union tabled a motion in Parliament indicating that the graves of Polish soldiers were scattered across fields, plowed, and located in places that were utterly inappropriate (APKielce, UWK I, cat. 15181, index 27).

Judging by the lack of further appeals to the population and relevant decrees after 1927 we might hazard the opinion that, if plundering of military graveyards had not ceased altogether by the late 1920s, it was at least no longer a mass phenomenon.

The “Mourning Cross” turned out to be a misled notion. In the larger cities it had some degree of recognition, but in the counties and communes it scarcely existed. “Our society is so occupied with everyday life that it does not or cannot understand matters of such significance as caring for military graves,” wrote Lublin’s voivode in a letter to the Ministry of Public Works in April 1923 (APLublin, UWL, WKB, cat. 3190, index 170). More funding was brought in by public collections, generally organized by the mayors of the smallest rural administrative units on 1 November. The surviving letters from donors in 1922 in the Lublin area appear to suggest that these mayors simplified their work by imposing a kind of tax on estate dwellers, a sum of one hundred Polish marks per family. This was less than the price of one egg.

As previously mentioned, the first and basic task of the administration was to inventory and identify the cemetery sites. This was essential to begin adequate renovation work, but also to assess the situation on a nationwide scale. In February 1920 the Ministry of War wanted to present the government and Parliament with a breakdown of the costs needed to upkeep the cemeteries, in the hopes of acquiring necessary funds from the “occupying states.”

The official statistics were of fantastical proportions. In October 1922 the Ministry of Public Works estimated that, across Poland, 500,000 soldiers were buried in 6,000 cemeteries, 200,000 lay in scattered graves, and there was a need for around 300,000 crosses and grave markings (APLublin, UWL, WKB, cat. 3191, index 50). Meanwhile, in the early 1930s, and thus right after the partial consolidation, the Ministry of Internal Affairs declared that, in the territory of Poland as it stood, there were 1.3 million soldiers buried between 1914–1921 in 10,755 cemeteries (CAW, cat. I.300.63.228). The Ministry of Public Works thus underestimated the scale of the problem by about fifty per cent. In April 1923 the ministry caught an inconsistency in data concerning the graveyards of German soldiers: according to Lublin’s data there were eighty, and according to German data – 546.

The Austro-Hungarian bureaucrats were guilty of the same crime. As mentioned before, they counted 687 cemeteries in MGG territory. Meanwhile, the sum total of cemeteries in the early 1930s in the Lublin (425) and Kielce (653) voivodeships comes to 1,078. If we add the military areas in the parish graveyards to this sum (336), we arrive at a total of 1,414 (we should take into account that during the Bolshevik War new cemeteries were not established in the Lublin area; fallen soldiers were buried in military areas or in scattered graves). Even the border changes of the Lublin Voivodeship cannot account for such vast discrepancies.

As for the scattered graves, every number is only approximate. To this day, private grave hunters find a few new ones every year.

In spite of the war, the lack of documentation and the problems with grave robbery, the new Polish state did have a chance to cope with the problem of the vast quantities of cemeteries and military graves. The obstacles they faced were a public funding crisis and gigantic inflation. In September 1923 the Lublin voivodes applied for additional subsidies to close the third financial quarter, an amount of 60 million Polish marks. In October they were informed that the combined subsidy of 75 million marks earmarked for the third quarter had run out, and they applied for 150 million for the fourth quarter. The mad inflation annihilated any sensible plan of action. If a liter of milk cost 400–500 marks in September 1922, a year later it cost 3,000–5,000 Polish marks.

The situation stabilized after Władysław Grabski’s currency reforms (April 1924). This allowed for the gradual consolidation of military cemeteries. At any rate, such activities had been taking place – as far as funds and manpower allowed – since 1920. However, the Ministry of Public Works’ rescript of 13 January 1923 (APLublin, UWL, WKB cat. 3190, index 178) and a range of accompanying decisions created a legal basis for cautious consolidation, particularly the transfer of soldiers buried in smaller cemeteries and scattered graves to larger “collective” cemeteries. The bodies of identified fallen soldiers were to be buried in single graves, and the obligation to transfer the cross or the name plate together with the body was stressed, as was the duty to keep them in a decent state. Unknown bodies were to be buried in common graves. They maintained the principle that collective graves containing in excess of twenty bodies were not to be exhumed.

In sum: until more or less 1928–29 the Polish government tried – insofar as this was possible – to maintain the basic principles of the policies toward cemeteries that were developed in the Great War.

The Time of Nationalism: Our Fallen Soldiers and Theirs

The turn of the 1920s and 1930s sparked nationalist moods in Poland and all across Europe. This was quickly reflected in policies toward war cemeteries – fallen soldiers began to be divided into ours (superior) and theirs (inferior). Projects emerged to place “our” bodies in separate cemeteries, or sometimes to remove the “foreign elements” from “Polish” cemeteries.

This phenomenon was not unique to Poland. In December 1920, on the request of the Hungarian government, the Ministry of War asked the General District Commands if it was possible to clearly distinguish the graves of fallen Hungarian soldiers (APKielce, UWK I, 15196, 24). This request was reiterated in 1929, and further suggestions came a year later – that the cemeteries of fallen Hungarians be renovated first, that “Hungarian soldier” be written in Polish on their gravestones, and that Hungarian bodies should be, as far as possible, put in separate graves. Poland agreed to some of these requests, while stating that they would be possible only when the cemeteries were being reconstructed (APKielce, UWK I, cat. 15196, 166). Representatives of the Hungarian embassy occasionally visited the graveyards where their countrymen lay buried (in Lublin, for example, in 1928).

In Bielany, near Warsaw, an Italian cemetery was built in 1926; prisoners of war buried in Poland were exhumed here. Exhumation concluded in the territory of the latter-day MGG in 1929. In the fall of 1928 the Turks submitted a request for their deceased to be exhumed, establishing a cemetery near Lviv (APKielce, UWK I, cat. 15182, 53).

In Poland the changes in military cemetery policy were tied to Józef Piłsudski’s May coup d’etat (1926) and were a consequence of the burgeoning cult of the Marshal and the Legionnaires. The conviction formed (or was formed) that the Legion was the main reason why Poland had regained independence.

In late 1929 the Minister of Public Works, Jędrzej Moraczewski, suggested “creating, as far as possible, Polish military cemeteries which hold mainly Polish soldiers, transferring the grave mounds for foreign soldiers to other cemeteries, mixing the bodies of the soldiers of the occupying armies” (APLublin, UWL, WKB, cat. 3187, 122). The style of this document is significant. It indicates how far we had moved from the conception developed during the Great War.

The way in which the bodies were treated also changed. When, in 1932, the remains of Polish soldiers were exhumed in Okraja (Lublin Voivodeship), this was a ceremonial occasion. The bodies were laid in decorative coffins, and a special mass was held in a nearby church. The remains of the “soldiers of the occupying countries” were carried in paper sacks. In June 1929 the Lublin Voivodeship Council considered the complaints of three local mayors against a Voivodeship Council delegate leading the exhumation of scattered graves. They complained that the “remains of soldiers’ bodies were transported in a small paper bags” and that he had recommended they be buried, at the cost of the local governments, in the nearby cemeteries. One mayor claimed that the delegate had been drunk (APLublin, UWL, WKB, cat. 3191, 39–40).

In the early 1930s Legionnaire cemeteries began to be established, as in Jastków (1931, Lublin Voivodeship) and Czarkowy (1937, Kielce Voivodeship). A problem arose, however: What was to be done with the bodies of the Austro-Hungarian and Russian soldiers buried there?

During a visit to Jastków in 1929, a representative of the Legionnaires’ union suggested that the cemetery be completely rebuilt to hold exclusively Legionnaires. The twenty-three Russian soldiers and 108 Austro-Hungarian soldiers buried there in a mass grave (according to other data – 255 Russians and 117 Austro-Hungarians) were to be transferred to another cemetery (APLublin, UWL, WKB, cat. 3191, 10). This was, in fact, accomplished – in 1930 they were exhumed and transferred to nearby Garbów (Dąbrowski 2004, 105). It is a small irony of history that, two years earlier, on the tenth anniversary of the regaining of independence, in this very cemetery, the local people raised a chapel with the inscription: “To the knights who fell fighting for the freedom of the Homeland, on the tenth anniversary of independence, 1928.” Not a single Polish soldier is buried in this cemetery. This also anticipates a tendency that was to become almost universal after 1989.

Apparently, the same occurred in Czarkowy, though on a greater scale. A chance discovery of a Legionnaire grave by the road to the cemetery led to a monument to the “victory of the Legionnaires” being erected here in 1928 (Oettingen 1988, 107). This was followed by a decision to reshape the existing cemetery into a Legionnaire one. In total the ashes of over a dozen Legionnaires were placed here (Oettingen 1988, 106). To this end, the remains of 473 Austro-Hungarian and Russian soldiers were removed in 1937 and taken to a nearby cemetery in Opatowiec. This did not, however, cause the latter cemetery to be expanded. “The remains of the bodies will be buried in the area confined by the embankment surrounding the cemetery,” we read in the Voivodeship Council’s letter to the Regional Government Office in Pińczów (APKielce, UWK I, cat. 17483, 254–257). Because the cemetery in Opatowiec is relatively small (around twenty-eight by thirty-one meters), it is difficult to imagine a dignified burial for almost five hundred bodies.

We find an explanation of this phenomenon in correspondence concerning another exhumation. It was fairly common practice to carry bodies to the military enclosures of parish cemeteries. This did not require the consent of the priest, as the remains were buried between preexisting graves, thus not increasing the surface area of the section (APKielce, UWK I, cat. 17484, 189–90; cat. 17483, 221, 268).

Specialists from the Jurajski Forum, researching the cemetery in Kotowice, in the Myszków district, have come across human remains barely 30–40 cm below ground. There is evidence to suggest that the cemetery in Kluczy in the Olkusz district was only partly exhumed, and that bodies were certainly left in mass graves (research is still underway). The reason for this was the constantly reiterated appeals of the Ministry of Internal Affairs (after the liquidation of the Ministry of Public Works in 1932, responsibility for military graves passed to the Ministry of Internal Affairs) to exercise maximum frugality in consolidating cemeteries.

Was even a symbolic religious ceremony organized in relocating bodies? It would seem not – though exceptions did occur. In 1937 the Voivodeship Council in Kielce applied to the head of the Tenth Corps Region for consent to transfer parts of a military cemetery to a new location. For financial reasons, there was a request to be free of the obligation to bless the new grave, arguing that during the time when the military cemeteries and enclosures were established they were, in the main, not blessed (which was not actually true). The council appealed to the Ministry of Public Works resolution of 5 January 1931, whereby soldiers’ bodies were to be transported “with all caution, gravity, and respect, but incurring no costs beyond reasonable necessity.” In response, the Catholic dean of the Tenth Corps District reminded the council that “in times of peace all transport of bodies should be accompanied by a brief service, out of concern for the piety and reputation of the local population,” and that, moreover, in this case, it would cost nothing, as the blessing was performed free of charge by the priest of the garrison in Sandomierz. His objection was supported by the head of the district (APKielce, UWK I, cat. 17483, 357–362). Judging by the other archival documents, however, this was more an exception than the rule.


The act of 28 March 1933 pertaining to military graves and cemeteries (Dziennik Ustaw No. 39/1933, art. 34) regulated the issue of military cemeteries in a complex fashion (it holds to this day, in an amended version). Cemeteries were, from then on, to be located on state lands (apart from religious cemeteries). If they were located on private lands, the state powers were given a choice: exhumation, purchase, or – inasmuch as this was possible – appropriation of the land where the cemetery lay. The state was responsible for the affairs tied to military cemeteries, while the communes took care of the local management. The regulations concerning exhumation were liberalized at the family’s behest – the decision was made by the voivode.

This act placed a great financial burden on the Polish state, and thus it was clear that the number of cemeteries had to be reduced to a reasonable figure. The general tendency was consolidation. Documents from the early 1930s show that the scope of the liquidation was enormous. In the Kielce district 290 cemeteries were to remain out of 653, and in the Lublin area, 180 out of 425. There were no plans to reduce the numbers of military enclosures in civilian cemeteries. However, the number of graves, both single and collective, was to be reduced.

Consolidation plans were modified as time went on. To judge by surviving correspondence between the Ministry of Internal Affairs, voivodeship councils, and local mayors, the basic criterion for keeping or liquidating a cemetery was the answer to a question: What comes out more affordable – exhumation or buying the land? (APKielce, UWK I, cat. 17483, 35–37, 173, 175, cat. 17484, 187, 205–208). Thus, unfortunately, it happened that cemeteries that had recently been renovated were liquidated in spite of being architecturally interesting, their only drawback being that they were located on private land.

The main objection toward consolidation – apart from the negligence in its enactment – is the fact that it brought no “added value” to the state of the surviving cemeteries. The reason for this was obvious: frugality. This is clearly expressed in a Ministry of Internal Affairs letter dated April 1939 to the Kozienice district authorities: in the remaining cemeteries only “provisional repairs” were to be conducted (APKielce, UWK I, cat. 17484, 187).

An act of 1933 broke with the World-War-I idea of the military cemetery once and for all. This ideology, however, had long since died. The cemeteries – to paraphrase the title of Paweł Pencakowski’s work – became “the forgotten graves of no one’s heroes” (Pencakowski, 1996, 3).

World War II and the Post-war Period: A Time of Destruction

The Germans restored a few cemeteries, including six in the Lublin district (Dąbrowski, 2004, 51). In destroying the majority of Jewish cemeteries, they liquidated many neighboring military grave enclosures at the same time (the rest were, unfortunately, destroyed immediately after the war).

The problem of secondary burials also cropped up – fallen Polish, German, and Soviet soldiers were buried in the First-World-War cemeteries and military enclosures. When Soviet (and later German) soldiers were exhumed in separate cemeteries, the remains of those killed in the First World War were also often collected.

World War II trauma caused the World War I cemeteries to vanish from the community’s memory. “Whereas military cemeteries were liquidated in the interwar period through the consolidation of graves [...] after 1945 these cemeteries disappeared through a lack of interest and upkeep” (Oettingen, 1988, 62).

The history of this “disappearance” of military cemeteries and enclosures is fairly well documented in the literature (Dąbrowski, 2004, 52–53, 123–124, Lis, 2001, 71, Oettingen, 1988, 62, 101, 173, 186, Ormanowie, 2008, 136–137, 152, 160, 183, Pałosz, 2012, 225–231), and thus we need not delve into the problem here. Firstly, those cemeteries on private lands that had not been exhumed or purchased in the interwar period disappeared. Many of these were plowed up, in some cases (Wierzchowisko near Wolbrom, Stogniowice near Proszowice, Kraśnik in the Lublin Voivodeship) they were joined to private properties, and one example is known of the construction of a residential home on a cemetery (Skrzeszowice IV near Krakow).

This does not mean that such a fate was shared by the majority of military cemeteries or enclosures during the time of World War I. Where there were no cemeteries of those killed in World War II they served the role of “tombs of the unknown soldier.” As the oppositional mood increased in the 1980s, some came to serve as local ara patriae – altars of the Homeland. Symbolic crosses appeared, honoring the memory of Polish officers murdered at Katyń (as in Biórków Wielki or Olkusz) or – in more contemporary times – sites for the cult of President Lech Kaczyński and other victims of the Smoleńsk catastrophe (Włodowice, the Zawiercie environs). This was not the first example of the “appropriation of fallen soldiers.” In 1953, during the preparations to commemorate the ninetieth anniversary of the January Uprising, some First World War graves of unknown origin (at the time) were renamed graves of the Insurgents of 1863 (e.g. Złotniki I and II near Krakow). However, as the Polish proverb says, every evil brings some good results – and surely it is for this reason that they have survived to this day.

The Appropriation of Fallen Soldiers

The year of 1989 saw crucial changes to how First World War cemeteries were treated. The role of the Austrian Black Cross (ŐSK) can not be overestimated here, as it first financed, and then inspired the renovation of the World War One cemeteries. This period also saw increased interest among local populations in the history of their “little homelands.” Happily, there are still people whose parents or grandparents told them stories about the First World War and the graves found on their land. It does, however, often happen that these “discoveries” are tainted by stereotypes shaped by the decades in between, above all the fairly widespread conviction that in 1918 Marshal Piłsudski’s Legionnaires fought for Polish freedom. Thus it frequently occurs that, in cemeteries or grave enclosures where not a single Legionnaire is buried, there are inscriptions claiming or suggesting that they contain the bodies of Polish soldiers who fell in the struggle for independence in the years 1914–1918. An extreme example is the military grave enclosure in Igołomia, just over a dozen kilometers east of Krakow, which holds the remains of 127 Austro-Hungarians (judging by the course of the battle in this region, they must be primarily Tyrolians) and twenty Russian casualties. The towering monument is dedicated to “the nameless Polish soldier” who fell in the fight for independence. The image of this “Polish soldier” on the facade of the monument is a curiosity of sorts: he wears a helmet resembling those worn today in China, a Russian overcoat, and holds something recalling a Kalashnikov in his hand.

Such cases, unfortunately, are abundant. Probably the largest cemetery appropriated for the Legionnaires is Opatów I, where 929 fallen soldiers are laid to rest, including one Legionnaire (who was certainly exhumed, at any rate). There are scarcely fewer (855) at the cemetery in Ogonów near Wolbrom, which is devoted to Legionnaires (in reality one lies there). Marek Lis has found at least seven cases of mislabeled cemeteries in the Sandomierz area (Lis 2001, 61), and Marian Dąbrowski has found the same number in the Lublin area. An initial attempt to sum up the number of bodies declared to be legionnaires finds that it exceeds their combined total in 1914. We have two contradictory tendencies. On the one hand, there is the development of associations and informal groups (e.g. the Jurajski Association and the Austro-Hungary Internet forum) with the relevant knowledge. On the other, we are dealing with the spontaneous acts of people who remain under the influence of Legionnaire ideology or who lack knowledge and competence (which cannot, after all, be expected of them).

Excessive generalizations, however, are risky. My research into the First World War cemeteries in the northern districts of the Małopolska Voivodeship indicates that, of the twenty-one marked cemeteries (not counting those which have been plowed over or otherwise destroyed), eleven are correctly marked, five are wrongly or ambiguously marked, and five are not marked at all. In terms of the military sections of cemeteries, twelve are correctly marked, one is unmarked, and thirteen are marked wrongly or ambiguously (Pałosz, 2012, 245–246). Here, too, the destroyed sections have been omitted.

Unfortunately, the members of The Jurajski Association continue to wage a battle, both fierce and hopeless, against scrap collectors; in Wronin in the Małopolska Voivodeship only one cross remains of the several dozen donated by the priest in the neighboring Biórków (which ought still to be regarded as progress, as for several decades after World War II there was only a local garbage dump on the site). It would seem that the lack of respect for military cemeteries found outside of parish or communal graveyards will be remarkably difficult to mend. This does not alter the fact that military enclosures are sometimes liquidated in parish cemeteries. In 2011 in Aleksandrowice (a district of Bielsko-Biała, Silesian Voivodeship), for example, there were visible traces of new burials in the grounds of a former military enclosure – between freshly-dug civilian graves one could find abandoned metal crosses, which generally signify soldiers’ graves.

The liquidation of small local schools and the decline in importance of the scouts means that cemeteries and mass graves once maintained by school children are gradually disappearing (in the Krakow region, this has meant the disappearance of the cemetery in Marszowice and the mass grave, Skrzeszowice III).

The most difficult issue, however, will be dismantling the mythology of the Legion and departing from the “us and the occupants” formula; showing the fallen soldier in this most senseless of wars in the history of Europe as an ordinary person whom politicians tore from his natural environment, gave a uniform and a weapon, and ordered to kill others like him, but in different uniforms. Only to fall dead in a country that was foreign and hostile.

Will such a transformation in the perception of the cemeteries that remain after World War I ever be possible? Not in the foreseeable future. The legend of the Legions is inscribed in Polish historical mythology, where historical truth has no role to play.


Jerzy Pałosz. A lawyer and a historian, a journalist for many years, presently an employee at the Faculty of Humanities, Cultural Studies Department of AGH University of Science and Technology (Krakow). He has written a range of publications on the subject of military cemeteries from the Great War and the history of the cult of the fallen soldier. In 2012 he published the book Śmiercią złączeni. O cmentarzach z I wojny światowej na terenach Królestwa Polskiego administrowanych przez Austro-Węgry [Death of the United: On World War One Cemeteries in the Kingdom of Poland administrated by the Austro-Hungarian Empire] (pub. Libron, Krakow 2012). He has spent years heading the inventory of the remains of cemeteries from the Great War in the former lands of the Kingdom of Poland. He has received the Black Cross for Service to Austria.


List of References

Archival Sources

Central Archives of Historical Records in Warsaw. Militärgeneralgouvernement in Polen (MGGL). Dossier of the Tenth Division of Military Graves, cat. 1166 (unpaginated), quoted in: AGAD, MGG, State Archive in Kielce.

Kielce Voivodeship Council (UWK I), cat. 15181, index 27, 15182, index 53; 15221, index 68; 15196, indexes 24, 166; 17483, indexes 35–37, 173, 175, 221, 254–257, 268, 357–362; 17484 indexes 187, 189–190, 205–208, quoted in APKielce, UWK I. State Archive in Lublin.

Voivodeship Council in Lublin, Transport-Construction Department (UWL, WKB), cat. 3187, index 122; 3190, indexes 96, 170, 178; 3191, indexes 10, 39–40, 50; quoted in: APLublin, UWL,WKB.

Central Military Archive in Warsaw (CAW), Cat. I.300.63.228 (unpaginated), quoted in: CAW.

Secondary Sources:

Aboltis, Arnis (1995) “Narodowy Cmentarz Wojownika oraz inne cmentarze na Łotwie (report),” in Olgierd Czerner, Iwona Juszkiewicz (eds) Sztuka cmentarna – Art de cimentiere (Wrocław: Werk) p. 183.

Aries, Philippe (1989) Człowiek i śmierć (Warsaw: PIW), trans. by Eligia Bąkowska [orig. tit. L’Homme Devant la Mort (Editions de Seuil, 1977)] p. 537.

Bestelmayer, B. (1917) “Der Friedhof,” in Kriegergräber in Felde und daheim. Jahrbuch des Deutschen Werkbundes 1916/17 (München: F. Bruckmann AG), p. 22.

Dąbrowski, Marian (2004) Cmentarze wojenne z lat I wojny światowej w dawnym województwie Lubelskim (Lublin: Catholic University of Lublin Academic Society), pp. 51–53, 105, 123–124.

Koselleck, Reinhart (1994) “Einleitung” in Reinhard Koselleck, Michael Jeismann (Hrsg) Der politische Totenkult: Kriegerdenkmäler in der Moderne (München: Wilhelm Fink Verlag), pp. 10–17.

Lewandowski, Jan (1980) Królestwo Polskie pod okupacją austriacką 1914–1918 (Warszawa: PWN), p. 40.

Lis, Marek (2001) By nie zatarł ich czas... Śladami mogił i cmentarzy wojennych I wojny światowej w powiatach: sandomierskim, opatowskim i staszowskim (Sandomierz: PAiR), pp. 61, 71.

Lynn, John A. (2008) “Narody pod bronią 1763–1815” in Geoffrey Parker (ed.) Historia sztuki Wojennej (Warsaw: Książka i Wiedza), trans. by Andrzej Czarnocki, [orig. tit. The Cambridge History of Warfare, (Cambridge University Press, 2005)] p. 230.

Łopata, Mirosław (2007) “Groby żydowskie żołnierzy Wielkiej Wojny w Galicji” in Mirosław Łopata (eds) Materiały z konferencji “Znaki Pamięci. Gorlice 27.10.2007” (Gorlice: Crux Galiciae), p.23.

Mosse, George (1990) Fallen Soldiers: Reshaping the Memory of the World Wars (Oxford: Oxford University Press), pp. 39, 44, 45.

Oettingen, Urszula (1988) Cmentarze I wojny światowej w województwie kieleckim (Warsaw: PWN), pp. 66, 101, 106, 175, 186.

Ormanowie, Krzysztof, Piotr (2008) Wielka Wojna na Jurze (Krakow: Libron), pp. 136–137, 152, 169, 180.

Pałosz, Jerzy (2012) Śmiercią złączeni. O cmentarzach z I wojny światowej na terenach Królestwa Polskiego administrowanych przez Austro-Węgry (Krakow: Libron) pp. 225–246.

Pencakowski, Paweł (1996) “Zapomniane pomniki niczyich bohaterów” in Wobec Thanatosa. Galicyjskie cmentarze wojenne z lat 1914 – 1918 (Krakow: MCK), p. 3.

Pencakowski, Paweł (2002) “Cmentarze I wojny światowej – geneza ideowa rzeczywistości historycznej i artystycznej” in Karolina Grodziska, Jacek Purchla (eds) Śmierć, przestrzeń, czas, tożsamość w Europie Środkowej około roku 1900 (Krakow: MCK), p. 150.

Reichl, Thomas (2007) “Das Kriegergräberwesen Ősterreich-Ungarn im Weltkrieg und die Obsorge in der Republik Ősterreich”, Universität Wien: Dissertations, pp. 119–121, available online at: http//othes.univie.ac.at/237/1/10–25–2007_8908935.35pdf, accessed 20.04.2011.

Siedenhans, Michael (1994) “Bürgerkriegsdenkmäler in der USA. Symbole einer gespalten Nation” in Reinhart Koselleck, Michael Jeismann (Hrsg) Der politische Totenkult: Kriegerdenkmäler in der Moderne (München:Wilhelm Fink Verlag), p. 377.

Thomas, Louis V. (1991) Trup: od biologii do antropologii (Łódź: Wydawnictwo Łódzkie), trans. by Krzysztof Kocjan, [orig. tit. Le cadavre: de la biologie a l’anthropologie], p. 175.

Vovelle, Michel (2008) Śmierć w cywilizacji Zachodu. Od roku 1300 po współczesność (Gdańsk: Słowo/obraz terytoria) trans. by Tomasz Swoboda et al. [orig. tit. La Mort et l’Occident de 1300 a nos jours, (Paris: Gallimard)], p. 610.


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


Paweł Jaworski

The Great War and Its Consequences from a Swedish Perspective

20 August 2014
  • Great War
  • First World War
  • World War I
  • Sweden


Swedish media reports of successive anniversaries of the end of the First World War usually provide general commentaries concerning the military struggles on the continent. The war is seen as having had a minor effect on the fate of Sweden itself. Several years ago, a historian from Lund University named Kim Salomon even hazarded the thesis that “World War I scarcely marks a significant moment in the history of Sweden,” given that the country remained neutral, and thus remained in the ‘viewers’ stand’.” The lack of a more wide-ranging discussion on the legacy of World War I in Sweden is somewhat alarming, particularly considering the fact that there is a wealth of Swedish historiography relating to the period of 1914–1918. Although Sweden remained neutral, the war was felt to a considerable degree. Shortages of supplies, numerous demonstrations, riots – all this laid the foundation for increased political activity in a society that wanted to democratize the system, improve civil rights, and socialize the economy. 1917 seemed to be the year when the radicalization reached its peak, but major changes arrived only with the end of the war in November 1918. There were the revolutionary events in Russia, which were later exploited in Germany in the ongoing political struggle to introduce democracy. The new order imposed in Europe by the Treaty of Versailles forced the Swedish government to come to terms with the situation that was produced and to engage with affairs on the continent to a greater degree.

The various anniversaries of the end of World War I are chiefly reported in the Swedish media with a general commentary on military struggles in the history of Europe. It could be that concentrating on these aspects of the war have caused it to be seen as an event that had little impact on Sweden as such. Several years ago a historian from Lund University, Kim Salomon, even ventured the opinion that “World War I scarcely marks a significant moment in the history of Sweden,” given that the country remained neutral, and thus remained in the “viewers’ stand” (Salomon 2008). Journalist and writer Niklas Ekdal, perhaps convinced that Swedes were poorly versed in the history of Europe, suggested that the issues of international policy of a century past could be viewed from a contemporary perspective. To help understand the genesis of the Great War, he compared the rivalry of the European powers at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to the threats facing us in the early twenty-first century. To his mind, the present economic crisis would lead to economic nationalism and the closure of borders, and thus to serious political clashes and conflicts between states. According to Ekdal’s concept, the contemporary world with its several growing powers (apart from the United States, he lists China first) recalls the camps competing for political influence and raw materials in the late nineteenth century (Lagerfors 2008). Once again, Sweden was peripheral to the author’s deliberations.

Alongside these recollections of the Great War as a conflict that had no bearing on Sweden we also find a publication by the popular historian Peter Englund (known for his numerous books concentrating primarily on the history of Sweden in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries). His indepth work based on personal documents (journals, diaries, letters) entitled Stridens skönhet och sorg. Första världskriget i 212 korta kapitel [The Beauty and the Sorrow: An Intimate History of the First World War] recreated the wartime reality from the point of view of ordinary soldiers from various countries and divisions, as well as a surgeon, a nurse, a bureaucrat, a German student, and an aristocrat. The author wove his own reflections on war into the narrative, which is punctuated more generously by the futility of armed conflicts than the “beauty and the sorrow” contained in the title. He attacks the blind nationalism in these conflicts and the obduracy of the politicians, who used propaganda to justify what could have been avoided. Englund states: “While there are undoubtedly conflicting interests involved, none of the problems is so insoluble as to make war necessary, and they are certainly not sufficiently acute as to make war unavoidable. This war became unavoidable at the point when people considered it unavoidable. When causes are vague and goals uncertain, however, it becomes necessary to fall back on the bloated and honeyed words of propaganda” (p. 14). He later adds that: “faced with the dark energies released by war they can only look on, dumbfounded and questioning; they stand apart from the nationalist rhetoric that has created the war and the wild hopes the war has created” (p. 29). Reviewers wrote that it was “a fascinating read about the real lives of real people at a moment when faith in the ongoing progress of civilization began to collapse” (Kälvemark 2008). The universal antiwar oratory is replicated by Lotta Lotass’ novel Red Sky (Den röda himlen, Albert Bonniers, 2008), which describes the daily lives of foot soldiers in the trenches (Bergqvist 2008).

Perhaps the only classic of academic work in recent years that broaches the subject of World War I (not counting the standard monographs on military history) is a book by Lina Sturfelt, a historian from Lund University, whose work entitled The Flash of a Flame: World War I in the Swedish Imagination (Eldens återsken. Första världskriget i svensk föreställningsvärld, Sekel Bokförlag/Isell Jinert, 2008) analyzed the image of World War I in the pages of Swedish weeklies published in 1914–1935. The articles from this epoch described the war as senseless carnage, but also as a kind of courtly saga, a holy sacrifice, a jolly picnic, or a necessary and elemental cataclysm. These images were paired with the opposing, almost unvarying depiction of Sweden’s role as a country that was perhaps somewhat indifferent, profithungry, cowardly, and effeminate, but above all, an isolated idyll and moral stronghold defending civilization from the chaos and barbarity of Europe (Första världskrigets återsken, 2008). This work was continued in the research by Sofi Qvanström on the presence of the I World War in the Swedish literature (Qvarnström 2009).

The lack of a wider discussion on the legacy of World War I from a Swedish perspective is somewhat alarming, particularly considering the fact that there is a wealth of Swedish historiography relating to 1914–1918 which proves that the period marked a watershed moment for the country (Zetterberg 1994). There is also no doubt that the events in Europe influenced development of the situation in Sweden (Andræ 1998).

As we know, during the First World War, Sweden and the other Scandinavian countries remained neutral. They took no part in the fighting, nor were they attacked by aggressors. Swedes became acquainted with the cruelties of the war only through correspondents from the battlefield and prisoners of war (mostly invalids or those seriously injured), whose exchange between the warring parties was organized by the Swedish authorities. Few Swedes volunteered to join the ranks of the various armies (Gyllenhaal & Westberg 2004). After one hundred years of peace, Swedes viewed war as unnatural. A philosopher from Lund, Hans Larsson, regarded militarism as a manifestation of man’s bestiality and barbarity. He rued the support for the war that came from Germany’s intellectual elite – to his mind it was a politically and culturally irrational phenomenon that disrupted the social order and testified to a crisis of the human personality. Larsson promoted the principle of compromise and negotiating positions at all costs, becoming a precursor of the Swedish policy of non-engagement and practicing activities of a humanitarian nature during times of armed conflict (Piotrowska 2006).

Although Sweden was not officially on either side, it did have to respond to changing conditions and the actions of the European powers. Swedish society, on the other hand, had its deeply rooted sympathies, which most certainly lay with the Central Powers, as a result of strong economic, cultural, and political ties with the Germans. Tage Erlander, who was the long-time premier of Sweden after World War II, was a secondary school student and then attended Lund University during World War I. He recalled that his father – the owner of a shop that sold blueberries – had traded with Germans during the war, and was fascinated by them. He saw them as the most efficient nation in the world, known for being industrious and frugal. He also admired the sense of community he saw as quite characteristically German (Erlander 1972, 47–48). On seeking the origins of this fascination, we might add that there was an equally deep-rooted aversion toward Russia. Any enemy of Russia was a friend. The Swedes were fascinated by the German military successes on the Eastern front in 1914. In general, the majority of Swedes, regardless of their origins and status, nursed a contempt for the states of the Triple Entente and an admiration for Germany. Recalling her childhood, family home and the attitudes of the Swedish peasants, the famous children’s writer Astrid Lindgren wrote succinctly: “Most supported the Germans and believed they would win” (Lindgren 1992, 57).

The social mood was in tune with government policy. Up until 1917 the government of Hjalmar Hammarskjöld favored the Germans: it used diplomatic methods to keep Great Britain, Italy, and Romania from joining the war, it did not recognize the Entente states’ naval blockade of Germany, and it supplied Germany with grain, animal fodder, and petroleum (Carlgren 1962). In fact, the Swedes reaped large profits by trading with both sides. They imported goods from Great Britain and France and then exported them to Germany at a high profit (Kersten 1973, 333–334; Norborg, 1993, 258–259). However, the blockade applied by Great Britain and the resultant supplies crisis of 1917 complicated the domestic situation and led to Hammarskjöld’s dismissal. Swedish policy changed, increasingly favoring the Entente, particularly after Germany declared unrestricted submarine warfare, and after the “Luxburg Affair,” wherein it was revealed that a German MP had used the Swedish Minister of Foreign Affairs to pass on information concerning shipping maneuvers on the Atlantic. Hammarskjöld’s successor, the moderately conservative Karl Swartz, was incapable of dealing with the growing crisis. Hunger riots broke out, during which shops were plundered; there were clashes with the police. The February Revolution in Russia further radicalized the social mood. In 1917, when the socialists planned the First of May March, they hung posters that read “May 3rd in Blood.” Many passers-by decided it was better to stay at home on the third of May, fearing a revolution could break out, as had occurred in Russia. The message, however, was more of a general reflection on the events in Europe – and the fact that the May First demonstration was being held once again with the world war raging in the background (Erlander 1972, 50).

Shortages of supplies (there was insufficient milk, butter, and potatoes; coal shipments from Germany were cut back), numerous demonstrations, riots – all this made Swedish society take a new interest in politics. There was social pressure to democratize the system, to increase civil rights and to socialize the economy (Klockare 1981, 171–175). In early June 1917, 30,000 demonstrators were only kept from entering the seat of the Riksdag through the intervention of Social Democratic Party leader Hjalmar Branting, who pacified the incensed crowd. In October 1917 there were parliamentary elections in which the Conservatives were defeated. These resulted in the formation of a new government under history professor and liberal Nils Edén. The Social Democrats also entered the cabinet, having begun to grow into the country’s most important political force. The bulk of power now shifted from the headquarters of King Gustaf V to the parliament. The monarch now consulted with the government before making any political decisions and never went against the government, so thereafter very seldom had more than a symbolic function (Norborg 1993, 100). The triumph of the parliamentarycabinet system, however, was not the end of the internal political changes.

The new government strove to reach an agreement with the allies to receive much needed help for the economy. After long negotiations this was achieved in the spring of 1918, in part due to the strong contacts between Branting’s Social Democrats and their ideological partners in France, Belgium, and Great Britain. Supplies came in exchange for providing the allies with access to half of the Swedish merchant fleet. On balance, Sweden came out of the vicissitudes of wartime at an economic profit. One historian has even called the country a “neutral victor” (Koblik 1972). At any rate, the social mood had improved. Yet the postulate to democratize was everpresent in public debate and, as historian Ivar Andersson has claimed, this was not because of the successes of radical parties in the elections: “Views on the issue themselves had been radicalized.” This was sparked by trading scandals, which undermined those who treated money as a measure of man’s intellectual and moral values, and consequently, negated the effects of the property qualification in the parliamentary elections (Andersson 1967, 320–321). The decisive factor, however, was the general wave of European radicalism. This appeared to peak in 1917, but it was only with the end of the war in November 1918 that the “democratic breakthrough” occurred.

The revolution in Germany, the collapse of the imperial army and the downfall of Emperor Wilhelm II turned out to be of capital importance for Sweden’s future. These events caused conservative circles to worry a great deal about a local revolution. When the Germans requested a truce, the Bishop of Karlstad, Johan Alfred Eklund, declared that his political world was collapsing (Erlander 1972, 49). A capitulatory mood was tangible among right-wing politicians. The Social Democrats, on the other hand, sought to use these favorable circumstances to achieve their ends, starting with universal suffrage.

Ernst Wigforss, later the long-term Minister of Finance in the social-democratic governments of the inter-war period, recalled the last months of 1918 as “the most emotional period that his generation experienced.” He had in mind the legal changes to the constitution that compelled the privileged who held power to consent to introducing general elections. Wigforss stressed that this was not entirely of their free will, as it was done under the pressure of the revolutionary events in Europe, which echoed through Sweden itself (Wigforss 1951, 94). Nonetheless, Branting was committed to staying the legal course and bringing about change through the existing legal system. A social democratic expert in international policy named Östen Undén predicted on 11 November that the defeat of Germany would render the Swedish right wing “docile” (Wigforss 1951, 95). News from Russia only enhanced the danger of the situation and made the specter of Bolshevism loom large (Palmstierna 1953, 223). The leading extreme conservative Ernst Hederstierna spoke openly of his fear of a revolution, which could have provoked the right-wing’s obstinate refusal to change the constitution. Hugo Hamilton, one of the leading liberal parliamentarians, noted a meeting in the seat of the First Chamber with Hederstierna and another conservative, Otto Silfverschiöld, on 2 December 1918: “It is characteristic of the present situation that two such conservatives were utterly cognizant of the fact that any kind of compromise was impossible and that the right wing had no choice but to capitulate” (Hamilton 1956, 343). Social Democratic activist Torsten Nothin wrote in his memoirs of a “revolution of the fall of 1918,” stating that “although there was no open revolt, the mood was revolutionary,” adding that it was said at the time that “nobody prepares a revolution, it comes all on its own” (Nothin 1955, 14).

In effect, the political struggle ended in a compromise, though public opinion took the forecast constitution change as a loss for the right wing, who were succumbing to the fear of revolution (Klockare, 1981, 166). According to the above-cited Nothin, it was the resolutions of November 1918 that made the danger of a revolution subside. Apparently King Gustaf V was even prepared to flee abroad at a moment’s notice, were the situation to get out of hand. At any rate, he was shaken by the news from Germany, and he was frightened of the import of Bolshevism. It is known that he mediated conversations between the political parties in order to reach an agreement (Nothin 1955, 15–18; Klockare, 1981, 165; Franzén, 1985, 326). He was certainly concerned by the threat of a general strike (Franzén, 1985, 345). By the same token, there were Social Democrats who did not believe that things would come to a revolution. Gustav Möller, for example, confessed that the Social Democratic Party was merely using scare tactics when it threatened to stop at nothing, as the actions taken by Branting and his colleagues were aiming to reach a compromise (Leche-Löfgren 1941, 162). Historians agree, however, that a revolutionary mood reigned in Sweden in 1917, while by the fall of 1918 the threat of revolution did not truly exist (Franzén 1986, 362–366).

The reform of the new suffrage law drew on for three years. In May 1919 there were general elections for the lower chamber of parliament. In the upper house – the Landsting – an indirect election system was meant to be in effect. First, communal elections were held, then local government institutions were meant to send their representatives to parliament. Through this reform the Social Democratic Party became the most powerful, both in the lower chamber and in the upper Riksdag. The more radical social democrats pushed for a one-chamber parliament, a republic, and a workers’ council system, but the party leadership did not agree to any of these. The young social democrats – including Zeth Höglund and the later long-time premier of Sweden, Per Albin Hansson – even demanded a dictatorship of the proletariat (Cornell 1998, 116–117). Branting publicly declared that he wanted a democracy, not a dictatorship (Franzén, 1985, 325). The leading democrat, Erik Palmstierna, joyfully recorded the political events of the last weeks of 1918 in his journal: “The Swedish nation has a personality after all! Quiet and unceremonious, almost indifferent, but under great pressure it has accomplished a great thing and made a true achievement. Now no one speaks of constitutional reform, and yet this was a feat that will build a foundation for a new epoch in our inner lives. [...] We can feel a great, cultured sense of admiration in our nation when it so swiftly and calmly solves problems that lead to bloody conflicts in other nations!” (Palmstierna 1953, 267). The democratic breakthrough in Sweden did, in fact, take place without any serious socio-political shock waves.

Among the changes were social reforms, which included employer-paid accident insurance at work and the eight-hour work day. The first social democratic government was instituted in 1920, headed by Hjalmar Branting, who created the first Ministry of Social Aid, introduced a progressive income tax, increased the tax burden on large corporations, and decreased the period of military service. In 1926 the Social Democrats were voted out, only to regain power a few years later, and have dominated the Swedish political scene for decades. In 1921 women received the right to vote (we should recall that as late as 1918 a leader of the conservative party, Arvid Lindman, explained to the Riksdag that a woman’s place was in the home, and not in the state’s political life, and that this was to the advantage of both women and the country [Franzén 1986, 354]). The very same year saw the abolition of capital punishment (a prisoner was executed for the last time in 1910 with the swipe of an ax). In 1922 there was a prohibition referendum, but its supporters were overruled. Alcohol production and consumption remained legal, though some restrictions were introduced under the Dr. Ivan Bratt System, i.e. the rationing and control of alcohol consumption.

The results of the Great War and the changes in the political map of Europe left the Swedes with new economic and political challenges in the international arena. The end of the war brought Sweden a relief of sorts, as the German blockade of the country was lifted, and the allies ended the blockade of the Baltic. Historians point out that the economic problems in the blockade years encouraged Scandinavian countries to cooperate on a more regional basis (Piotrowski 2006, 121), but the key trading partners remained Germany and Great Britain. This is why Stockholm eagerly awaited a peace treaty. Only after its signing were trade restrictions with Germany to be annulled.

Above all, however, Sweden’s new strategic position after World War I is the major subject of study. Russia was practically pushed out of the Baltic Sea, while Germany was sufficiently weakened to abandon its vision of order for the region. In December 1918 the states of the Entente suggested that Sweden maintain stability in the Baltic region itself. The government in Stockholm was to stand at the forefront of a block of new, smaller states, notably Finland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, and to prevent chaos in Northern Europe through integration. For Erik Palmstierna, such a special role for Sweden in the Baltic region initially seemed “unnatural” (Palmstierna 1953, 259). These first signals from the capitals of the victorious European powers indicated that Sweden was standing before dilemmas which demanded unprecedented decisions in foreign policy.

The restitution of the old countries of Central-Eastern Europe and the creation of new ones was observed with interest, but there seemed no reason to meddle in their affairs. The civil war in Finland, however, was the subject of keen attention. Many Swedish volunteers took the side of the “Whites” in this Finnish war for independence. The hope was that Finland would survive as an independent state, strengthening Sweden’s strategic position in the long run. Poland’s bid for independence was seen in a similar light. The creation of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, on the other hand, were viewed with skepticism. Swedish politicians could be heard commenting that Russia would soon reclaim these territories (Larsson 1996, 42–44).

There was also resistance to the projects of the victorious states to carve up German territory and impose severe reparations on the Germans. Hjalmar Branting saw imperial Germany as a threat to European peace, but a democratic Germany, where power had been seized by the social democrats, was ideologically close to him. This is why he appealed to the allied powers not to obstruct “Germany’s first steps as a free nation” (Franzén 1985, 322). Small wonder, then, that he criticized the Treaty of Versailles. Stockholm was particularly critical of the final settlement of the German borders. The Swedes believed that giving Poland Pomerania and Silesia would only provoke conflict between the nations, aggravating any existing animosity between Poles and Germans. Poland’s excessive ambitions were seen as a festering evil. For the Swedes, this meant ending the war without a real peace settlement, as a new arena was created to continue old conflicts and start new ones. They were not only concerned about Germany, but also about the civil war in Ireland, the Italian/Croatian struggle for Fiume, and other border issues in Central Europe.

Ultimately Sweden recognized the new political order in Europe and entered the League of Nations (Gihl 1951, 393–404; Agrell 2000, 15–20). At the same time, it criticized the decision and actions of the League and the Western powers, which it saw as unwarranted or unjust. On the one hand, the ideas, associated with the League, of acting to avoid war and a general disarmament plan fitted the mandates of the social democrats. On the other, however, the League’s methods were often viewed with distrust. Swedes were most pained by the Council of the League of Nations’ 1921 resolution to award the Åland Islands to Finland. Their Swedish population wanted to join Sweden on the basis of national self-determination, but the Western states saw international policy concerns as more important. There was no desire to weaken this small neighbor of Russia, which was still in the process of bolstering its statehood (the shift in Swedish public opinion leading to the final acceptance of this decision was honored in the person of Branting, who was given the Nobel Peace Prize in 1922).

Moreover, membership of the League created further dilemmas, as it required active participation in organizational affairs, and participation in discussions on problems often more remote than those that Stockholm was used to. The question kept on arising: Does participation in the League of Nations mean abandoning neutrality, and even if it does not, what are the limits of neutrality in a system of collective security?

As such, the end of the Great War was an important historical moment for Sweden, in terms of both domestic and foreign policy. The battles between the European powers left their mark on this country. The revolutionary events in Russia, and then in Germany, were exploited in an ongoing political struggle to introduce democracy. The new post-Versailles order in Europe forced the Swedish government to come to terms with the new situation and join in with the Continent’s affairs to a larger degree. It is another matter that – as local observers confess – the years 1914–1918 have slowly vanished from the Swedish “cultural memory” and, if anything, it is World War Two that is most vividly remembered.


Paweł Jaworski. Researcher and instructor at the History Institute of the University of Wrocław. His research interests include the history of Poland and the world in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the history of Scandinavia and Polish-Scandinavian relations, the history of Central-Eastern Europe, and Czechoslovakia in particular, and the history of diplomacy and international relations. He has written Independent Poland and Scandinavia 1918–1939, Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Wrocławskiego, Wrocław 2001 and Dreamers and Opportunists: Polish-Swedish Relations from 1939–1945, Wydawnictwo IPN, Warsaw 2009.

List of References


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Lagerfors, Johanna Likheterna börjar bli obehagligt manga available online at: http://www.dn.se/nyheter/varlden/likheterna-borjar-bli-obehagligt-manga. Text of 11.11.2008; accessed 12.04.2013.

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Erlander, Tage (1972) 1901–1939 (Stockholm: Tiden).

Hamilton, Hugo (1956) Dagböcker [Vol. II] 1917–1919, utgivna av G. Gerdner (Stockholm: Norstedt).

Leche-Löfgren, Maria (1941) Sa var det da 1900–1940 (Stockholm: Hökerbergs).

Lindgren, Astrid (1992): Samuel August z Sevedstorp i Hanna z Hult, trans. Anna Węgleńska (Warsaw: Nasza Księgarnia).

Nothin, Torsten (1955) Fran Branting till Erlander (Stockholm: Wahlström & Widstrand).

Palmstierna, Erik (1953) Orostid, Vol. II, 1917–1919, Politiska anteckningar (Stockholm: Tiden).

Wigforss, Ernst (1951) Minnen, Vol. II: 1914–1932 (Stockholm: Tiden).


Agrell, Wilhelm (2000) Fred och fruktan. Sveriges säkerhetspolitiska historia 1918–2000 (Lund: Historiska Media).

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Carlgren, Wilhelm M. (1962) Neutralität odr Allianz. Deutschlands Beziehungen zu Schweden in den Anfangsjahren des ersten Weltkriges (Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell).

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Englund, Peter (2011) The Beauty and the Sorrow: An Intimate History of the First World War, trans. Peter Graves (New York: Random House).

Franzén, Nils-Olof (1985) Hjalmar Branting och hans tid. En biografi (Stockholm: Bonnier).

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Zetterberg, Kent (1994) “Sverige aren 1914–1918, en forskningsöversikt,” in Johan Engström and Lars Ericson (eds) Mellan björnen och örnen. Sverige och Östersjöomradet under det första världskriget 1914–1918 (Visby: Gotlands fornsal).


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

Antoni Dudek

The Consequence of the System Transformation of 1989 in Poland

20 August 2014
  • 1989
  • transformation
  • Poland
  • National Round Table
  • fall of communism


This paper presents a number of attitudes of Polish politicians, historians and general public towards the events of the year 1989 which in Poland are understood primarily as the Round Table talks, the June parliamentary elections and the formation of the government of Tadeusz Mazowiecki. The article also covers the most important disputes which arose in Poland after 1989, concerning the issue of vetting and decommunization; the shape of the political system; the direction of the transformation of the economic system; and the basic directions of foreign policy. According to the author, in spite of the fact that the legacy inherited from the era of communist rule is gradually losing its importance, it still has a significant impact on various spheres of public life in contemporary Poland.

When communist rule collapsed in 1989, Poland differed from the other Soviet Bloc countries in four major respects. First, agriculture had not been collectivized, which meant that over seventy per cent of arable land was privately owned.1 The second factor was the strong position of the Catholic Church, symbolized by the pontificate of John Paul II and the communist authorities’ conciliatory policy towards the clergy throughout the 1980s. The numerical strength of the democratic opposition made for the third distinction. At the end of the 1980s more than 20,000 people were actively involved. The fourth difference was the scale of the economic crisis: it was deeper than in the other Soviet Bloc countries and had been deteriorating steadily since the late 1970s.2

Considering all these factors, it could have been expected that the system transformation would be different than in other countries where the Autumn of Nations resulted in the fall of communist governments. When we look back at these events twenty-five years later, however, it seems that there were more similarities than discrepancies. The latter applies mainly to the first phase of the transformation when, due to the effective tactics of General Wojciech Jaruzelski’s ruling party, large-scale civil protests (e.g. massive strikes or street demonstrations) did not occur. The objective of this article is a short analysis of the long-term impact of the events of 1989 on the following spheres: 1) the decommunization and lustration proceedings; 2) the shape of the Polish political system; 3) the structure of the Polish economy; 4) the foreign policy of the Third Republic of Poland. Before discussing these points, let me first outline the public debate on the events of 1989 which is still present in the Polish public sphere.

The Dispute over the Events of 1989

The considerable majority of analyses and assessments of the events of 1989 – which in Poland were identified with three milestones: the Round Table talks, the parliamentary elections of 4 June, and the establishment of Tadeusz Mazowiecki’s government – can be classified as either affirmative or critical. Obviously, both trends are gradable and vary in many aspects. The common denominator for the affirmative category, however, may be defined as a conviction that the process of democratization, triggered by the Round Table talks, was the optimal solution for a deeply divided society, and, in particular, that it allowed for a bloodless and evolutionary eradication of the dictatorship. As Aleksander Kwaśniewski, a government delegate to the Round Table talks and a future president of Poland, wrote: “The Autumn of Nations began on 6 February, 1989. The Round Table changed more than our country. It was the turning point in the contemporary history of Europe and the world [...]. A new line in political thinking was conceived; a wall of mistrust replaced with dialogue and discussion rather than confrontation; those who had, until recently, been enemies, became political partners. Agreement grew out of the seed of responsibility for Poland. Through this agreement Poland now has every opportunity to develop, to let its citizens enjoy fundamental freedom and better living conditions.”3 Tadeusz Mazowiecki, a Solidarity delegate and a future prime minster, wrote of the significance of the event in a similar way, though less apologetic in tone: “The Round Table was a compromise, but the compromise which paved the way to the future [...]. One of the elements of the compromise was accepting joint accountability for the controllable development of the situation [...] assuming joint liability for the future was natural; no signed accords were needed.”4

In both these opinions one common element is clearly visible. It could be summarized as the opinion that the communist and the opposition elites, acting out of concern for the future of the nation, reached an agreement that allowed for political and economic evolution. From this perspective, the most striking outcome of the Round Table talks and the subsequent events was not the 200-page-long written covenant, whose provisions were largely never to be implemented, but the creation of a platform for communication and an atmosphere of mutual trust within groups of people from two separate camps: the government and the opposition.5This interpretation of the Round Table and the following events has become predominant in both the post-communist left (embodied mainly by the Sojusz Lewicy Demokratycznej [Democratic Left Alliance]) and the liberal part of the former Solidarity (originally the Unia Wolności [Freedom Union], now to a considerable degree the Platforma Obywatelska [Civic Platform]).

The critical group is far more internally diversified than the affirmative one. Some politicians in this camp were ready to accept the Round Table compromise as a reasonable tactical move by the opposition, but rejected the subsequent politics of Tadeusz Mazowiecki’s government. This government, as well as Lech Wałesa’s presidency, was only possible because of the shock which the monopolistic ruler, the Polska Zjednoczona Partia Robotnicza [Polish United Workers’ Party], sustained by losing the 4 June elections. This point of view was expressed by Lech Kaczyński and Jarosław Kaczyński. The former, who participated in all the closed talks in the Ministry of Internal Affairs conference center in Magdalenka, said: “I treated those talks as a chess game, the most appropriate move in the given circumstances. The others perceived them as a fundamental agreement between the two elites; a point of view I reject.” According to Lech Kaczyński, the results of the Round Table talks “could not possibly be seen as a binding agreement. There was no such agreement. This meaning was attributed to the talks post factum.”6 Thus, the future president of Poland’s view was that the Round Table talks had a merely provisional, tactical character, and that after a victorious election the Solidarity camp should have rejected the “spirit of the Round Table” and taken more radical action, later called decommunization. “Decisive moves should have been made,” said Jarosław Kaczyński, “to delegalize the PZPR and take over the enforcement agencies, arrest the heads of the security service and the PZPR, to seal the archives of the Central Committee [of PZPR], the MSW [Ministry of Internal Affairs] and the MON [Ministry of Defense]. The process of the enfranchisement of the nomenklatura should have been stopped at once, and the work of restoring seized property should have been begun.”7 This view has become a key element of the political narrative created in 1990s by the PC [Center Agreement], now continued by PiS [Law and Justice].

The radical version of the critical judgment is particularly popular outside of PiS’s right-wing circles. Kornel Morawiecki, the leader of Solidarność Walcząca [Fighting Solidarity], who opposed the Round Table talks and called for the boycott of the 4 June elections, gave the following assessment of the events as being not fully democratic, in 2009, from a perspective of twenty years: “Now we can see the consequences of the Round Table compromise: unsettled accounts with communism, false authorities, hiding collaborators from justice, plundering public property on the one hand, and the poverty and vegetation of many anti-communist underground resistance fighters on the other. We are starting to realize that the Round Table squandered the great idea of Solidarity. This is true not only in Poland, but in all the post-communist countries that followed in our footsteps, and which eventually found themselves in the reality of an unfair nomenklatura capitalism.”8 From this perspective, unlike the Kaczyński brothers’ account, it was not Mazowiecki’s government or Wałęsa’s presidency and their negligence that was the source of evil, but the Round Table talks as such. Morawiecki’s views won support in some radical right circles. In June 2013, representatives of more than ten right-wing organizations comprising the Ruch Narodowy [National Movement] announced in their congress that their objective was to “overthrow the Round Table republic,” which, in their view, was the present political system of the Third Republic of Poland.9

It is not particularly difficult to notice that the affirmative and the radically critical theories converge at one point: they both consider the Round Table a kind of founding myth of the Third Republic of Poland. Only moderate critics tend to attach less significance to the talks as such, focusing their charges on the proceedings of the second half of 1989 and the following years, when the three consecutive Solidarity governments (led by Mazowiecki, Bielecki, and Suchocka, respectively) did not trouble themselves with decommunization. In this narrative, President Lech Wałęsa is the locus of bitter criticism, as the man who overthrew Prime Minister Jan Olszewski’s government for his attempt at launching the lustration process.10

These radical differences among politicians translate into the public perception of the events of 1989. In 2009 and 2010, sociologists of the Public Opinion Research Center (CBOS) conducted a public opinion survey in which personal assessments of the Round Table talks were probed. The respondents were given three choices, adhering to the three above-described characteristics: affirmative, moderately critical, and radically critical. The survey conducted in 2009 and repeated a year later brought similar findings, which confirmed that the public debates and disputes that accompanied the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the communist rule did not have a substantial impact on the popular perception of the Round Table. The detailed findings of the survey are presented in the grid below:


In your opinion, the way of handling the political transformation in Poland developed during the Round Table talks was:Respondents’ choices [per cent]
  Jan 2009 March 2010
− the best, the most appropriate for that time and situation 30 31
− It had advantages, but the concessions made to the communist side were too great 37 39
− fundamentally wrong, an unnecessary concession to the communists 8 7
− I don’t know 25 22

Source: CBOS, Polacy o Magdalence, okrągłym stole i poczuciu zdrady [Poles on Magdalenka, the Round Table, and the Sense of Betrayal], July 2010, p. 4.


It is worth mentioning that the great majority of the critical attitudes to the Round Table (visible in the grid) do not translate into equally strong popular support for decommunization. The same survey asked: “Do you think that [the Mazowiecki government] is justly aiming to reconcile the above political divisions and to include all the social groups in building a democracy?” Fifty-four per cent of the respondents answered “yes,” whereas only twentynine per cent supported the view that Mazowiecki’s government “should have striven to settle the accounts with the old system and its people.” The remaining seventeen per cent had no opinion on the matter.11 As such, it is clear that, although most Poles shared a skepticism about the Round Table, they paradoxically approved of the political line developed there.

The extreme interpretations of the events of 1989 presented by politicians have had an impact on both public opinion and the historians. In professional circles there are scholars who have been writing about the transformation of 1989 in an affirmative tone,12 as well as moderately critical ones.13

As the group of professional historians specializing in this problem is relatively small, quantitative analyses are impossible.

By contrast, the radically critical views so strongly represented in political journalism14 have not been confirmed in any publication complying with scholastic standards.

Decommunization and Lustration

The disputes about the events of 1989 are usually accompanied by discussions on the issues of decommunization and lustration. The term “decommunization” itself is defined in several ways. It is most often understood as a process of dismantling various remnants of the communist system in two categories: 1) reengineering the political system, resulting from the communist party’s loss of monopolistic rule, or the change in the party exercise of power from totalitarian to authoritarian; 2) a change in mental attitude, behavior, and the system of values in individuals and social groups. Globally, two models of decommunization have appeared. The first, observed mainly in China and the post-Soviet states, encompasses changes in the economic system (liberalization of the economy) while the authoritarian rule of the communist party is retained (China, Vietnam) or the power is shifted to elites deriving directly from this party or intelligence services subordinate to the party (Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan).

The second model of decommunization was applied after the fall of communist regimes in Central and Easter Europe in 1989. The model was based on constructing, in each of the countries of the Bloc, a new order based on a liberal-democratic value system. In these countries an economic transformation consisting in establishing a free market and privatization of its broad definition was accompanied by developing a democratic political structure based on the multi-party system, with the legislative branch the most important power in the tripartite system. In most of the post-communist countries in Europe, a dispute soon appeared as to whether changes in social life, like free elections, establishing free press, enacting a new constitution, and changing the structure of ownership in economy were enough to ensure the genuine decommunization of the state and society.15

Those who advocated a more profound decommunization called for extending the scope of change to the personal sphere (removing communist officials and secret police officers from most or all civil service positions and posts and enacting the lustration process); the educational sphere (historical politics based on an unequivocal criticism of the communist rule), and the symbolic sphere (changing street, institution, and public facility names in all cases when they were named after communist activists). They argued that otherwise, informal ties connecting former communist apparatchiks would continue to exist, and echoes of communist propaganda would remain strong in the society as a whole.16

In Poland, the only professional group that actually underwent this kind of verification were officers of the communist security service [Służba Bezpieczeństwa], in 1990. Approximately 14,000 functionaries were verified, of whom more than 10,000 passed. These became the base personnel of the UOP (State Security Agency), while the rest ended up in the police forces, where, as recently as 2005, they still constituted approximately eleven per cent of the command.17 Since Lech Wałęsa’s presidential campaign of 1990 with its “acceleration of change” slogan, the issue of decommunization has recurred, in most cases sparked by right-wing circles, usually together with a call for lustration. In December 1991, representatives of the KPN [Confederation of Independent Poland] proposed a bill to restore independence, which included the verification of judges, prosecutors, and attorneys, as well as the revision and nullification of some legal acts passed under the communist regime. The bill was rejected at the first reading. The draft of the Ustawa o dekomunizacji życia publicznego w Polsce [Act on the Decommunization of Public Life in Poland] proposed by some MPs representing AWS [Solidarity Electoral Action] in June 1998 suffered a similar fate. This bill posited, among other things, a ten-year ban from civic functions for the higher officials of the communist state apparatus.18

In an axiological sense, the breakthrough of 1989 was finally reflected in the preamble to the Constitution of April 2, 1997, which begins with the words, “Having regard for the existence and future of our Homeland, which recovered, in 1989, the chance for a sovereign and democratic determination of its fate [...]”. It is worth mentioning – leaving aside the question if, in 1989, citizens really could determine anything in a fully democratic way – that the Constitution did not break its ties with the legal legacy of the People’s Poland. Even if Article 13 clearly prohibited “political parties and other organizations whose programs are based upon totalitarian methods and the modes of activity of Nazism, fascism and communism [...],” this had no practical consequences for the decommunization process.19 After the right wing’s electoral victory in 2005, some ideas to give decommunization a legal framework returned, but more time and effort was devoted to the issue of lustration. The only legislative project that went beyond this problem, and which ultimately turned into an act of Parliament, was the ustawa dezubekizacyjna (an act to reduce some of the pension benefits of former members of the Polish State Security Service [popularly known as “ubeks”] between 1944 and 1990) .20 In accordance with this act tens of thousands of people had their pensions reduced by approximately thirty per cent.

In the symbolic sphere, decommunization manifests itself in such activities as those of the Instytut Pamięci Narodowej [Institute of National Remembrance], whose chairman has been sending notifications to local authorities since 2007, calling their attention to streets, squares etc. named after communist functionaries or commemorating events of the communist era. The final decision to change such names belongs to the local governments, and due to the organizational problems and costs this can entail, it is often opposed, so that a name dating back to the People’s Republic era times remains untouched.21

Of all the facets of decommunization, the story of lustration is the most turbulent. The procedure of lustration (or vetting) involves examining the past of all those holding public offices in the light of their possible collaboration with the communist secret service.

The first official lustration initiative took place on 19 July, 1991, when the Senate passed a resolution to vet candidates running in the parliamentary elections to ensure that they had not been communist security agents. This resolution however, was not enacted, and the Minister of the Interior of the time, Henryk Majewski, stated that lustration “would politically destabilize the state.” The next effort was made on 28 May, 1992, when the Sejm passed a resolution requesting the Minister of Internal Affairs to present information on all state officials, local councilors, judges, prosecutors, and attorneys in law who collaborated with the SB [Security Service] and UB [Security Office]. An attempt to enforce this resolution by Minister Antoni Macierewicz led to a severe political conflict and contributed to the fall of the minority government of Prime Minister Jan Olszewski, which finally happened on the night of 4 July, 1992. On 19 June, 1992 the Constitutional Tribunal declared the resolution unconstitutional, reasoning that exposure of secret collaborators’ names without providing for appellate procedures may lead to cases of infringement of personal interest.

It was not until 1997 that the Sejm of the second term passed the lustration bill. This legal act obliged all persons holding public positions (including MPs, higher civil officials, judges, prosecutors, and the heads of public mass media institutions) to submit declarations concerning their work or service in the security organs of the communist regime. The act stipulated that a confession of collaboration would not bear any legal consequences, only attempts to conceal this fact would result in legal sanctions for those being vetted.

The truthfulness of the declarations was to be verified by a special Lustration Court, and the role of a prosecutor was to be assumed by the Public Interest Ombudsman [Rzecznik Interesu Publicznego], appointed by the First President of the SN [Supreme Court]. Nevertheless, passing the legal act did not start the lustration procedures at once. The new regulations were boycotted by the majority of the judicial circle (more than six thousand members at the time). As such, it was impossible to choose twenty-one judges to sit on the Lustration Court over the following period.

This situation only changed after the next parliamentary elections. In 1998, the Sejm of the third term passed an amendment to the defunct law on lustration by a vote of the AWS-UW coalition. As a result, a department of the Warsaw Appellate Courts was appointed to verify lustration declarations. In October 1998, Adam Strzembosz, the First President of the Supreme Court, nominated Bogusław Nizieński Public Interest Ombudsman, and the lustration started early in 1999. Over the next five years Judge Nizieński’s team checked over 18,000 declarations. During these procedures 741 potential “lustration liars” were identified, but only 153 cases (approximately twenty per cent) were passed on to the court; for most there was insufficient evidence, apart from operational records, to make a case (the files had been either destroyed or hidden). Of the above-mentioned cases the court declared fewer than one hundred “lustration liars,” with some trials lasting years. The rulings in particular cases gave rise to controversies, but their repercussions were limited by the fact that the defendants requested most trials to be closed.

In the fall of 2001, after the electoral victory of the SLD [Democratic Left Alliance], President Aleksander Kwaśniewski filed an amendment proposal to the lustration law. Part of the proposal was the exclusion of people who had worked for the communist intelligence and counter-intelligence in the Ministry of the Interior and Military Special Service from the lustration process. Adopting this amendment would have put an end to some trials of SLD officials (Józef Oleksy, Marek Wagner, Jerzy Jaskiernia and others), because, in the People’s Republic of Poland, members of PZPR were recruited as secret collaborators mainly via intelligence and counter-intelligence services. But the opposition passed the amendment to the Constitutional Tribunal, which, in a ruling of June 2002, lifted it on procedural grounds. In September the issue of the amendment was back in the Sejm, following a familiar path: in October 2002 the anti-lustration coalition of SLD, UP [Labor Union] and some Samoobrona [Self-defense] deputies passed an amendment which made communist intelligence and counter-intelligence collaborators exempt from lustration and the term “collaboration” defined in a way that was exceptionally favorable for former agents of the SB and the military service. Again the opposition passed it on to the Constitutional Tribunal. In its verdict of May 2003, the Tribunal ruled that exempting the collaborators of the intelligence and counter-intelligence services from lustration proceedings violated the constitutional rule of civic equality under the law.22

After the electoral victory of the center and right parties in 2005 and under the pressure that resulted when the IPN [National Remembrance Institute] disclosed materials incriminating more public figures (the first famous case concerned a former spokesperson of Tadeusz Mazowiecki’s government, Małgorzata Niezabitowska), work commenced on another amendment to the lustration law. This time the new parliamentary majority called for a broadening of the scope of lustration to include more professional groups. In October 2006 the act on the disclosure of information contained Security Service Organ documents collected between 1944–1990, assuming a considerable extension in the number of civic posts subject to lustration. Very soon President Lech Kaczyński proposed an amendment to the newly enforced law. He claimed that the provisions of the new law did not sufficiently protect the interests of people persecuted by the communist secret police. A new version of the law originated in the Chancellery of the President and was passed in the Sejm in January 2007.23

This was immediately sent to the Constitutional Tribunal by the SLD deputies. The most controversial part was the IPN’s publication of the list of the names of people who had been secret collaborators of the communist security service, and the obligation to submit lustration declarations by people in dozens of public capacities, including journalists, academics, members of boards of public joint-stock companies and banks, members of supervisory boards of these institutions, tax advisors, and sports association authorities. Verification of these declarations was handled by the IPN Biuro Lustracyjne [Vetting Office], replacing the defunct Public Interest Ombudsman; the charges submitted by its prosecutors were to be dealt with in the courts. Compulsory declarations, along with numerous legal flaws in the act, triggered a wave of protests and calls for boycotts.

On 11 May, 2007 the Constitutional Tribunal declared many provisions of this act to be unconstitutional. The most significant consequence of this verdict was to narrow down the list of positions which required lustration declarations to be submitted by those holding or applying for them, and exempting the IPN from having to prepare an online catalog of individual sources of information registered by the communist security service.

It should not be expected, however, that disputes over lustration regulation have been resolved. Nonetheless, since 2007 political tension tied to historians or journalists revealing cases of public figures’ collaboration with the SB has eased considerably.24

The Shape of the Political System

The Round Table agreed that two new institutions would be introduced to the Polish political system: the President and the upper chamber of the parliament, the Senate. In the short term, the government’s consent to free Senate elections was of fundamental significance. On 4 June, 1989 the Solidarity candidates won by a landslide, taking 99 out of 100 seats in the Senate and all thirty-five per cent of seats in the Sejm, the maximum they could win. As a result, the election was the turning point in the process of ending communist rule in Poland.25 Looking back on these events twenty-five years later, it seems, however, that far more important for the political system of the Third Republic of Poland was reestablishing the office of President. According to the Round Table agreement, entered into the PRL constitution as early as April 1989, the President was to be elected by the National Assembly, i.e. the combined chambers of the Parliament, for a six-year term. The president was endowed with extensive powers, as the communist authorities meant for him or her to guarantee that overall control of the transformation process would be maintained by the forces in power to date.

Consequently, the president was equipped with a legislative veto (which could be overruled only by a super-majority of two-thirds of the Sejm) and the right to dissolve parliament if the Sejm fails to form the government within three months or to pass a central state budget, a bill, or a resolution that “would prevent the president from executing his or her constitutional rights.” The President’s duties include overseeing the armed forces, presiding over the National Defense Committee, submitting motions to the Sejm to nominate or dismiss the Chairperson of the NBP [the National Bank of Poland], and calling for a state of emergency for a period of up to three months. Its extension would require the approval of the parliament.26

In June 1989, after a crisis of several weeks, the National Assembly elected Wojciech Jaruzelski president, as the only candidate. However, he was chosen by a majority of only one vote, and, because this was an open ballot session, it soon turned out that this was only possible because of the group of more than ten Solidarity deputies who cast void ballots or declined to vote. This diminished Jaruzelski’s political power, which was eventually far more limited than his formal presidential prerogatives. This, combined with the rebellion in the ZSL [United Peasant Party] and the SD [Democratic Party], former PZPR satellites, paved the way for Tadeusz Mazowiecki’s government, based on the coalition of these deputies with the parliamentary representation of Solidarity, i.e. OKP [Citizens’ Parliamentary Club].27

The political system that emerged in Poland after two far-reaching amendments to the constitution, made first in April and then in December 1989, displayed – despite the strong formal position of the president as the head of the state – the qualities of a parliamentary cabinet system. As a result of the December amendment, the ideological preamble was removed, and the article about the leading role of the PZPR, dissolved in January 1990, was replaced with one ensuring freedom for political parties to be created and to function. Articles mentioning socialism and a planned economy were also eliminated.28

An amendment made in September 1990 also bore significant consequences for the budding political mechanisms in Poland. The amendment resulted from a “war at the top,” a conflict within the Solidarity camp.29 The conflict led the camp to splinter into two groups: advocates of a moderate course of change, endorsed by Tadeusz Mazowiecki’s government, and supporters of the Solidarity leader, Lech Wałęsa, who called for accelerating the pace of reform, thus demonstrating his presidential ambitions.

The dispute was not settled until the early presidential election, whose rules were since the previous year. In September 1990 an amendment to the constitution was voted in, introducing direct presidential elections. In this way, a president elected by popular vote of the nation was joined to the parliamentary cabinet model, resulting in numerous clashes between consecutive presidents and prime ministers. In spite of the gradual weakening of the position of President (stipulated first in the “Small Constitution” of 1992 and then in the current Basic Law, enacted in 1997), the manner of choosing someone for the office of President still gives him or her a strong mandate to participate in governing the country, especially in the fields of foreign affairs, defense politics and domestic security. The “broken executive”30 inherited from the first period of the transformation was particularly evident during the stormy cohabitation periods: Lech Wałęsa and Prime Minister Olszewski (1992), President Aleksander Kwaśniewski with Jerzy Buzek’s government (1997–2001), and President Lech Kaczyński with Donald Tusk’s government (2007–2010). It is worth mentioning that bitter arguments could also be observed even when both the president and the prime minister were from the same political camp, as was in the case with Aleksander Kwaśniewski and Leszek Miller.31

The “war at the top” precipitated the process of numerous parties emerging from the Solidarity camp, which, together with the SdRP [Social Democracy of the Republic of Poland],32 built on the ruins of PZPR, and the PSL [Polish Peasant Party], set up a transformed ZSL [United Peasant Party] and made the framework of the party system. Various political groups emerging in large numbers in 1989 and 1990 called for legal regulations to normalize the process of how political parties were established and functioned. In July 1990 an act on political parties was passed, giving groups of as few as fifteen people the right to set up a political party. If the activities of a given party strove to violently overthrow the constitutional order of Poland, then the Constitutional Tribunal, acting upon the notification of the Minister of Justice, had the right to declare that party illegal. This law also gave parties the right to run registered trade (in the form of cooperatives or holding company shares), while stating that all party sources of finance should remain open and transparent. Accepting foreign financial and material aid was prohibited.33< The next act on political parties, still in force today, was passed on 27 June, 1997. Setting up political parties became more difficult, as the application to register a new party had to be signed by 1,000 citizens. As the act demanded the re-registration of all existing parties according to the new law, the number of parties dropped dramatically, from approximately 300 to fewer than a hundred, of which only a dozen or so were really active. The new law introduced a mechanism of limited subsidizing parties and the reimbursement of the costs of electoral campaigns from the central state budget, which was intended to curb corruption.34

The consolidation of the political scene in Poland lasted over ten years and was only finalized in the first decade of the 21st century. In early 1990 the Sejm election statute, which had no electoral threshold, resulted in the fragmentation of the party system. This statute, employed in the first free parliamentary elections (held in October 1991), atomized the political scene. The strongest party – Unia Demokratyczna [Democratic Union], created by Tadeusz Mazowiecki after he had lost the presidential election – received only 12.3 per cent of the votes, which translated into sixty-two seats of a total of 460 in the lower chamber of the Polish Parliament. A close runner-up, the post-communist SLD [Democratic Left Alliance] gained 12.0 per cent and secured sixty seats. Candidates for as many as twenty-four parties won their mandates. In addition, fourteen electoral committees picked up fewer than ten seats. The turnout of 43.2 per cent was nearly twenty per cent less than that of the semi-free elections of 4 June, 1989.35 In the following years this downward tendency stabilized, and now Poland is among the EU countries with the lowest electoral turnout, varying between forty-one and fifty-four per cent in the parliamentary elections, whereas in presidential elections it tends to be somewhat higher, reaching fifty to sixty-eight per cent. The lowest number of eligible voters come to cast their ballots in local elections (thirty-four to forty-six per cent) and the European Parliament elections (twenty-one to twenty-four per cent).36

Although the next election, in 1993, was held under a modified voting system, with a five per cent threshold for individual parties and eight per cent for coalitions,37 which considerably limited the number of the parties in the Parliament (up to six at the highest) in the following terms, it was not until 2001, with the introduction of a system of financing political parties from the central budget, that the party system finally stabilized.38 As a result, representatives of only four major parties have dominated the Sejm since 2001: SLD, PO [Civic Platform], PiS [Law and Justice], and PSL. Since then, only two parties have left the Parliament, Samoobrona [Self-defense] and Liga Polskich Rodzin [League of Polish Families], and only one managed to pass the threshold: Ruch Palikota [The Palikot Movement].

The very summit of the political elite in contemporary Poland appeared to be far more stable than the party system itself. It may easily be said that the core of this elite was formed between 1989 and 1991. Among the five leaders of the parties which won their seats in the election of 2011, there was only one politician (Janusz Palikot) who had not sat in the first democratically elected parliament (since WWII) twenty years before. The other four had either been PZPR activists before 1989 (Leszek Miller, the SLD leader, and Janusz Piechociński of PSL) or came from the pre-Round-Table democratic opposition (Donald Tusk, leader of PO, and Jarosław Kaczyński, leader of PiS). Of course, in the lower levels of the party and the political hierarchy there was a rapid turnover (especially before 2005), but politicians whose careers in the democratic Poland started with the breakthrough of 1989 still form the majority and hold the most prominent positions in party apparatuses.39

This is why the term “generation of 1989” often crops up in political journalism. Even if there is a degree of exaggeration in this view, it remains unquestionable that one’s assessment of how the liquidation of the communist dictatorship was accomplished is among the most important factors dividing the political scene in Poland.40

Economic Transition

Unlike the change in the political system, the Round Table was rather insignificant in economic terms. After a few months the heads of the Solidarity camp realized that they were only fossilizing the inefficient system of the socialist economy and were helpless to overcome the deep crisis. One of the most prominent symptoms of the crisis was hyperinflation, which reached 639 per cent in 1989. The same year, against a backdrop of a rapidly deteriorating state-owned sector which dominated the economy, there was an explosion of private entrepreneurship. This was possible through acts on “entrepreneurial activities” and “entrepreneurial activities with participation of foreign entities” passed in December 1988, following a legislative initiative of the last communist government, led by Mieczysław Rakowski.41 This reform package provided ample scope for economic freedom, limiting the reams of obligatory permits and concessions to only eleven branches of economy (mining, arms trade, alcohol production, and a few others). A new law on foreign exchange,42 enacted on 15 March, 1989, was also significant, as foreign currency became a commodity; another act (on banking law) allowed for banks to be established by legal and natural persons.43 Legal reforms in economic freedom, together with signs of new economic policy sent by Rakowski’s government, led to considerable growth in the private sector. In the first half of 1989 nearly six thousand commercial law companies were registered, which meant a fourteen-fold rise compared to the end of 1988. Companies also began to emerge in the public sector, and in the first half of 1989 their number doubled to more than two thousand.44 A substantial number of these companies became the main medium for the massive flow of national property into the private hands of members of the communist apparatus, a phenomenon later referred to as “the enfranchisement of the nomenklatura.”45 The transformation from merely administering public property to ownership status should be considered a key factor in the whole process, as it was one of the main catalysts in the deconstruction of the communist regime.

There was a dramatic intensification of the draining of state-owned property after the act of February 24, 1989 was passed on “some conditions of consolidation of the national economy,”46 providing for the private use of state-owned property in the form of lease, tenancy, or by making in-kind contributions to mixed-capital companies. Contracts with these companies were signed by directors of state-owned enterprises, who were also partners or shareholders in the same companies. When, at the end of 1989, the General Prosecutor Office, acting on the order of Mazowiecki’s government, examined the scope of the above proceedings, the number of “nomenklatura companies” set up by the members of the communist regime apparatus totaled 1,593. Most of these belonged to people in the economic apparatus (approximately 1,000 directors, managers, and chief accountants and 580 chairpersons of various cooperatives), considerably fewer to functionaries of central and local administration (nine voivods [provincial governors], fiftyseven mayors and heads of lesser units) and to party officials (eighty).47 In fact, the number of companies of this kind was much higher, because the above estimate does not include companies in which shares were held by the family members of the nomenklatura. It was not until 1990 that regulations prohibited persons occupying higher posts in the state administration from taking up shares in privately-owned companies.

The new economy team, led by Leszek Balcerowicz, Minister of Finance and Deputy Prime Minister, undertook to control the budget deficit in 1989. The interest rates in banks (almost exclusively state-owned at the time) soon rose sharply, which curbed the loss to the state treasury from loans that were granted. Subsidies of meat, bread, and other goods were stopped, and the indexation of wages limited. The price of alcohol and custom taxes were raised, and taxes levied on currency exchange bureaus. At the same time, the basics were developed for a stabilizing package, to be enacted at the beginning of the following year. The premises of this program, announced in October 1989, encompassed three main directions of change: 1) reforming public finance and restoring a balanced budget; 2) introducing free-market mechanisms; 3) changing the economy ownership structure.

The first of these goals was to be achieved primarily by lifting the automatic index adjustment of wages and drastically curbing their growth. In January 1990 a free pay-raise index (defining the rate of pay-raise which was free from a restrictive tax – commonly known as popiwek) was set at 0.3 of the price-increase index, and in the following three months, to 0.2. Moreover, the program limited preferential loans and financing the budget deficit by central bank loans, reducing various subsidies and abolishing most tax credits. Prices to remain under government control (e.g. coal, electricity, heating gas, gasoline, rail, and road transport tickets) were drastically raised (by up to 400 per cent). In the long term, three more taxes were introduced: a corporate income tax, VAT, and a personal income tax.48

Free-market mechanisms were supposed to start functioning after most prices were freed up, making loan interests more realistic and introducing internal currency exchangeability. The initial fixed rate (an anti-inflation “anchor”) was set at 9,500 old zlotys per one US dollar. Consequently, external exchangeability was ensured, as well as demonopolization and decentralization of the economy; a stock market was established, and the system of social insurance and the public system were reformed. The structural change in the ownership model was to come through large-scale privatization and by marking out municipal property and lifting limitations in trading land, buildings, and apartments. On December 17, 1989 a package of eleven bills intended to bring about fundamental changes in the Polish economy was presented in the Sejm. Had all the parliamentary procedures been observed, the proceedings on such significant bills would have lasted for months, and the outcome might have been noticeably different from what the initiators had intended. At that moment however, both the parliament and President Jaruzelski demonstrated exceptional unanimity, and by no later than the end of 1989 the new regulations had become law. The final shape of the program was by far more stringent than its original premises. The tightened parameters came from Balcerowicz team’s conviction of the necessity of shock therapy and an assumption that only such a radical scheme had a chance to stop the inflation.

The first weeks after new rules of the “economic game” had been introduced showed that the path of reform would be more difficult than had been expected. Admittedly, the zloty/US dollar exchange rate was stabilized, the long lines outside the shops had disappeared, there were more commodities in stock, but the prices were alarming. A new symbol of the free-market economy soon appeared – street trading. With relatively lower margins, this helped to soften somewhat the harsh consequences of the falling living standards. In 1990 real wages dropped by 23.9 per cent compared to the previous year, and overall consumption financed by personal income by 15.5 per cent.49 The most severe hardships were felt in the rural areas, as farmers were painfully struck not only by the tightening of the loan policy and the rapid growth of production costs, but also the relaxing of food import strictures. These agricultural problems were aggravated by the domination of pseudocommunal plants in the food processing industry. These factories were unable to function in the new economic reality. It turned out that the deeply fragmented Polish agriculture and farming system, which had avoided collectivization in the communist era, had serious difficulty adjusting to the free market environment, where there was no economic assistance from the state.

The decline in production proved more significant than Balcerowicz’s team expected, entailing a higher deficit and unemployment rate. The latter rose to 12.2 per cent (2.1 million people) by the end of 1991. The deepest slump was observed in transportation, iron and steel production, mining, textiles and the electrical machinery industry. Considering the overwhelming majority of the public sector in the economy, this decline could not possibly be compensated by a dynamic rise in private enterprises, whose production in the first nine months of 1991 alone rose by 20.3 per cent, compared to the analogous period in the previous year.50

The recession was primarily an aftermath of the painful process of adjusting state-owned enterprises to the market environment. The sudden drop in trade among the countries of the former Soviet Bloc, especially the Soviet Union itself, also contributed to economic hardships. This, consequently, was caused by both a departure from the transferable ruble as a currency for economic exchange for hard currency settlement, and the mounting economic crisis in the post-communist countries. Exports to the USSR dropped by at least half in 1991, which was impossible to counteract by trading with the EEC countries.

Favorable business conditions returned only at the end of 1992 and the beginning of 1993, and in 1995 a record-breaking GNP growth of seven per cent was observed. In the years to come, mainly because of turbulence in the world markets, the economy of Poland experienced periods of slowdown (2001–2002, 2009, 2012–2013), but in the twenty years since Poland’s GNP has never been in decline, which proves the direction taken in the first stage of the transformation was correct.

An important element of the reform was establishing the Warsaw Stock Exchange in 1991. The first headquarters of WSE was also symbolic, as it was located in the former seat of the KC PZPR [Central Committee of the Polish United Workers’ Party]. In 1991 the market capital of all the companies listed on the GPW amounted to 161 million zlotys. The first strong bull market was observed in 1993, followed by a spectacular slump the next year. This, however, did not discourage investors from seeking gains in the Warsaw Stock Exchange. At the end of 2013 there were 449 companies listed on the WSE, whose total market capital amounted to more than 840 billion zlotys.51

The economic transformation, in which some of the former communist apparatus members managed exceptionally well and profited, led to significant economic inequality within the society. This stirred a wave of aversion to the market changes, especially privatization, from a large group of the society. Most of the particularly bitter criticism was targeted at Deputy Prime Minister Leszek Balcerowicz, despite his leaving the government at the end of 1991.52 He was accused, primarily, of extreme monetarism, neglecting the social costs of the transformation, but also of some erroneous moves, like a miscalculated zloty–dollar exchange rate that was kept fixed for too long. He was also attacked for his reluctance to explain the sense of the reforms to the society, a policy Balcerowicz himself admitted, arguing that “in Polish conditions, explaining the meaning of the reform would have a marginal rather than fundamental importance.”53

It is worth noting, however, that neither under the post-communist Left governments (1993–1997, 2001–2005), nor the Nationalist Right (2005–2007), were substantial turns in the economic course of action made, whose basics had been developed in 1989–1991. Alternative economic programs devised after 1989, which always featured a return to a greater state role, have never been tried out in practice, due to a lack of political support.

While it may be true that the “Balcerowicz plan” could have been carried out more sparingly toward the society, this issue – especially when pondered against the backdrop of the scale of economic collapse in other post-Soviet countries – is and will remain disputable. It is evident, however, that Balcerowicz’s reform package saved Poland from the disaster of hyperinflation and, more or less smoothly, but definitively and with conviction, introduced the country into a free-market reality. As a result, the fastest progress on the road from a realist socialist system to a Western-style democracy in the first years after 1989 was indeed visible in the economics. In the twenty-five years since the collapse of communist rule Poland has made a great leap forward. In 2012, the Polish economy occupied twentyfirst place in the world and sixth among the EU countries in terms of GNP.54 Life expectancy at birth has also increased by nearly ten years. The percentage of students in the younger generation has grown fourfold, the number of citizens choosing foreign countries as their holiday destination has also increased. However, despite a manifold increase in GNP per capita in this period (according to IMF estimations up to $20,500 in 2012) the level of affluence of Polish society, measured by this factor, puts Poland in forty-seventh place in the world.55 Economic inequity is still above the EU average, and numerous parts of the country (especially in the Eastern provinces) have high unemployment and poverty-stricken areas. A serious stumbling block to the harmonious development of Poland has long been poor power distribution and road infrastructure, as well as a health service plunged into permanent crisis and a rapidly growing public debt, which exceeded PLN 900 billion in 2013.

Reorientation of Foreign Policy

What appeared to be the ultimate challenge to Tadeusz Mazowecki’s government in shaping foreign policy was reengineering relationships with the USSR and the other countries of the Soviet Bloc where the communist regimes collapsed in 1989. An event of great importance for Poland and the rest of Europe was the collapse of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, the spark that set off the reunification process of the two German states. The decision to coordinate operations to unify Germany was made at the NATO and Warsaw Pact foreign ministers conference in Ottawa in February 1990. The formula adopted there was later known as Two-plus-Four talks, that is, East Germany (GDR) and West Germany, plus the USA, the USSR, Great Britain, and France. The “2+4” conference commenced in Berlin in March 1990 and was held in five rounds. Krzysztof Skubiszewski, Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs, was present at one of these, held in Paris, devoted to the official recognition of the Oder-Neisse borderline between Poland and Germany by the future united German government. The decision was made that Poland and Germany would enter a border treaty, which took place on 14 November, 1990. The “Two-plus-Four Conference” was concluded on 12 September with the signing of the Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany. The treaty provided for the unification of the territories of East Germany, West Germany, and West Berlin, and secured the position of the new state as fully independent and as a new member of NATO. The official reunification took place on 3 October, 1990, which was technically accomplished by the accession of the former GDR, divided into five federal Lands, to the Federal Republic of German.56

The government of the reunited Germany consented to Soviet troops being based in former GDR territory until the end of 1994, but beginning in 1990 contingents were gradually withdrawn, partly via Poland. The question of a Soviet contingent of 60,000 personnel in Poland was first taken up by Tadeusz Mazowiecki’s government as late as the fall of 1990, as, until then, the presence of the Soviet troops was treated as a kind of insurance against possible problems in negotiating the Polish-German borderline treaty. Polish-Soviet negotiations over withdrawing the contingent from Poland lasted over a year. Facing stiff opposition from the Kremlin, the Polish side threatened to blockade the transport of Soviet soldiers leaving the German territories through Poland as its ultimate argument. The final agreement, resolved at the end of 1991, provided for the last Soviet troops to leave by the end of 1993. Before these talks had ended, the Warsaw Pact was dissolved in Prague on 1 July, 1993, and an agreement disbanding the Council of Mutual Economic Assistance was signed two days earlier in Budapest. At the same conference, a Soviet proposal to establish a new international economic organization was turned down. In August 1991, after the unsuccessful August Coup, organized by a group of communist hard-liners led by Soviet Vice-president Gennady Yanayev, the collapse of the Soviet Union entered its final stage. It eventually ended in December 1991, when, on the ruins of the communist Soviet empire, fifteen new states emerged. Four of the new independent states bordered Poland: Russia, Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine. In Poland, the fall of the Soviet Union was more than welcome, as expressed by the fact that Poland was the first country in the world to officially recognize Ukrainian independence.57

Despite bitter internal conflicts, Poland was dominated by the view that strengthening ties with the West was necessary, though in the years of 1990 and 1991 alternative concepts also arose. By mid-1991 Minister Skubiszewski (in office throughout 1989–1993) stated that Poland was not interested in NATO membership due to “the balance of powers in Poland’s region” and promoted the concept of a new European security system based on the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe.58 Minister of Defense Piotr Kołodziejczyk went even further, when, in September 1991, he voiced his hopes that in the future NATO would cease to exist.59 The Polish government did focus on economic integration with far more determination at the time, as reflected in the signing of the association agreement with the European Economic Community in December 1991. At the same time, Poland strove to develop regional cooperation with Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia, which resulted in these countries signing a declaration of cooperation on 15 February, 1991 in Visegrád (Hungary). The Visegrád Group was originally an alliance against the imperialistic policy of the Soviet Union, but after its dissolution the focus changed to promoting the integration of its member-states with the European Union. In the mid-1990s the group found itself in a deep crisis, its activities gradually freezing. The main reason for this was the attitude of Czech Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus, who took the view that the Group would hinder his country’s integration with the EU. The next serious blows to the solidarity of the Group were Poland’s and Hungary’s formal application for EU membership in April 1994, and the Slovak isolationist policy under Vladimir Mecziar’s government.60

In 1992 the government led by Prime Minister Jan Olszewski, and its successor under Prime Minister Hanna Suchocka, officially declared Poland’s readiness to join NATO. A pro-West foreign policy was then continued by the post-communist SLD-PSL coalition in 1993–1997, whose three consecutive governments were active in seeking support for Poland’s membership in NATO, and for commencing official talks with Brussels about future accession to the European Union. This meant a fundamental shift in the post-communists’ attitude to NATO, for in 1990 the SdRP Supreme Council passed a resolution clearly stating that “[...] in a situation where Europe is divided between military blocs it is unacceptable for NATO to reach as far as Poland’s borders, as it is untenable for Poland to relinquish the security guarantees of our membership in the Warsaw Pact. Hence the necessity to keep a strong Polish army and to allow Soviet troops to be temporarily based in Poland, on mutually agreed upon and observed rules.”61

In February 1994 Poland joined the Partnership for Peace program, proposed by US President Bill Clinton’s administration as a kind of interim stage for states aspiring to NATO membership.

After a few years of hesitation, resulting in part from Russian protests, in the mid-1990s the Clinton administration decided to start the process of eastern NATO expansion. In 1997 Russian opposition was finally overcome by signing an agreement on a special relationship between Russia and NATO, and two months later, in Madrid, the leaders or NATO member states made the decision to invite Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic to begin accession talks.62

The process of Poland’s accession to the alliance was concluded by the Center-Right government with Jerzy Buzek as Prime Minister. In December 1997 the “accession protocol” was signed in Brussels, providing membership for three Central and Eastern European countries. Next came the process of the protocol’s acceptance and ratification by the parliaments of all the NATO member states. Apparently, the most important step in the process was the consent of the United States Senate, expressed by a vote of 80 to 19 (with the formal requirement of a two-thirds supermajority) on 30 April, 1998. This decision was preceded by a months-long campaign led by Polish communities in the USA, which contributed to overcoming the reluctance expressed by some influential American politicians, who were afraid of provoking Moscow. Certain Republican circles were also unwilling to subscribe to an initiative undertaken by Bill Clinton’s Democrat administration.63

On 12 March, 1999 in Independence, Missouri, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Bronisław Geremek, handed to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright the act of Polish accession to the North Atlantic Treaty. Negotiations on Poland’s membership in the European Union, commenced in November 1998, proved much more difficult. Jerzy Buzek’s government announced that Poland would be ready to become an EU member on 1 January, 2003, but objections of the current member states, who feared an influx of cheap labor and the massive costs of modernizing Polish agriculture, hindered the negotiations, and the final date of Poland’s accession was not set during the tenure of Jerzy Buzek’s government.64 This occurred under the leftist coalition (SLD-PSL) government led by Leszek Miller. Negotiations were officially completed by resolving the most important problems of Polish agriculture and the openness of EU labor markets to Polish citizens during the EU summit in Copenhagen in December 2002.65 On 16 April 2003 Polish delegates signed the Accession Treaty with the European Union in Athens.

Yet, signing the treaty was not tantamount to Poland and nine other countries in the European Union gaining membership. In most cases the membership had to be approved by referenda. In Poland, EU membership was accepted in a nationwide referendum held on 7 and 8 June, 2003, when seventy-seven per cent of voters said “yes” to Poland’s accession, and the turnout was nearly fifty-nine per cent. In May 2004 Poland became a full member of the European Union, an act which concluded Poland’s road to the western military and political structures which had begun during the 1989 transformation.


Antoni Dudek is a professor of Humanities at the Chair in Contemporary History of Poland in the Institute of Political Science and International Relations of the Jagiellonian University in Krakow. Since 2009 he has been a member of the Institute of National Remembrance Council. He is the author or co-author of over ten books on the history of Poland in the twentieth century and the history of political thought. His prominent works focus on the history of the People’s Republic of Poland (Państwo i Kościół w Polsce 1945–1970 [The State and the Church in Poland 1945–1970], Krakow 1995; PRL bez makijażu [The People’s Republic without Touch-ups], Krakow 2008), the system transformation (Reglamentowana rewolucja. Rozkład dyktatury komunistycznej w Polsce 1988–1990 [The Regulated Revolution: The Decomposition of the Dictatorship in Communist Poland], Krakow 2004) and the political transformation in contemporary Poland (Historia polityczna Polski 1989–2012 [A Political History of Poland 1989–2012], Krakow 2013; Instytut. Osobista historia IPN [The Institute: A Personal History of the IPN], Warsaw 2011).



1 J. Kaliński, Gospodarka Polski w latach 1944–1989. Przemiany strukturalne [The Economic History of Poland 1944–1989: The Structural Transformation], (Warsaw 1995), p. 218.

2 cf. A. Dudek, Historia polityczna Polski 1989–2012 [The Political History of Poland 1989–2012], (Krakow 2013), pp. 17–33.

3 A. Kwaśniewski’s foreword to Okrągły stół. Dokumenty i materiały [The Round Table: Documents and Materials], eds. W. Borodziej and A. Garlicki (Warsaw 2004, Vol. I: September 1986 – February 1989), p. 1.

4 T. Mazowiecki, Rok 1989 i lata następne. Teksty wybrane i nowe [1989 and the Following Years: Selected Published and New Texts], (Warsaw 2012), pp. 28–29

5 cf. K. Trembicka, Okrągły Stół w Polsce. Studium o porozumieniu politycznym [The Round Table in Poland: A Study in Political Agreement], Lublin 2003, pp. 379–390

6 Ł. Warzecha, Lech Kaczyński. Ostatni wywiad [Lech Kaczyński: The Last Interview], Warsaw 2010, p. 23.

7 Czas na zmiany. Z Jarosławem Kaczyńskim rozmawiają Michał Bichniewicz i Piotr M.Rudnicki [Time for Change: Michał Bichniewicz and Piotr M. Rudnicki Talk to Jarosław Kaczyński], Warsaw 1993, p. 26.

8 www.rp.pl [accessed 12/08/2013].

9 wiadomosci.wp.pl[accessed 12/08/2013].

10 cf. W. Roszkowski, Najnowsza historia Polski 1980–2002 [The Recent History of Poland], (Warsaw 2003), p. 151.

11 CBOS, Polacy o Magdalence, okrągłym stole i poczuciu zdrady [Poles on Magdalenka, the Round Table, and the Sense of Betrayal], July 2010, p. 5

12 cf. A. Friszke, Rok 1989. Polska droga do wolności [1989: The Polish Road to Freedom], (Warsaw 2009); J. Skórzyński, Rewolucja Okrągłego Stołu [The Revolution of the Round Table], (Krakow 2009).

13 cf. A. Dudek, Reglamentowana rewolucja. Rozkład dyktatury komunistycznej w Polsce 1988–1990 [The Regulated Revolution: The Decomposition of the Dictatorship in Communist Poland], (Krakow 2004); P. Kowal, Koniec systemu władzy. Polityka ekipy gen. Wojciecha Jaruzelskiego w latach 1986–1989 [The End of the System of Power: The Policy of General Jaruzelski’s Staff in 1986–1989], (Warsaw 2012).

14 A specimen article: Magdalenka. Teoria spiskowa, która okazała się prawdą [Madgalenka: A Conspiracy Theory That Has Proved True], by Sławomir Cenckiewicz in: Rzeczpospolita, 19/20 Oct 2013.

15 V. I. Ganew, “Post-Communism as an Episode of State Building: a Reversed Tillyan Perspective,” Communist and Post-Communist Studies, 2005, Vol. 38.

16 P. Kuglarz (ed.) Od totalitaryzmu do demokracji. Pomiędzy „grubą kreską” a dekomunizacją – doświadczenia Polski i Niemiec [From Totalitarianism to Democracy: Between the „Hard Line” and Decommunization – Polish and German Experiences], (Krakow 2001).

17 W. Bereś, K. Burnetko, Gliniarz z Tygodnika. Rozmowy z byłym ministrem spraw wewnętrznych Krzysztofem Kozłowskim [A Cop from „Tygodnik”: Conversations with Former Minister of the Interior Krzysztof Kozłowski], Warsaw 1991, p. 41; M. Henzler, Prześwietlanie SB [Screening the Security Service], Polityka, 08/18/1990; Z. Siemiątkowski, „Kształtowanie się systemu cywilnej demokratycznej kontroli nad służbami specjalnymi w RP” [Shaping Civil and Democratic Control over the Secret Service in the Republic of Poland] in: D. Waniek (ed.) Lewica w III RP. Lewica w praktyce rządzenia [The Left in Government Practice], (Toruń 2010), p. 154.

18 A. Dudek, Historia polityczna... [Political History...], pp. 393–394.

19 Konstytucja Rzeczpospolitej Polskiej z dnia 2 kwietnia 1997 r., “Dziennik Ustaw,” Nr 78 z 1997 r., poz. 483 [The Constitution of the Republic of Poland of April 2, 1997, Polish Journal of Laws 1997, No. 78, Item 483].

20 Ustawa z dnia 23 stycznia 2009 r. o zmianie ustawy o zaopatrzeniu emerytalnym żołnierzy zawodowych oraz ich rodzin oraz ustawy o zaopatrzeniu emerytalnym funkcjonariuszy Policji, Agencji Bezpieczeństwa Wewnętrznego, Agencji Wywiadu, Służby Kontrwywiadu Wojskowego, Centralnego Biura Antykorupcyjnego, Straży Granicznej, Biura Ochrony Rządu, Państwowej Straży Pożarnej i Służby Więziennej oraz ich rodzin, “Dziennik Ustaw” z 2009 r. Nr 24, poz. 145 [Act on amendments to the law on old-age pensions of professional soldiers and their families and to the law on old-age pensions of functionaries of the police, the Internal Security Agency, the Intelligence Agency, the Military Counter-Intelligence Service, the Military Intelligence Service, the Central Anti-Corruption Bureau, the Border Guard, the Government Protection Bureau, the State Fire Service, the Prison Service and their families; Polish Journal of Laws 2009, No. 24, Item 145].

21 M. Korkuć, “Pamięć Narodowa w przestrzeni publicznej” [National Remembrance in the Public Sphere], in D. Koczwańska-Kalita (ed.) Kronika. 10 lat IPN [A 10-year Chronicle of the IPN], (Warsaw 2010), pp. 408–410.

22 P. Grzelak, Wojna o lustrację [The Lustration War], (Warsaw 2005).

23 Ustawa z dnia 18 października 2006 r. o ujawnianiu informacji o dokumentach organów bezpieczeństwa państwa z lat 1944–1990 oraz treści tych dokumentów, „Dziennik Ustaw” z 2007 r., Nr 218, poz. 1592 ze zm. [Act of October 18, 2006 on the Disclosure of Information on Documents of State Security Agencies from 1944–1990 and the Content of These Documents; published in Polish Journal of Laws 2007, No. 218, Item 1592, as amended]

24 A. Dudek, Instytut. Osobista historia IPN [The Institute: A Personal History of IPN], (Warsaw 2011), pp. 285 ff.

25 P. Codogni, Wybory czerwcowe 1989 roku. U progu przemiany ustrojowej [The Election of June’89: At the Threshold of the System Transformation], (Warsaw 2012).

26 Ustawa o zmianie Konstytucji PRL z 7 kwietnia 1989 r., „Dziennik Ustaw”, Nr 19 z 1989 r., poz. 101. [Act of April 7, 1989 on Changing the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Poland, published in Polish Journal of Laws 1989, No. 19, Item 101]

27 A. Dudek, Reglamentowana rewolucja... [Regulated revolution...], pp. 367–407.

28 J. Ciemniewski, “Nowela konstytucyjna z 29 grudnia 1989 r..” [The Amendment to the Constitution of December 29, 1989], in: Przegląd Sejmowy, 2009, No. 3(92), pp. 27–46; P. Sarnecki, “Ustrój polityczny Polski po wejściu w życie ustawy konstytucyjnej z 7 kwietnia 1989 r..” [The Political System of Poland after Enacting the Amendment of 7 April, 1989], in: Przegląd Sejmowy, 2009, No. 3(92), pp. 11–26.

29 I. Pańków, Podziały w obozie solidarnościowym. Pluralizm polityczny a polityczna Tożsamość [Divisions in the Solidarity Camp: Political Pluralism and Political Identity], (Warsaw 1998).

30 J. Rokita, Batalia o rząd [The Battle for Government] in A. Nielicki (ed.) O naprawę Rzeczypospolitej [For the Betterment of Our Republic], (Krakow 1998), pp. 145–148.

31 cf. A. Dudek, Historia polityczna... [Political History...], pp. 465–470.

32 The PZPR dissolved in January 1990, and in its place the SdRP was established, based on the same organizational structures and material possessions. This party, led by Aleksander Kwaśniewski and Leszek Miller, entered numerous electoral coalitions with smaller leftist parties following 1991 as SLD [Democratic Left Alliance]. Eventually, in 1999, the party changed its name to SLD, regaining a number of former allies. See: A. Materska-Sosnowska, Socjaldemokracja Rzeczpospolitej Polskiej – dostosowanie syndykatu władzy do zasad demokracji Parlamentarnej [Social Democracy in the Republic of Poland – Adjusting the Power Syndicate to the Rules of Parliamentary Democracy], (Warsaw 2006); Ł. Tomczak, Polskie partie socjaldemokratyczne w latach 1990–1997 [Polish Social-Democratic Parties between 1990 and 1997], (Szczecin 2003).

33 “Dziennik Ustaw” z 1990 r., Nr 54, poz. 312. See also: M. Chmaj, M. Żmigrodzki, Status prawny partii politycznych w Polsce [The Legal Status of Political Parties in Poland], (Toruń 1995), pp. 41–45.

34 “Dziennik Ustaw” z 1997 r., Nr 98, poz. 604. See also: M. Migalski, W. Wojtasik, M. Mazur, Polski system partyjny [The Polish Party System], (Warsaw 2006), pp. 19–25.

35 J. Raciborski, Polskie wybory. Zachowania wyborcze społeczeństwa polskiego 1989–1995 [Polish Choices: Electoral behaviors in Poland 1989–1995], (Warsaw 1997), pp. 41–43.

36 A. K.Piasecki, Wybory w Polsce 1989–2011 [Elections in Poland], (Krakow 2012), pp. 359–363.

37 R. Chruściak, System wyborczy i wybory w Polsce 1989–1998. Parlamentarne spory i dyskusje [The Electoral System and the Elections in Poland 1989–1998: Parliamentary Arguments and Disputes], (Warsaw 1999), p. 118.

38 The regulations of 2001 provided generous state subsidies (paid in quarterly installments) for those parties which gathered more than three per cent of the valid votes countrywide and six per cent for party coalitions. Ordynacja wyborcza do Sejmu RP i do Senatu RP [Act on the Sejm and the Senate Voting System], „Dziennik Ustaw,” 2001, No. 46, Item 499; M. Chmaj (ed.) Finansowanie polityki w Polsce na tle europejskim [Financing Political Parties in Poland from a European Perspective], (Toruń 2008).

39 R. Matyja, Rywalizacja polityczna w Polsce [Political Rivalry in Poland], (Krakow- Rzeszów 2013), p. 489.

40 M. Grabowska, Podział postkomunistyczny. Społeczne podstawy polityki w Polsce po 1989 roku [The Post-communist Division: The Social Foundations of Politics in Poland after 1989], Warsaw 2004.

41 “Dziennik Ustaw,” [Polish Journal of Laws] 1988, No. 41, Items 324 and 325.

42 “Dziennik Ustaw,” [Polish Journal of Laws] 1989, No. 6, Item 33. The Act on Foreign Currencies (“Prawo dewizowe”) was passed on February 15, 1989, becoming effective after a one-month vacatio legis.

43 “Dziennik Ustaw,” [Polish Journal of Laws] 1989, No. 4, Item 21.

44 Archiwum Instytutu Pamięci Narodowej [The Institute of National Remembrance Archive], sign. 0727/50, Informacja o wynikach kontroli powiązań przedsiębiorstw państwowych ze spółkami prawa handlowego [Information on the results of investigation into connections of state-owned enterprises with trade law companies of November 30, 1989], p. 290.

45 Theoretical aspects of this process may be found in two publications by J. Staniszkis (Ontologia socjalizmu [Ontology of Socialism] Warsaw 1989 p. 126ff. and Postkomunizm. Próba Opisu [Postcommunism: An Attempt at a Description], (Gdańsk 2001), pp. 197–199) and M. Łoś, A. Zybertowicz, Privatizing the Police State: The Case of Poland,)London – New York 2000).

46 “Dziennik Ustaw,” [Polish Journal of Laws] 1989, No. 10, Item 57.

47 W. Kuczyński, Zwierzenia zausznika [Confessions of a Confidant], Warsaw 1992, p. 138.

48 M. Dąbrowski (ed.) Polityka gospodarcza okresu transformacji [The Economic Policy in the Transformation Era], (Warsaw 1995), pp. 11–13.

49 This data is questioned by some economists, who claim that the actual drop was smaller. See: W. Wilczyński, “Trudny powrót Polski do gospodarki rynkowej” [A Difficult Return to the Market Economy] In W. Dymarski (ed.) Drogi wyjścia z polskiego kryzysu gospodarczego [Ways out of the Polish Economic Crisis], (Warsaw-Poznań 1993), p. 24.

50 Rocznik statystyczny [Statistical Yearbook] 1996, Warsaw 1996, pp. LXXI, 135;. J. Bukowski (ed.)Raport o stanie państwa rządu J. K . Bieleckiego [State of the Country Report by J. K.Bielecki’s Government], (Warsaw 1992), pp. 31, 37.

51 Data from the official WSE website: http://www.gpw.pl/analizy_i_statystyki [accessed 12.13.2013].

52 Leszek Balcerowicz served as the Minister of Finance and Deputy Prime Minster in Jerzy Buzek’s government, 1997–2000.

53 Quoted in: T. Torańska, „My” [“Us”], (Warsaw 1994), p. 5.

54 CIA: Country Comparison: GDP (Purchasing Power Parity): The World Factbook [accessed 12.13.2013].

55 www.imf.org [accessed: 12.13.2013].

56 A. Hajnicz, Z sobą czy przeciw sobie. Polska-Niemcy 1989–1992 [Together or Against Each Other: Poland-Germany 1989–1992], (Warsaw 1996), pp. 82–93.

57 cf. J. Strzelczyk, Ucieczka ze wschodu. Rosja w polskiej polityce 1989–1993 [Fleeing the East: Russia in Polish policy 1989–1993], Warsaw 2002; A. Dudek, Pożegnanie z Wielkim Bratem. Ostatni rok w dziejach stosunków polsko-radzieckich [Farewell to Big Brother: The Last Year of Polish-Soviet Relationships], In K. Persak et al. (eds) Od Piłsudskiego do Wałęsy. Studia z dziejów Polski w XX wieku [From Piłsudski to Wałęsa: Studies in Polish 20th-century History], (Warsaw 2008), pp. 491–506.

58 “When, in 1989, we finally regained the chance to shape our own foreign policy,” said Krzysztof Skubiszewski at a Krakow conference in 1993, “joining NATO was not an issue [...]. Establishing ties with the West had to be gradual and could not possibly start with NATO. [...] Thus, our priority from 1990 was to make the West change its attitude to the imminent perils in our region, from indifference to expanding its protective potential. It had to be done in secrecy, without too much publicity.” K. Skubiszewski’s lecture of 28 December, 1993, in D. Popławski (ed.) Pozycja Polski w Europie [The Position of Poland in Europe], (Warsaw 1993), p. 12.

59 A. Dudek, Historia polityczna... [Political History...], p. 168.

60 G. Lipiec, “Grupa Wyszehradzka: powstanie – rozwój – rozkład” [The Visegrád Group: Rise, Development, Collapse], in: Ad Meritum, 1995, No. 1.

61 I. Słodkowska (ed.) Programy partii i ugrupowań parlamentarnych 1989–1991 [Political programs of parties and parliamentary groups 1989–1991], Part 1, (Warsaw 1995), p. 99.

62 A. J. Madera, Polska polityka zagraniczna. Europa Środkowo-Wschodnia 1989–2003 [Polish Foreign Policy: Central and Eastern Europe 1989–2003], (Rzeszów 2003), pp. 67–70.

63 R. Asmus, NATO – otwarcie drzwi [NATO: The Door Thrown Open], Warsaw 2002; A. Krzeczunowicz, Krok po kroku. Polska droga do NATO 1989–1999 [Step by Step: The Polish Road to NATO 1989–1999], Krakow 1999; B. W. Winid, Rozszerzenie NATO w Kongresie Stanów Zjednoczonych 1993–1998 [The Expansion of NATO in the Congress of the United States 1993–1998], Warsaw 1999.

64 S. Parzymies, “Integracja europejska w polityce zagranicznej III RP” [European Integration in the Foreign Policy of the Third Republic of Poland], in R. Kuźniar, K. Szczepanik (eds) Polityka zagraniczna RP 1989–2002 [Foreign Policy of Poland 1989–2002], (Warsaw 2002), pp. 67–98.

65 L. Miller, Tak to było [As It Was], (Warsaw 2009).


This article has been published in the third issue of Remembrance and Solidarity Studies dedicated to the consequences and commemorations of 1989 in Central Europe .

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Maja Bächler

The Christmas Truce of 1914 – Remembered in 2005. The staging of European similarities in the movie Merry Christmas – Joyeux Noël

20 August 2014
  • Great War
  • First World War
  • World War I
  • Christmas Truce
  • 1914
  • film
  • Christian Carion
  • remembrance


The film Merry Christmas/Joyeux Noël by Christian Carion depicts the “war Christmas” of 1914 in the trenches of a German, a French and a Scottish division. While the film starts out as just another war film with genre-stereotypical requisites and narrative structures, the story takes a twist when a soldier begins singing Silent Night on Christmas Eve. Through the music and its religious content, the soldiers begin to leave their trenches and fraternize with their supposed enemies. The Christmas party sparks the realization that the bond between the soldiers – regardless of their origin – is stronger than their ties to the generals sitting by the firesides. Made in 2005, Merry Christmas tells us about remembrance and the amnesia of the First World War in recent times. The film adjures Christianity, classical music, and comradeship as common European roots at a time when the EU is failing to deepen its collaboration. Furthermore, the paper asks how far the film’s backward viewpoint goes to activate European cohesion.

European Collectivity

When inquiring into collective memory or recollections, we should examine not only what eyewitnesses have reported, but also how the public has made sense of this reporting. Sites of memory (lieux de memoires, Nora 1998), which should be understood not only in a spatial sense, are created as anchors for memories. Observers who took part in World War I are no longer with us; memory has turned into history. Events that have just become history – and are therefore already subject to mythologizing narrative extension, iconographic depiction/representation/processing and ritual staging1 – these can be used to commemorate the commonalities of identity while reducing contingencies.

Merry Christmas/Joyeux Noel by the French director Christian Carion, which was released in cinemas in 2005–2006, is discussed below, and forms the subject of this paper. The subject of the film is the “Christmas Truce of 1914,” a historically verified event during which French, British, and German soldiers emerged from their bunkers for a short-lived truce. The extraordinary circumstances of this real event have resulted its mythologization in the collective memories of the countries that took part, even if to varying degrees and in various forms. It was the clear wish of the director to use the extraordinary circumstances of this event in order to narrate the events of World War I through a different lens, and to interpret the Christmas Truce as a glimmer of hope, a sign of the return of humanistic ideals believed to have been forgotten in the wake of the world wars (Paletschek 2008: 218). In doing so, he seizes on a mythic romanticization of the idea of integration and repackages this into a European narrative of shared values amid the divisive evil of World War I. In the late 20th and early 21st century, the war has acquired a reputation as a conflict of a changing nature, as once postulated by Carl von Clausewitz. At the latest since the second Gulf War (1990–1991), the asymmetries (as defined by Münkler 2003 and 2006) show their effects in warfare, of which reportage and media coverage are important elements. Whereas we note some symmetrical uniformity in the typology of real wars – from the classic battles of the Thirty Years’ War to the interstate wars of the 20th century – and compare them to asymmetrical conflicts (Münkler 2003 and 2006), we do not make the exact same differentiation in war movies. In the category of films with “war” as their main subject, the two world wars belong to the same category and form the basis of the classic war film genre.2 The First World War is a classic inter-state war, even if the bunkers and high numbers of casualties in this war – soldiers and civilian alike – brought with them a change in how war is represented and processed visually, as compared to, for example, the battle paintings of the 19th century (Jürgens-Kirchhoff 2007: 445). Asymmetrical new wars have developed their own forms of media rehabilitation in fictional films (Greiner 2012; Bächler 2013) that have almost become a new sub-genre of war film unto themselves. By way of contrast, classic war films remain focused on inter-state wars rather than civil wars, wars leading to state disintegration, and terrorism. Furthermore, such films preserved elements typical of the genre. Merry Christmas is deeply rooted in the classic war film genre (see the IMDb entry for Merry Christmas) and features emblematic aspects of the genre, as can be seen, for example, in the scenes that take place in the trenches. However, it also contains elements of historical drama set in World War I, as well as elements of a romantic film.

The 1990s saw a renaissance of classic war films, the last being Saving Private Ryan (USA 1998, directed by Steven Spielberg). This is even more surprising in light of the wars waged in the 1990s and early 2000s: the war in the Balkans, the “War on Terror,” and the wars against Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden should be considered rather as new, asymmetrical conflicts. What accounts for this return to the old, classic approach of the war film, or, in the case of Merry Christmas, to the historical drama within the war movie? When we think of war films, movies like Rambo (USA 1982, 1985, 1988 and 2008), Platoon (1986) or Saving Private Ryan spring to mind. In popular culture, war films produced in the USA dominate the genre; what could have motivated Carion and his European film team with its cast of well-known actors and actresses of various nationalities to shoot this particular film in 2005? What follows below is an attempt to answer such questions, with the greater goal of understanding what this film about World War I is trying to tell us about 21st-century Europe.

What to a large degree connects Europe today is its common experience of two World Wars, which, no doubt, are rather negative elements of Europe’s collective memory. Merry Christmas embodies this commonality: it seizes upon various myths and tries to establish the Truce during the war as a positive European memory. Its narrative of cultural similarities and origins in 1914, when the film is set, offers a new interpretation of what/who was perceived as the concept of the enemy, and adjusts it to the European 21st narration. The peace in the midst of the war introduces a European dimension, whereas, in fact, it would be better described as peace because of war. Only the experience of the two world wars led to the creation of an interdependent Europe that has rendered war between European states in the 21st century highly improbable, to say the least. The idea of setting the narrative about a common European identity (see, among others, Schmitt-Egner 2012) during World War I, in which European states faced each other as foes, raises certain problems. In order to resolve these, Merry Christmas focuses on four specific topics and narrative devices that attempt to dissolve this conflict-ridden moment in European history, all of which figure prominently in the present analysis.

The first device that pervades the film is Judeo-Christianity as a transcendent religion found in all the nations across Europe. A second, also dominant, theme concerns music as an integrative force in old Europe which also assumes the role here as placeholder for a common (high) culture heritage. These two narrative devices inform the entire structure of the film and serve as the main focus of the movie’s view of European similarities. To borrow Carl Schmitt’s terminology, they tell the story of the friend who became an enemy during the war. According to Schmitt, the friend-enemy narrative – the narrative of the internal homogenization of possible heterogeneous entities – always requires an outer force. In the film we can observe the recast concepts of the enemies (Schmitt 1933).

A third theme that falls into the category of the “creation of the concept of the enemy” establishes a dichotomy between dominator and dominated as it relates to political, religious, and military policy-makers on the one hand, and front-line soldiers on the other. In doing so, it touches upon questions concerning the social stratification of all the parties involved in the war. A fourth theme to be mentioned does not concern narrative in any real sense, but rather focuses on what is not narrated. The film describes the comradeship between Britons, Frenchmen, and Germans, while other nations are excluded. Belief in a strong old Europe occurs during the absence of the USA (which entered the war later on). The USA and other European allies remain missing from the positive collective memory of the 1914 Christmas Truce mostly because an attempt was made to render authentic historical events in the film. All the same, questions of “inside” and “outside” should also take the year of 2005 into account – the context of the film production. Not least, an observation of the outside leads us to ask whether war itself is portrayed in the film as the enemy, and whether we should understand the film as another “anti-war” film.

Religion, music, and Christmas – a celebration primarily based on a sense of community (see Maurer 2004: 44–46; Bausinger 1997: 169–183; Bausinger 1983: 390–404) – are intimately related. One would not exist without the other, and, as result, these three elements are meshed in the film in the name of collectivity and sociability.

2.1. The Religious Integration of Europe

Merry Christmas opens with a Scotsman declaring the beginning of the First World War to his brother in the Church of Palmer, the Anglican Priest; he has enlisted them both to serve as volunteers. The contemplative work of the quiet brother, Jonathan, who is restoring wooden figures in the church, contrasts with the boisterous reaction of Williams, who enthusiastically greets the outbreak of the war by ringing the church bells. This dichotomy between war and religion, violence and peace, noise and silence, persists throughout the film and manifests itself in several respects. Thus, after the main characters are introduced in their local settings, the first twenty-five minutes of the film foregrounds the events of the war. As in most war films, the depictions of hostilities in the bunkers features loud artillery shells and rifle gunshots and quick cuts. In most “real” war films, Christmas and birthday celebrations serve to disrupt the death-filled battle scenes with soldiers, in order, or so it seems, to create a short-lived break in the action for the soldiers, when in reality the break chiefly serves the viewer. However, in Merry Christmas the break from the battle becomes the main topic of the movie. In a war film, pauses in the combat are, as a rule, employed to show the bonds between the protagonists and their respective homelands, and, in doing so, to individualize them. To this end, films usually use props, such as photos of family members or – in the case of Merry Christmas – show the quirks of the individual soldiers. Thus we see, for example, the French Adjutant Ponchel setting his alarm for ten o’clock each morning to remind himself of his mother and the coffee he would share with her at that time (Merry Christmas, min. 0:27:34 and 1:10:27). He wants to safeguard the comforts of home, which seem odd amid all the fighting, from the war. In so doing, his character undergoes an individualization in the film that is essential in forming an empathic bond with the viewer. It is by such means that the viewer comes to know the characters, and through which a sense of identification is enabled. This is of intrinsic significance in the course of the film, when a character dies. Merry Christmas begins like a classic war film, with the depiction of the deplorable conditions inside the bunkers among all three combatant nations. It focuses on at least one person from each nation, whose story is uncovered over the course of the film and offers a point of contact with the public: the French lieutenant will be a father soon; the Scot Jonathan loses his patriotic brother Williams soon after the beginning of the movie and, as a result, rejects the whole notion of comradeship; the German is Jewish and talks repeatedly about his stays in Paris and, at practically the end of the film, confides to the French officer that he actually has a French wife. These highly personal snapshots are connected to individual stories through various ephemera (photos of the pregnant wife, food packages from the mother, letters that cannot be received due to precarious war conditions), and by technical means, achieved through close-ups of each character.

The individuality of the stories prefigures the possibility of identifying religious commonalities. Of course we – the viewers in 2005 – know that Europe neither was religiously homogenous during World War I, nor is today. Even though non Judeo-Christian traditions are absent here, we can assume that there are Anglican, Catholic, and Protestant soldiers on the battlefields, and – significantly – a German Jew.3 Faced with the inhospitality of the war and the need for a sense of the homeland on the front, this religious pluralism is reinterpreted as a diversity of traditions, which might differ in form, but not in substance: they all share a firm belief in peace and reconciliation. Notions of reconciliation, which in the Christian tradition are connected with the birth of Jesus Christ, become a common religion – Christmas, in spite of its various traditions, can be understood as a “core pillar of European culture” (Schmelz 1999: 583). The multiplicity of individual stories and props all come together in the midnight mass where the Germans can be seen carrying their Christmas trees, the Scots their bagpipes, and the French their champagne and coffee. With this we witness a veritable potpourri of different, yet similar Christmas traditions.

Of course, the notion of the common Christian roots uniting Europe is in no way a new one, as Giovanni Reale has emphasized, pointing out to Benedetto Croci and Frederico Chabod. As early as in 1942, they argued that a modern united Europe could draw from its common roots: Christianity and the intellectual heritage of Antiquity (Reale 2004: 16). For many years, scholars have attempted to map out the contours of a united Europe through its shared roots, especially in the context of the “EU’s eastward expansion” of the predominantly Christian Baltic States, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Hungary and Croatia, which demonstrates the suitability of these countries for integration (Angenendt 1999: 482).4

2.2. Adeste Fidelis

“We will be home again for Christmas, laughing recruits called out to their mothers in August of 1914 [...] the victims went to the slaughter drunk and rejoicing, crowned with flowers and wearing oak leaves on their helmets, while the streets echoed with cheering and blazed with light, as if it were a festival.”(Stefan Zweig)

As soldiers went off to war, Christmas clearly marked the end of the adventurous war in their minds. The desperate narrative of a quick victory was connected to the notion of a return home by December 24, 1914, at the latest.

“As one stresses the community component of Christmas, celebrating proves to be a mechanism of inclusion and exclusion, an identifying force and the full realization of history, a mechanism of the participation in the whole or in a certain socialization and collectivization in all corners from the state to the family.” (Maurer 2010: 9)

In Merry Christmas, Christmas is interpreted according to Michael Maurer’s view: as the reenactment of the reality of the religious and the political nature. For this reason, the integrative and exclusionary functions of celebrating are employed in order to contrast the diametrically opposed functions of fighting and death in war. For Maurer, the life-affirming significance of celebrations looms in the foreground (Maurer 2004: 7). This significance appears especially relevant given the stark environment in which the 1914 Christmas was celebrated at the front; here, Christmas is tied to the will to live.

Celebrations and wars both reside outside the realm of everyday experience. In the excerpt from Stefan Zweig, war and celebration are connected with one another: the positive war expectations in the First World War should become a celebration, a rite of passage for young men who want to prove themselves (Turner 1982: 24–27). This paradoxical connection is foreclosed upon in Merry Christmas where Christmas is, again, associated with peace and unity at the home of Europe, which stands in opposition to the war. Instead of portraying the coming of age of young recruits through war, as can be found in classic war films, the war fever of young men is explained as a catalyst for war, whereas the conservative, level-headed men are critical of the war.

The religious and musical integration of Europe are inextricably linked in the film. Of particular note, we find the singing of Christmas carols, especially those known in all three countries. The impetus for the truce, according to the film, comes from the performance of the German opera tenor Nikolaus Sprink (Benno Fürmann), who first appears as a celebrated performer of the Berlin Opera, and later is depicted as a simple recruit in the trenches. His superior, Horstmeyer (Daniel Brühl), is rather bothered by him because he prefers to give orders to artisans rather than to artists from the “Hautevolée” (min. 0:27:01). Later on, he is called behind the front lines to sing for the Crown Prince – his lover, the opera singer Sörensen, had organized this. However, during this performance Sprink comes to feel a sense of kinship with his comrades to whom, after all, he returns on Christmas night accompanied by Sörensen. As the Scots unpack their bagpipes, melodies wash over the no man’s land and Sprink sings Silent Night, Holy Night, a song familiar in all three countries and languages. This song actually appears to have been sung in several trenches in 1914, as is the case of common prayers said in all three languages. This seems to be an attempt to confer a greater sense of authenticity to the film (see Eksteins 2012: 149f). Sprink leaves the trench and is then accompanied by Scottish bagpipe players who launch into the 18th-century song Adeste Fidelis. He sings the song in Latin, and not in one of the three languages spoken among the nations at war. Adeste Fidelis means “Here now you Believers” [Eng.: “O Come All Ye Faithful”]; it once again establishes Europe’s common religious roots. There is, in fact, much to be said about music and language in this film. At the beginning, everyone speaks his own native tongue. Over the course of the film, understanding becomes more important and the characters no longer limit themselves to their native tongues. Song is defined as a universal language. Religious unity is suggested through the use of Latin, for it is the use of Latin in the Roman Catholic Church in its beginnings that symbolizes – at least to all outward appearances – the unity of the Christian religion. As Figure 1 shows, Sprink crosses into the no man’s land singing, with a Christmas tree in hand. This deliberately emotional moment is, nevertheless, also somewhat comical in its representation; this comic element sometimes creeps into the the film’s serious aspirations, and turns it into – as one film critic has put it – a “multilingual Europudding with its pacifistic mentality of the 21st century (to function) as a retroactive homage to the historically unique founding of the European Union” (film review of Merry Christmas).

In scenes of sharing food and drinks and collective singing, a keen sense of cultural bonds is expressed. Last comes the exchange of addresses, which the soldiers hope to put to good use when everything is over. In a curious way, one finds in this film the depiction of contact between alien “cultures,” which results in the portrayal of a homogenous European cultural community. The Latin language, which was taught in high schools among the “cultured nations,” and still is, though to a lesser degree, connects peoples by means of a historical bond passed down from the Roman Empire. They are connected here not only through melody – they can sing in the same language, and even if the words themselves are unintelligible, the unifying element is there. In addition to music and language, similarities are found in the way holidays, and, more specifically, Christmas, are celebrated by the three nations. Christmas is invested with similar attributes in all three countries: good food and drink, harmony, peace, family, and Christmas trees.

During the evening mass, the sole female protagonist of the film, Anna Sörensen (Diane Krüger), sings the Ave Maria, and functions as the embodiment of Virgin Mary herself. In Merry Christmas, the individual symbols serve – alongside the rites and the classic times of Christmas past – as a means to fraternize with the presumed enemy. The men eat, sing, and pray together, and speak of things like their families. The similarities outweigh the enmities that divide them and disrupt the neat dichotomy between friend and foe. It is in the midnight mass and the song sung by Anna Sörensen that differences in religion and traditions become irrelevant (min. 1:04:44), as shown by Figures 2 and 3. It is through the shared iconographic exaltation assigned by the men to the person of Mary (Fig. 3) that these soldiers find themselves united in belief and devotion alike (Fig. 2).

2.3. The external, inner enemy: Generals and Crown Princes

The function of Christmas in this film is the initial provocation of a sense in which one finds a greater emotional attachment to enemies in the field than to the “generals safely removed from danger.” This deep-rooted sense of social equality with the declared enemy is underscored through the shared equality before God (as seen in collective reading of the mass), as well as through the sense of common European roots. The interweaving of religious motifs and class affiliations is taken even further, when another external person is contrasted with the connection between the simple soldiers: a bishop of the Anglican church transfers the preacher, Palmer, to another sector of the front and reprimands him for reading the mass (min. 1:30:00).

Contrary to the experience of the soldiers during the truce, the Anglican bishop tells them:

“Well, my brethren, the sword of the Lord is in your hands. You are the very defenders of civilization itself. The forces of good against the forces of evil. For this war is indeed a crusade. A holy war to save the freedom of the world. In truth I tell you, the Germans do not act like us, neither do they think like us. For they are not like us, children of God. [...]” (min. 1:32:38–1:33:21)

What is meant here is that the war, and the division of Europe which will follow in its wake, is caused only by the power hungry rulers of Europe: both the political rulers, represented here by the German crown prince, and the religious rulers, represented by the Anglican bishop. The “simple masses,” on the other hand, remain committed to the military ideal of comradeship, even among the enemy nations. For this reason, the Scottish preacher Palmer removes the cross from around his neck after he has heard this speech from his superior – not because he no longer feels tied to Christian belief, but rather because he feels detached from the ruling classes within the Church. For the same reason, the German opera singer Sprink returns to the trenches – against his orders – after he sings before the crown prince. He feels strangely alien before the ruler, sitting by a fi replace in a clean uniform – although he should have been well accustomed to performing in front of the upper classes during his time with the Berlin Opera – and in spite of the fact that he has himself had been identified as a fellow member of the upper class by his superior Horstmeyer. Horstmeyer himself, along with the officers from the Scottish and French ranks, are shown to be men of cultivation, as evidenced by their multilingual conversations. In this way, the distinction between ruler and ruled is evident, rather than that distinguishing members of different social strata from one another.

Moreover, fighting in a war in which he did not voluntarily enlist changed Sprink, who turns himself in to the French as a POW at the end of the ceasefire. Over the course of the Christmas Truce, he came to understand the senselessness of the war. Though the fraternization of the “simple soldiers,” the Christmas Truce has a high potential for emotion, which makes it possible to introduce the positive connotation of European solidarity (Paletschek 2008: 216). Here the film ties together the commemorative cultures of the participating countries, insofar as the importance of the Christmas Truce can be seen as lying in its function as “symbols of the ‘little man’s’ yearning for peace” (Brunnenberg 2006: 49) and – for that reason – develops a politico-symbolic significance for a community that lay outside the war-obsessed powers.

Leaving behind one’s fellow soldiers is a definite no-go in the genre of war movies. The rule “no one is left behind” is repeated in war films and, not infrequently, even becomes the leitmotiv (Black Hawk Down. Leave No Man Behind, USA 2001, directed by Ridley Scott). Thus, just as no man should ever be left behind, nor should he ever leave his troops. But because Sprink decided to return to his comrades and now has to safely get Anna Sörensen away from the front – which equals the saving of a “participant” of the war, almost as if she was “one of them,” a comrade – Sprink does not betray the “ideal of comradeship,” but rather symbolizes the realization of the futility of the war. This situation is meaningful insofar as Anna Sörensen hardly embodies “comradeship or male bonding,” but rather femininity. Diane Krüger’s appearance as a blond, blue-eyed woman can be seen as the personification of the classic, northwest European ideal of beauty. Moreover, in the film she is meticulous about her make-up and lavishly dressed, as befits an opera diva. Up to her spontaneous decision to accompany Sprink to the front, she is cast as an assertive woman who can obtain things like a special permit to sing alongside Sprink before the crown prince at the front. Her role as seductress or – to use a religious metaphor – as Eve, is transformed in the mass when she sings the Ave Maria. Here, she looms as the embodiment of all women in an elevated position, such that no man in the film can subsequently mistake her for being the object of lustful desires. Correspondingly, there are also no more sex scenes with Sprink; they lie next to each other, but clearly separate, like brother and sister. With the metaphysical elevation achieved through her singing of the Ave Maria, she has bestowed upon the soldiers a magical moment of unity and reconciliation that, in turn, fully qualifies her to be saved according to the “no one is left behind” ideal.

Sprink and Sörensen’s predictable survival embodies all that they represent in the film, namely, the cultural unity of Europe as achieved through a shared sense of music, religion and language. Sprink’s deeds are representative of what the future holds; the deaths of most soldiers who participated in the Christmas Truce is very likely, as we know by looking at the high mortality rates in the First World War. Their survival integrates them and therefore does not betray the ideal of camaraderie. While the incorporation of women into war films is difficult as a rule, the character of Anna Sörensen unites at least three main motifs: the seductress, the saint and “the comrade.” If one speculates over the gaps the film deliberately creates – for example, the exclusion of other European nations and the USA – it is worth pointing out that the presence of a female character has been inserted on purpose, as no female participation in the Truce can be historically established. If the film is permitted a certain amount of artistic license in creating a female character for the film to avoid ostracizing fifty percent (every female) of the European population from the notion of European integration, then it should have the freedom to dedicate a word or two to the other nations which fought in the First World War. The fact that it did not could be explained by the strong roles that the three nations played in the war, were it not for the Scottish division. Rather than portray French, German and English fraternity, the Brits are replaced with the Scots. The participation of several Scottish divisions in the Christmas Truce is indeed authentic (Eksteins 2012: 150), though it would nevertheless have been just as possible to insert the Brits. However, the inclusion of the Scots makes it possible for smaller states and regions to feel that they are part of the integration process. As a consequence, the three nations involved function more like placeholders – all the other countries can feel that the film is about them, insofar as they can relate to the motives for integration and the religious, cultural, and linguistic roots that they share. The inclusion of a female character thus serves, primarily, to create empathetic moments between men, whose faces are shown in close-up and who – through Anna Sörensen – come to remember their own wives and children back home. It evokes “Scenes of Empathy” (Plantinga 2004: 213).

3. Collective Europe

The history of the Christmas Truce reached the home countries of soldiers through soldiers’ letters from the front. Contemporary newspapers also reported the events on the front lines (Paletschek 2008: 213). Many of these letters remain with us today; a few are cited and used as sources in works published in various countries with the subject of the history of the Truce alone, or of the entire First World War. In Belgium, where much of the Christmas Truce took place, we still find a strong commemorative culture, expressed through monuments and museums, of the event (Brunnenberg 2006: 20).

Since 1914, several works have been published featuring the Christmas Truce as one a central theme. At the turn of the 21st century, the pace of publication in the three countries involved (Great Britain, France and Germany) has increased sharply, though in different directions. In Great Britain, the website The Christmas Truce: Operation Plum Pudding was organized by two journalists who published part of the letters in a 2008 book entitled Not a Shot Was Fired. Here, war veterans and their progeny had an opportunity to offer their comments and reminiscences. In addition, academic and popular books have appeared in all three countries (Ferro 2005; Foitzik 1997; Jürgs 2003; Weintraub 2001). In 2005, two children’s books appeared in France on the theme of the truce in the trenches (Mopurgo 2005; Simard 2005). In Germany, renewed interest in remembering the event was only reflected in academic publications and popular science (Brunnenberg 2003; Bordat 2005). All this is deeply connected to the significance of the First World War in various commemorative cultures. While memory of the Great War still plays a large role in France and Great Britain, “in Central and Eastern Europe, continuities in memory and remembrance did not develop” (Korte 2008: 8). In Germany, the memory of the First World War has been completely superseded by the memory of the Second World War and the Holocaust (Korte 2008: 8).

The heightened number of publications might stand in connection to the 2005 appearance of Merry Christmas – though the swiftly approaching centenary and the ninety-year anniversary (2004) of World War I probably also played a role – yet, the striking number of publications on this theme is noteworthy. It remains to be seen what accounts for the buzz of activity surrounding the Christmas Truce of 1914 in film, scholarship, and literature. Korte, Paletschek and Hochbruck describe the rediscovery of the First World War as a new and increased “obsession with history” and surmise that the upcoming anniversaries and the gradual demise of eyewitnesses, that is, the transformation of memories into history, have something to do with it.

Films, and particularly historical films, tell stories about fates within a certain time and place, but often reveal much more about the particular contexts in which they were produced – in this case the first decade of the 21st century. Here, Europe’s core is newly defined. The film tells us of a community which has shared religious and musical roots and therefore can be understood as a form of culture that bears the stamp of Christianity. Both the recounting of the Christmas Truce via film and the newfound fascination for the event, which has found parallel expression in various literary works, show that the Christmas Truce has a narrative power. Two actual narratives can be told through this story: first, the narrative of a Europe that was always connected through its shared cultural roots, and was divided by the nationalisms of the 19th and 20th centuries, represented by the rulers in the European countries; and second, the story of the pivotal founding moment of modern Europe, reflected in the motto “no more war.”

Merry Christmas came to cinemas after “EU’s eastward expansion” of 2004, during which ten states were admitted into the European Union, and after the Constitution for Europe was vetoed by a hostile referendum, first in France on May 28, 2005, and three days later in the Netherlands. Since 2004, when the constitution was signed by the heads of government, discussions on the treaty took place, with a focus on the details of the document. A shared constitution could have resulted in an obligation for the member states to strengthen their common interests, and could have promoted a united representation of the EU through the planned creation of a European foreign ministry. Of course, the film’s creators could not have predicted the outcome of the referendum, though they were able to refer to the current discussions in the film, and to participate in them. The film contributes to cultural remembrance, and is focused on an intensification of Central European cooperation more than on expansion. To this end, themes that have long since been discussed in academic contexts are included in the popular discourse. Lucia Faltin has spoken of a “sabbatical from enlargement” in the European Union since 2007 that was necessary in the wake of the failed declaration of a common European Constitution. She also favors a return to Europe’s Christian roots (Faltin 2007: 5–9). The film suggests how commonalities in Europe might be better put forward: through a shared education in the service of the memory of Europe’s cultural roots. Merry Christmas opens with the recitation of propaganda poems by French, English, and German children. The propagation of poems about “childkilling Huns, and barbaric Frenchmen and Britons” (min. 0:01:33–0:02.34) should be replaced with education to provide a greater sense of a shared European identity. In this way, the film retains its function, with the “power to circulate” (Hardt/Negri 2003: 355) symbols and discourses relevant on a contemporary level. It not only picks up the discourses, but also serves to perpetuate them.

This extremely conservative interpretation of the options available to Europe as revealed in the form of religion, culture (via classical music) and paternalistic education read like the party program of a Christian-conservative political party. The suggestion of a fraternization of the ordinary people instead of the “powerful” and the “rulers” can scarcely interfere with this narrative, even if the Europe signaled here is made up of men and women rather than institutions. The film is not able to offer a vision for the true union of diversity, a Union that lies in cooperation rather than assimilation. This certainly is caused by the historical event of the Christmas Truce itself, but maybe the First World War is better suited to remind us of the reasons behind and for European unity – to eliminate potential conflict between the member states – instead of narrating the story of a new Europe of the future. The kind of Europe envisioned by Merry Christmas is based on the past. It recalls common roots that are no longer feasible for many Europeans. Or, as Peter Rietbergen put it:

“Despite the nostalgia of many, Europe will be a world in which the church towers, the crosses and the ringing of bells will no longer most instinctively evoke a multitude of emotions and images which, all-encompassingly, describe culture and solidarity” (Rietbergen 1998: 463).

For the reasons described above, a classic war film which depicts war in all its cruelty, and which thereby becomes paradigmatic of the shared European slogan “no more war,” is in my opinion better served in reminding us of the reasons behind a European community than a film that attempts to conjure up a common Europe based on Christianity, classical music and (manly) comradeship. The Christmas Truce was an event that really took place, and one that harbors potential for mythologization, due to its inconceivability, which is why it should not be neglected. However excessively mythologized and iconographically burdened the Christmas Truce of 1914 might be, it is unique, and has the power to remind us of the human condition – one not necessarily inclined to violence, but rather capable of finding peace in the middle of a war. But then again, that is not a particularly European quality.



Maja Bächler. Has studied history, politics, and law in Freiburg/Breisgau, at the Freie Universität, and at the Humboldt University of Berlin, having written her Masters on French and German modes of reasoning in European integration. She wrote her doctoral thesis at the chair for Military History/Cultural History of Violence at Potsdam University, which was published in 2013 (Inszenierte Bedrohung. Folter im USamerikanischen Kriegsfilm 1979–2009 [ Staged Danger: Torture in American War Films 1979–2009 ], Frankfurt am Main and New York: Campus). Since 2012 she has worked at the Chair for Political Theory (the Humboldt University of Berlin) as a research fellow.



1 Herfried Münkler has explained these four levels in a seminar at Humboldt University in Berlin in 1998/1999 (personal notes).

2 The first war films were documentaries on the US civil war, as well as the fictitious 1915 film Birth of a Nation (USA 1915, directed by David Wark Griffith).

3 It is quite safe to assume that it is no coincidence that of all the characters, it is the German officer Horstmeyer (Daniel Brühl) who is of Jewish descent. It is a clear reference to the persecution of Jews during World War II. It is a known fact that even their participation in World War I could not save Jewish veterans from the concentration camps.

4 Angenendt takes this further, and states that the above-mentioned countries see each other as a part of a common religious and cultural “space,” which can be defined as “West European.” In order to prove this provocative thesis, I believe that we need to research this topic further by means of source studies and discourse analyses in the single member states. In addition to this, the argument of Christian-Jewish roots provides politically conservative parties with a supposedly good reason to deny the Turks admission into the European Union: they simply lack the common Christian roots.

List of References

Angenendt, Arnold (1999) “Die religiösen Wurzeln Europas,” in Wulf Köpke and Bernd Schmelz (eds) Das gemeinsame Haus Europa (München: Dt. Taschenbuch Verlag), pp. 481– 488.

Bausinger, Hermann (1997) “Das Weihnachtsfest der Volkskunde. Zwischen Mythos und Alltag,” in Richard Faber and Esther Gajek (eds) Politische Weihnacht in Antike und Moderne (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann), pp.169–183.

Bausinger, Hermann (1988) “Anmerkungen zum Verhältnis von öffentlicher und privater Festkultur,” in Dieter Düding et al. (eds) Öffentliche Festkultur. Politische Feste von der Aufklärung bis zum Ersten Weltkrieg (Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt), pp. 390–404.

Bordat, Josef (2005) “Großer Krieg und kleiner Frieden. Gedanken zu Merry Christmas (2005),” in Marburger Forum, Beiträge zur geistigen Situation der Gegenwart 6, Jg. 6, available online at: www.marburger-forum.de/mafo/heft2005–6/Bordat_Krieg.htm, accessed 12.06.2013.

Breuer, Judith and Rita Breuer (2000) Von wegen Heilige Nacht! Das Weihnachtsfest in der politischen Propaganda (Mühlheim an der Ruhr: Verlag an der Ruhr).

Brunnenberg, Christian (2006) “Dezember 1914: Stille Nacht im Schützengraben – Die Erinnerung an den Weihnachtsfrieden in Flandern,” in Tobias Arand (ed.) Die Urkatastrophe als Erinnerung: Geschichtskultur des ersten Weltkriegs, Geschichtskultur und Krieg Vol.1, (Münster: ZfL–Verlag), pp. 15–60.

Eksteins, Modris (2012) Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age (Toronto: Vintage Canada) [1989].

Faltin, Lucia (2007) “The Religious Roots of Contemporary European Identity. Introduction,” in Lucia Faltin and Melanie J. Wright (eds) The Religious Roots of Contemporary European Identity (London: Continuum), pp. 1–13.

Fikentscher, Rüdiger (2007) “Kultur ohne Feste? Unvorstellbar!,” in Rüdiger Fikentscher (ed.) Fest – und Feiertagskulturen in Europa (Halle: Mitteldeutscher Verlag), pp. 9–15.

Ferro, Marc; Malcolm Brown; Rémy Cazals and Olaf Mueller (2005) Freres tranchées (Paris: Ed. Perrin).

Foitzik, Doris (1997) “Kriegsgeschrei und Hungermärsche. Weihnachten zwischen 1870 und 1933,” in Richard Faber and Esther Gajek (eds) Politische Weihnacht in Antike und Moderne (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann), pp. 217–253.

Hardt, Michael and Antonio Negri (2003) Empire. Die neue Weltordnung, revised ed. (Frankfurt am Main and New York: Campus).

Jürgs, Michael (2003) Der kleine Frieden im Großen Krieg. Westfront 1914: Als Deutsche, Franzosen und Briten gemeinsam Weihnachten feierten (München: Bertelsmann).

Korte, Barbara; Sylvia Paletschek and Wolfgang Hochbruck (2008) (eds) Der erste Weltkrieg in der populären Erinnerungskultur. Einleitung (Essen), pp. 7–26.

Maurer, Michael (2010) Festkulturen im Vergleich. Inszenierungen des Religiösen und Politischen. Einleitung (Köln, Weimar, Wien), pp. 9–12.

Maurer, Michael (ed.) (2004) Das Fest. Beiträge zu seiner Theorie und Systematik (Köln, Weimar, Wien).

Maurer, Michael (2004) “Prologema zu einer Theorie des Festes,” in Michael Maurer (ed.) Das Fest. Beiträge zu seiner Theorie und Systematik (Köln, Weimar, Wien), pp. 19–54.

Mopurgo, Michael (2005) La treve de Noël (Paris), children’s book.

Paletschek, Sylvia (2008) “Der Weihnachtsfrieden 1914 und der Erste Weltkrieg als neuer (west-)europäischer Erinnerungsort – Epilog,” in Barbara Korte, Sylvia Paletschek and

Wolfgang Hochbruck (eds) Der erste Weltkrieg in der populären Erinnerungskultur (Essen: Klartext Verlag), pp. 213–220.

Pelz, William A. (2008) “Film Reviews – Joyeux Noël / Merry Christmas,” in Film & History. An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies 38 (1), pp. 65–66.

Plantinga, Carl (2004) “Die Szene der Empathie und das menschliche Gesicht im Film,” in montage av, pp. 6–27, available online at: www.montage-av.de, accessed 10.05.2010.

Reale, Giovanni (2004) Kulturelle und geistige Wurzeln Europas. Für eine Wiedergeburt des “europäischen Menschen” (Paderborn: Schöningh).

Rietbergen, Peter (1998) Europe: A Cultural History (London/New York: Routledge).

Schmitt-Egner, Peter (2012) Europäische Identität. Ein konzeptioneller Leitfaden zu ihrer Erforschung und Nutzung (Baden-Baden: Nomos).

Simard, Eric (2005) Les soldats qui ne voulaient pas se faire la guerre (Paris: Oskar Jeunesse). The Christmas Truce: Operation Plum Pudding, available online at: www.christmastruce.co.uk, accessed 15.06.2013.

Weintraub, Stanley (2001) Silent Night. The Remarkable Christmas Truce of 1914 (London: Simon & Schuster).


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

Dimitar Ganev

The Bulgarian Round Table and its Contribution to the Constitution of 1991

20 August 2014
  • National Round Table
  • Bulgaria
  • 1991
  • constitution


The paper examines the influence of the Bulgarian Round Table at the beginning of the democratic transition and its practical contribution to the formation of the frame of the Bulgarian political project for democracy. The first part of the paper looks at the role and the importance of the Bulgarian Round Table. This has neither been studied in depth in the national context (due to the short historical perspective and the still existing political controversies), nor amongst the international scientific community (due to the priority given to other Central and Eastern European Round Tables). The second part of the paper pays attention to the political conditions influencing a possible transition to democratic governance and formation of such a type of non-traditional institution, as the Round Table. The focus falls on the role which the Bulgarian Round Table played in the overall national political process. The third part of the paper analyses all agreements which the participants of the Round Table reached, and the extent to which they affected the texts of the Bulgarian Constitution of 1991.


The Bulgarian Round Table sets the beginning of the democratic transition in our country. The meaning of this institution goes far beyond its time and space dimensions. The discussions at the Round Table reflect significantly on the entire process of democratization that followed, creating the framework for Bulgarian democracy. It is precisely in this respect that that Bulgarian Round Table has not been scientifically explored. The comparatively little investigative interest for this institution contrasts strongly with its importance for the establishing of democracy and the path of Bulgaria’s democratic development. The collision of points of view has an effect not only on the institutional architecture of Bulgarian democracy nowadays, but also on the political and ideological concept of an entire generation of Bulgarians. The live broadcasting on national television and radio of the discussions at the Round Table gave Bulgarians the chance to observe a large and important political discussion, which inevitably helped their spiritual liberation.

Ignoring at first sight the ideas of the different participants discussed at the Round Table for a Bulgarian political project of democracy, the question about the product, which this non-traditional institution creates, concerns the life and being of everyone of us in one way or another.

Because of the comparatively recent sessions at the Round Table in a historical perspective, the question about its role and importance is not yet fully formed. The considerable political and social polarization of the Bulgarian Round Table is one of the major factors for public opinion about it to be strongly divided. On the one hand it is reckoned to be “the most prosperous and fruitful period during which the transition is channeled and accelerated”, as “the most successful shape in Bulgarian conditions for the realization of the peaceful and civilized transition” and as “the most constructive and effective institution after November 10th”. (Prodanov et al. 2009, 113). On the other hand, it is also referred to as “a political circus” and “a deadly machine” (Prodanov et al. 2009, 113). Another factor, which casts a shadow over the role and the importance of the Round Table in the creation of a political project for democracy is the convention of a Great National Assembly, which in fact adopted the Constitution that is in effect in Bulgaria up to the present-day. But it should not be forgotten that it was at the Round Table that the decision for the convening of an institution to create a new fundamental law was taken and, secondly, many of the articles set in the Constitution in effect were previously passed by consensus by the participants at the Round Table. In this sense we need to pay deserved attention to the role of this institution in the creation of a Bulgarian political project for democracy.

The Bulgarian Round Table

The request for round table talks was first uttered in public by Zhelyu Zhelev. Yet there remain doubts that it was actually the Bulgarian Communist Party (BCP) who established this form of dialogue, hoping that in this way the opposition would not be able to influence the political crisis with civil protests. The first unofficial contacts in which the possibility of starting negotiations with the rulers is discussed are between Andrey Lukanov and leaders of the Union of Democratic Forces (UDF). Some of the participants in these events recall that the communist party leaders tried to prevent the creation of a united opposition in December, probably understanding the additional difficulties which it would bring to the regime (Peeva 1997, 45).

Preliminary discussions began only a week after the invocation of Zhelev. There are many different interpretations of the efficiency of the authorities: 1) there could have been secret meetings and negotiations between the leaders of the opposition and the regime on which the decision for a round table had been taken before the readiness of the opposition for a dialogue being publically expressed; 2) party leaders could have believed that some dialogue with the opposition was inevitable and they preferred using their tactical advantage in swiftly started discussions when the UDF was weakly organized and not capable of reaching common preliminary positions and strategies. The events of December in Romania and precisely the sentence by a special military tribunal and the following execution of Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife evoked fears of a similar scenario in Bulgaria. Moreover, these events coincided with the nationalist euphoria that followed the decision of the Central Committee of the BCP to restore the names of Pomaks and Turks (29 December 1989). The growing political tension from the nationalist meetings organized in large parts of the country threatened not only the party elites but also the opposition, because the restoration of the names was one of the main aspects in the activities of human rights defenders. So both main political opponents faced the necessity to overcome a wave of nationalism. It was no coincidence that one of the first topics suggested in the agenda of the Round Table was the reaching of an agreement on the national issue (Peeva 1997, 46).

The Bulgarian Round Table sat from January 3rd to May 15th 1990. It presented two basic points of view – that of the rulers and that of the nascent opposition, although other organizations also participated in the sessions– the National Front (NF), the Trade Unions, nationalist and youth organizations invited by the BCP/BSP (the Bulgarian Communist Party / later the Bulgarian Socialist Party) in order to strengthen its positions (Kalinova and others 2006, 258). With the presence of similar formations the rulers tried to save them as support for the party and at the same time wanted to overcome the creation of two opposite blocks of rulers and opposition during the negotiations (Prodanov and others 2009, 108). Despite these attempts other organizations sat at the Round Table but as part of the ruling quota. The representatives of the opposition were not a homogeneous group either. There were two kinds of participants from the UDF: 1) representatives of the UDF as a coalition: Zhelyu Zhelev and Petko Simeonov; 2) representatives of the parties, which were part of the coalition – Petar Dertliev (the Bulgarian Socialist and Democratic Party – BSDP), Milan Drenchev (Bulgarian Agrarian National Union “Nikola Petkov”), Aleksandar Karakachanov (Green Party – GP) and others (Kolarova 1996, 196). Because of the coalitional character of the UDF at that time, its representatives often expressed their own opinions which had not been agreed upon with the official leaders. That is why we cannot judge that each speech by a member of the BCP/BBSP or the UDF delegation reflected the party’s position, because there were no preliminary consultations inside the formations for a common position on each problem.

The parties from the opposition understood full well that the Round Table would legitimize them. The very fact that they sat opposite the BCP gave them the acknowledgement that they were the political opposition. That is why the UDF was determined to resist the constant attempts of the rulers to turn the Round Table talks from two-sided into multi-sided by including different bureaucratic organizations as a third party. It is the same reason why the oppositional coalition insisted that the delegates on both sides should have a permanent staff, because of their concerns that during the Round Table the BCP would set third-class functionaries against them, with whom the leaders of the opposition would be humiliated (Simeonov 2005, 129–130).

The Round Table played a significant role in Bulgarian political life in several aspects. First, after 45 years, Bulgarians could hear for the very first time an opposition speaking thanks to live broadcasting on Bulgarian National Television (BNT) and Bulgarian National Radio (BNR). This allowed the leaders of the opposition to legitimize themselves in the eyes of society and in this way for the first time the media monopoly of the Communist Party was broken. Apart from the representatives of the opposition, the Round Table also legitimized as democrats the reformers inside the BCP/BSP. The leaders of the ruling party were in a completely different situation as they had entered into a dialogue, a state that Communists had not been in for decades. Practically the sessions at the Round Table demonstrated another kind of political life – a democratic one, in which the representatives of the BCP/BSP are a factor.

Second is the role of the Round Table as a factor in breaking the ice of fear and contributing to the people’s spiritual liberation. It is very important for Bulgaria, bearing in mind that protests like those of the workers in 1954 in Poznan and other cities in Poland did not take place, nor was there a national uprising as in Hungary in October 1956, nor a “Prague Spring” as in Czechoslovakia in the summer of 1968, nor periodical riots as in Poland in 1956, 1970 or 1980, when the trade union “Solidarity” appeared. (Zhelev 2005:320).

Third, the Round Table has a specific institutional place in the Bulgarian political system. After the acceptance of its status the Round Table was defined as an organ which expressed the political will of Bulgarians and guaranteed the irreversibility of the democratic process. Despite not being the result of elections but of political agreements, it obtained the status of most important governmental body by the power of the imputed obligation of the participants in it “to use their presence in the legislative and executive bodies and their social influence in order to fulfill the terms of the agreements voted with consensus” (Prodanov and others 2009: 110). Also “no law or important political decision can be taken by the government and the National Assembly without the preliminary agreement on the Round Table” (Stenograph: 6). The political monopoly of the Bulgarian Communist Party was broken by these agreements.

The Round Table in Bulgaria should not be interpreted just as conversations and consultations between the rulers and the newly formed opposition. The pressure from the street had a significant influence on the decisions at the Round Table. Not once did the opposition leave the sessions of the newly formed institution, despite disagreement with some of the rulers’ demands and initiate protests for the acceptance of opposition’s claims. This shows that the scheme of the Round Table was not at all restricted by its own political geometry inside the hall. It continued outside, on the streets and squares (Zhelev 2005:319). In this sense the Round Table without the street support of the people would be nothing (Zhelev 2005:319).

Agreements at the Bulgarian Round Table and Their Impact on the Constitution of 1991

The negotiations at the Round Table came to a formal end on May 15th 1990 but its influence does not end there. As we can judge for ourselves, its meaning does not stop with the termination of the discussion around it but has an important contribution to make to the preparation of the Constitution of the Republic of Bulgaria of 1991.

To what extent are the settings of the agreements transferred to the Constitution of 1991?

The texts in Bulgarian Constitution of 1991 are not only the fruit of the work of the Great National Assembly. The political frame of the Bulgarian project for democracy was already set during the discussions and the accepted agreements between the two parties at the Round Table. Some of the settings in the final documents of the forum are implemented almost literarily in the fundamental law of 1991.

Even though some of the texts cannot be found as officially included in the political agreements, a large part of them had been discussed at the Round Table. In this sense the negotiations between rulers and opposition in the beginning of the changes had an important role for the creation of the basis of the Bulgarian project for democracy.

“The agreement on the political system” in its second part accepts “basic elements of the democratic and humane political system”. Even though today this seems absolutely logical, in the beginning of 1990 it was not clear at all. In this document the development of the Bulgarian political system as a democratic one is already established.

The frame of the democratic form of ruling is mentioned in the agreement exactly as a “national sovereignty, which is executed by a Parliament, elected by fair competitive elections.” The sovereignty can be organized directly and by a referendum in the cases and ways described in the law. “The reporting of the government before the Parliament” is almost literally set in the Constitution of the Republic of Bulgaria of 1991 and precisely in art. 1, sec. 1: “Bulgaria shall be a republic with a parliamentary form of government”.

In “The agreement on the political system” are included also “bodies for local self-government, formed by free elections, on which is guaranteed the full autonomy within the Constitution, the order, the legitimacy and the national independence and territorial integrity of the State”, set an year later in the fundamental law in art. 2, sec. 1: “The Republic of Bulgaria shall be an unitary State with local self-government” as well as additional guarantees for local democracy are extended in chapter 7 of the Constitution: “Local self-government and local administration”.

Entirely in the spirit of the European traditions is also the text of the agreement, which guarantees “division of the authorities in accordance with the commonly accepted standards of the parliamentary democracies and constitutional guarantees against the excessive concentration and abuse of power by individuals or institutions”, which is literarily transferred as art 8 of the Constitution: “The power of the State shall be divided between legislative, executive and judicial branches”.

A main aspect of the political democracy appears also to be “the multiparty system as an expression and guarantee of natural functioning of the democratic and pluralistic political system with free competition of different political ideas and movements...” which is also guaranteed by the Constitution in the fundamental law of 1991 in art. 11, sec. 1: “Political activity in the Republic of Bulgaria shall be founded on the principle of political pluralism”.

The text stating that “the political decisions shall be taken by the competent state bodies in accordance with the majority rule with a guarantee for the minority rights...” opens the way for the development of Bulgaria following the model of liberal democracy.

The topic of property does not remain untouched – “Guaranteed equality of all forms of property before the law as an obligatory prerequisite for the natural growth of economic relationships where is excluded the possibility of forced and any other illegal acquisition or change of the character of the property in the State...”. This text unambiguously declares that during the transition to democracy and market economy the private property will be equal to any other, which is guaranteed by the Constitution in art. 17, sec. 1: “The right to property and inheritance shall be guaranteed and protected by law”.

In “The agreement on the political system”, the main framework of the Bulgarian political project for democracy is described. Nevertheless, the texts, obvious for us, this base on which the constitutional model of Bulgarian democracy will be built, are not unimportant. At that moment of break-up the consensus reached on these topics between rulers and opposition is not insignificant.

“Agreement on basic ideas and principles of the law project for changing and amending the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria” is the greatest contribution among all documents voted on for the forming of the Bulgarian political project for democracy. In the first part, “Common principles of the political system”, 5 articles are already described, in the following order:

1. Definition of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria as a State of democracy, governed by the rule of law.
2. In the constitutional text as a basic beginning of the political system shall be included the principles of political pluralism, democracy and humanism.
3. In the constitutional text shall be proclaimed that the People’s Republic is united and inseparable as a State and it recognizes and contributes to the development of local self-government, which is defined by law.
4. There shall be implemented consistent and full de-ideologization of the constitutional texts.
5. The Bulgarian language shall be declared as official in the People’s Republic of Bulgaria.

The texts written in the agreement are found almost word for word in the new fundamental law. Art.1 is included already in the preamble to the constitution of 1991, where only the word “social” is added in accordance with the model of old European democracies. Ar. 2 and 4 form the entire spirit of the constitutional order and art. 3 and 5 are set almost literally in art. 2, sec. 1 and in art. 3.

In the second part of the agreement, “On the economic system”, apart from establishing “free initiative and economic competition in all equal forms of property”, an accent is put on the social model which will serve the Bulgarian economic system through art. 2 stating that in “conditions of a market economy the State will protect the socially weak layers of the population and unemployment shall be established in a constitutional order as one of the main secured social risks”.

The third part of the document, “On the basic rights and freedoms of the citizens”, is of specific significance, because it guarantees that the rights and freedoms of the citizens are among the most important elements of any democratic system. Despite not being extensive and solid on this issue, this part of the agreement gives the basic guidelines and the spirit of the second chapter of the Constitution of 1991. The adopted international acts on this issue set in “The agreement on the political system” establish law mechanisms and create real conditions for the realization of the constitutional rights and freedoms of the citizens. In the part for “organization of the State authorities during the transition to parliamentary democracy”, together with texts defining the functions, tasks and time-frame of the Great National Assembly, also the powers, functions and the mandate of the Head of State are established, in the following texts:

––To personify the unity of the nation and to guarantee the sovereignty, territorial integrity, the defense and the national security of the State;
––To secure the functioning of the state organs according to the Constitution and the laws;
––To represent the State in the country and in international relations;
––To appoint a government after its program and cabinet receive the approval of the Parliament;
––To address the nation and the Parliament;
––To lead the defense and the national security of the State and to perform the functions of Commander of the Armed Forces;
––To appoint ambassadors, to accept letters of credence, to give awards and titles, as well as to grant pardons, to give citizenships and rights of shelter, to sign international contracts, to perform other representative functions;
––During the execution of his powers he/she issues decrees and decisions which do not have a legislative character;
––When the national security of the State and territorial integrity are threatened, in times of natural disasters and in cases when the functioning of the State organs is affected, in accordance with the Constitution and the laws there can be declared full or partial mobilization or a state of emergency as per a suggestion by the Council of Ministers, when the National Assembly does not sit. In these cases the National Assembly shall be gathered immediately in order to make a decision.
––May declare a state of war in the case of armed attack against the People’s Republic of Bulgaria or in the case of a necessity to execute an international obligation for mutual defense, if the National Assembly does not sit in session and cannot be gathered in order to debate on the decision;
––Cannot perform any other leading state, political, social and economic functions, cannot be a party leader and cannot be a deputy in the National Assembly.

Probably these texts seem quite familiar, because they are all set in the Bulgarian Constitution of 1991. Of course, there they are extended with many more details and with additional elements of his/her powers, but the frame for the functioning of the future Head of State is established exactly in the “Agreement on basic ideas and principles of the law project for changing and amending the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria.”


Dimitar Ganev. Political scientist, graduated with a BA from Sofia University, majoring in “Political Science” and a Master’s degree in “Political Management” at the same university. Ganev is a former scholarship holder of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation. Since 2010 he has worked as a political analyst at the Ivan Hadzyiski Institute for Social Values and Structures. At the present time Dimitar Ganev is a PhD student at Sofia University and is exploring the problems of Bulgaria’s transition to democracy.


This article has been published in the third issue of Remembrance and Solidarity Studies dedicated to the consequences and commemorations of 1989 in Central Europe .

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


Roland Jahn

On Dealing with the Heritage of the Ministry for State Security in Germany

20 August 2014
  • transitional justice
  • Germany
  • East Germany
  • GDR
  • Stasi
  • SED
  • remembrance

The Better We Understand Dictatorship, the Better We Can Shape Democracy – on Dealing with the Heritage of the Ministry for State Security in Germany



The aim of this article is to inform readers about the legally regulated tasks of the Office for GDR State Security Documents and the experiences and scale of reappraisal of the SED-Dictatorship (SED – Socialist Unity Party of Germany) in the last 25 years. Dealing with the past and the people involved, the author follows the principle of explanation, not revenge. The main goal is to understand how people behaved and what consequences their actions had on their social and work environment. Explaining the differences between democracy and dictatorship and sensitizing young generation in this respect is one of the major challenges to the Stasi Records Agency and other institutions in the international process of revisiting the past.

“How did you manage to ensure that the victims of the dictatorship did not take vengeance on the perpetrators?” I was asked this question in the summer of 2012 by a visitor to our archives in Berlin. Farah Hached is a lawyer from Tunisia. Amid the turmoil of the Arab Spring, she quit her job as she wanted to take an active part in the reconstruction of her country. Now she is a leader of the “Democratic Lab” association and in this way she wants to support her country in its difficult transition to democracy.

The question of “transitional justice” is what brings many visitors from Arab countries to our archives, with Ms. Hached among them. They are all working now on transforming the injustice of the old regime into a new society. How can they ensure the future of a new social order? They want to learn from us how past injustice is dealt with in Germany.

“How did you manage to ensure that the victims of the dictatorship did not take vengeance on the perpetrators?” For the last 20 years, with the formation of the Stasi Records Agency, we have gained considerable experience with this timely and crucial question posed in Tunisia and other Arab countries. I always reply by saying: “We do not settle accounts with the past; we clarify it by means of using the secret police records.” This is the explanation which satisfies the victims, and in this way it makes it possible to create a comprehensive view of the perpetrators.

To this end, we found a legal solution and created a law which guaranteed transparency of state actions on the one hand and the protection of the personal rights of the victims of the dictatorship on the other. This answer seems to me to be obvious. It is, however, not so convincing at first. In countries where laws for decades obeyed the will of the powerful and not the principle of the rule of law, legal regulations do not seem to be an effective tool used for protection against revenge.

It is real-life practice that convinces the visitors in our archive. I convince them by explaining in detail how the law works and by pointing out that access to the records of the victims is something very personal; that only the people about whom the Stasi secretly collected information are allowed to see it. And that any person who was spied on and mentioned in the files, was then erased from the document, and thereby protected. Our visitors find it convincing.

I further explain to them that we should of course name the people involved in the operations of the secret police. After all, the individual who acted on behalf of the state and for the state, should not be anonymous. The fact that the state interfered with the lives of its citizens should be disclosed by means of the records. The disclosure of such information is strictly regulated and limited to the people concerned and journalists and researchers, as well as public bodies. Our Arab visitors find it impressive.

It consoles them further when I add that even in Germany the leading politicians in 1990 came close to not revealing the records of the secret police of the GDR for fear of mischief and revenge. The actions of the Germans were thoroughly planned and for over 20 years now the access to the Stasi records has been a key way to come to terms with the SED dictatorship.

The fact that we have now become a model for many societies in a rebuilding phase is in a way a side effect. But whenever I guide visitors through the archive, I am particularly aware of the uniqueness of the attempt to set up the Agency.

Reappraisal of the SED dictatorship – the contribution of the Stasi Records Agency

The form of file disclosure developed for the Stasi records has allowed for transparency and clarity, both of which form a fundamental part of the reappraisal process of the SED dictatorship in Germany. Thanks to the courageous East German citizens who saved the Stasi records from destruction, people the world over can now have an insight into the heart of the apparatus of repression and control in a dictatorship. The records are archived and made accessible both in Berlin and in twelve regional offices in the former GDR states. 111 kilometres of shelf files, which stretches to nearly 160 kilometres if filmed documents are included, constitute an impressive monument to the surveillance apparatus.

“...so that [individuals] ...can clarify what influence the State Security Service has had on their personal destiny.” – this is the first and overarching purpose of the records’ disclosure as described in the first paragraphs of the Stasi Records Act (StUG). Until today, providing individuals with an access to the records that the Stasi collected about them remains one of the most extensive tasks of the Stasi Records Agency. The records often include personal items such as letters and photo albums, which can be returned to those spied upon – a rather tangible compensation for the intrusion in their lives.

Since the first citizens were given access to their personal records on 2 January, 1992, the Agency has received over 2.8 million requests to view records and to decrypt code names. Those who exercise their right to view records decide to have a look at their past, a look at their records, which gives them hope for clarification of their own biography. It takes effort. It also means that they have to overcome fear of disappointment. It is not uncommon for them to read in the files that it was a friend who betrayed them, or that a colleague was responsible for a downturn in their career. However, many people also find out that others remained silent, did not say a word, refused to cooperate. That knowledge brings clarity.

The information contained in the files also has material consequences. If it were not for the Stasi records, hardly any former victim of persecution could prove the official reasons for his conviction. Absent the rehabilitation that the Stasi files make possible, previous convictions would still be valid and compensation claims would be groundless. The judicial system in the GDR was always subject to the political interests of the SED. This is well documented in the files. Preservation of the records makes it possible to compensate for the injustice suffered under the dictatorship by means of the law. Creating transparency of the work of the secret police in the past means that people should know today whether any former Stasi-employees or informers hold public office. The Agency has so far responded to 1.7 million requests concerning the vetting of employees of the public sector. A further objective of the Stasi Records Act is to ensure that this clarity is established.

This process is designed is such a way that each public body may make a request to the Stasi Records Agency about a group of people specified in the Act. We then provide, where appropriate, relevant documentation in the event that there are indications of collaboration with the Ministry for State Security. If someone continues to hold an office in spite of indications of collaboration with the Stasi as revealed in the files, then the decision is in the hands of the relevant authorities. The transparency of such decisions and the open discussion about them are desirable goals, though ones which have rarely been achieved so far.

Documentary research conducted by scientists and journalists may also shed some light on the functioning of the Stasi. The Stasi Records Agency has processed 26,000 requests from journalists and scientists in the past 20 years. Such requests often involve a significant part of the records. Copies of thousands of pages are made available every year to researchers. Numerous publications, newspaper articles, television reports, but also documentaries reflect the results of the research.

Due to the fact that the Stasi records clearly document state actions of the party and the secret police, they function as a primary source for the explanation of the functioning of the dictatorship. Using the Stasi records to teach the public about the structure, mode of action and methods used by the secret police is, therefore, another fundamental pillar of our work. It is not only by means of its own research department, but also thanks to exhibitions, events, conferences and scientific publications that the Agency offers services to the public and provides a wide range of opportunities to come to terms with the SED dictatorship.

The dialogue with the younger generation

Almost 25 years after the peaceful revolution of 1989, fewer and fewer people in the reunified Germany have any personal experience with the GDR and what life was like in a divided Germany. They rely on the information provided to them by their parents or grandparents as well as through the media and in the course of education. Studies show substantial deficits in this matter. Young people appear not to be able to imagine the nature of the dictatorship of the SED regime and sometimes cannot see the difference between dictatorship and democracy. Accusations do not help in this regard. It is mainly a matter of providing starting points to make young people interested in these questions and raise public awareness.

If we, as a society, want to motivate and enable young people in the course of their education to create democracy today and in the future, the detailed study of our common past offers a great learning opportunity. This includes a keener understanding of how dictatorships work, even if their operations were not so brutal at first glance. It is crucial to me that young people can understand what dictatorship stands for, especially in the case of the GDR. What it means to wall off the whole nation, to limit the freedom of travel, of speech and of assembly. This includes fathoming the everyday pressures to adapt as well as seemingly trivial decision-making situations. Especially in everyday life, where one was forced to show commitment to the rulers and their ideologies in ostensibly insignificant rituals, there is a key to the functioning of the dictatorship. The very recognition of this adjustment serves as a compass to guide people in the democratic way of life.

Authentic places are particularly useful to provide information about the bygone era. Beginning in 2012, the Stasi Records Agency together with the Civic Association “Anti-Stalinist Action” (Ger. “Antistalinistische Aktion e.V.”, ASTAK) took over the operation of the Stasi Museum in “Building 1”. “Building 1” is the former official residence of the Stasi Minister Erich Mielke at the Stasi site in Berlin-Lichtenberg. “Building 1” is part of an enormous complex which housed the Ministry for State Security for nearly 40 years.

The archive of the Stasi Records Agency also has its own office. At the historic site of the former command centre of the secret police, the educational work of the Stasi Records Agency is continued. A permanent exhibition at the site of criminal masterminds has been organised in collaboration with the ASTAK. In a few years, this will create new job opportunities for young people to work at the authentic site.

The exhibition, the archive and the historic site form a unique ensemble as regards the question of the functioning of the instruments of repression. In addition to the memorial to those persecuted by the Stasi in the former prison in Berlin-Hohenschönhausen there will be another place set up in Berlin-Lichtenberg. Those responsible for the repression will serve here as a starting point for the discussion about the “GDR State Security.” A special library of the Stasi Records Agency will operate here as well. These are steps that have put us on the way to developing a “campus of democracy” right in the centre of dictatorship.

The power of authentic sites offers a unique opportunity to deepen the understanding of these times. So do the witnesses–people who can describe the functioning of the SED dictatorship from their own experience. Here come to mind those who experienced repression in the form of patronising, career manipulation, political persecution or even confinement. These are the real witnesses of life in a dictatorship. However, reflections on the everyday life of a citizen of the GDR who did not act against the regime, also constitute an important source for the study of the dictatorship.

What was it like in the GDR? How did people experience the GDR? What was it like for example, to be a teacher, a police officer or a mechanical engineer in the GDR? It is of the utmost importance to me that these discussions are open and always aim at clarification. The notion of repayment is often discussed in the public debate when the question of a person’s life in the GDR emerges – especially when the person was involved in the state apparatus or worked unofficially for the state security. But it must be made clear that here we are talking about clarification, not about settling accounts with the past. It is only through open discussion that can we actually step by step decrypt 40 years of the SED dictatorship. This is an insightful way to proceed, especially for the next generation and one that we will not be able to pursue in the same way in the future.

A comprehensive evaluation of GDR biographies is essential. It is our common challenge to create the atmosphere for this to happen. The people who have experienced the functioning of the Stasi or had a share in it can tell us about their point of view, which we can then critically analyse by knowing the files. But this calls for an atmosphere of mutual attention, openness and the assumption of individual responsibility for the injustices that were perpetrated.

The Stasi Records Agency in the context of international reappraisal

In addition to the aforementioned visitors from Arab countries who have been coming to our archive of late, the work of the Agency gained attention worldwide right from the outset. The model of the legally regulated file disclosure developed in the GDR and reunited Germany often serves as a guide and important reference point for many societies in a transitional stage from dictatorship to democracy. Irrespective of the place, there is always a discussion on how to deal with the knowledge of those in power, of the former dictators. This information can in most cases be found in the records of the dictatorship-supporting secret police and intelligence services.

The peculiarity of the file disclosure in Germany plays an important role in the discussion about the German model. We are happy to share our experiences, but we are aware of how limited these can be when transferred to other countries. As the GDR State Security was dissolved, its data also became a thing of the past. No newly established institutions file for access to the documents. Our process is unique due to the fact that not only the Stasi, but also the history of the GDR ended in 1990. This happened as a result of the transformation process of the GDR which led to its accession to the 40-year-old well-tested democracy. This looks different in other countries and we learn it every time we get in touch in the archive with a group of people who are in the process of dealing with the consequences of dictatorship. In many discussions our international partners analyse the questions which are evident to us and in this way they give us the possibility to examine our own work in a critical way.

It was completely natural to create a network of institutions dealing with the reappraisal of the secret police of the communist bloc. The creation of the “European Network of Official Authorities in Charge of the Secret Police Files” in December 2008 is a milestone in this collaboration.

Conclusions and future perspectives

20 years after the formation of the Stasi Records Agency, the use of the Stasi records remains an essential avenue for the reappraisal of the SED dictatorship. The demand for the personal access to the records remains significant. The use of the files through research and the media is also on the rise. Clarification has no sell-by date. We see it clearly in the work of the Stasi Records Agency.

Still, we are only in the early stage of understanding why the dictatorship functioned for nearly 40 years. As time goes by from the dissolution of the GDR, new opportunities for the discussion about those times emerge. Although the innerworkings of the Stasi can still be the subject of hot debate, it is also time to tell the real story beyond the Stasi’s involvement.

Why would someone be an employee of the Stasi? What did he do and think of being in its service? The records tell the story only from one point of view, namely that of the secret police. They are an important and priceless treasure. But while it is still possible to do so, people who experienced these events need to be questioned.

So what is the aim of the archive and the reappraisal? In the end, it is not about records, but about people and their fate. It is about comprehending how people behave and what the consequences of such behaviour are. The better we understand dictatorship, the better we can shape democracy.


Roland Jahn. Born 1953. In 1982 he was sentenced to 22 months imprisonment formally for displaying a Polish flag with the forbidden symbol of the non-communist trade union Solidarnosc in the GDR. After an early release from prison Jahn was forcibly extradited to West Germany in June 1983. He moved to West Berlin and began to work as a journalist – bridging the information gap between East and West. Since March 2011 he has worked as Federal Commissioner for the Stasi Records.



This article has been published in the third issue of Remembrance and Solidarity Studies dedicated to the consequences and commemorations of 1989 in Central Europe.

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


Aleksander Kaczorowski

The Autumn of the Nations - 25 years later: Aleksander Kaczorowski

20 August 2014
  • 1989
  • transformation
  • freedom express
  • Central Europe
  • Eastern Europe
  • Autumn of Nations

The drive for freedom of the nations of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union in the years 1989-1991 led to the greatest geopolitical changes since the Second World War. In the area between the Adriatic Sea, the Baltic and the Black Sea the best remedy for the challenges of globalization, structural backwardness of the region and lawlessness was seen in a "return to Europe". However, the EU is experiencing an unprecedented crisis, and on its eastern border a new iron curtain is rising. The specter of post-totalitarianism is again hanging over Eastern Europe.

This term was coined years ago by Václav Havel. The author of The Power of the Powerless (1978) realized that the system prevailing in his country was a completely new socio-political phenomenon, the essence of which was a combination of dictatorship and consumer society. If it was said of the Habsburg monarchy that it maintained four armies: the army of standing soldiers, the army of sitting officials, the army of kneeling priests and the army of crawling informers, the post-totalitarian system also maintains a "fifth column" – the army of consumers, obediently posting propaganda slogans and getting rich in tune with the Slovak proverb, "If you do not rob the government, you rob your family."

In other words, even if on a summer night the Communist Party suddenly disappeared into thin air, and the former communists turned into (social)Democrats; if the Warsaw Pact was disbanded, free elections were organized, and the townhouses, factories and castles were returned to their owners (as it happened in the Czech Republic), it still would not mean a "return to Europe". The key issue was to turn consumers into citizens.

The post-totalitarian system survived wherever the citizens were content with the status of consumers: in the shape of the monarchy of Putin, Lukashenko’s state-owned farming estate, or the post-nomenclature oligarchies of the Ukraine. Their fate was not determined by Huntington’s phantasms, but by the lack of a real perspective for a democratic integration (not only in terms of capital, production or trade) with the West.

The history of post-war Europe has taught us that democratic and post-totalitarian systems can coexist and even do business with each other (propaganda wars serve mainly to disguise the true nature of these trade relations, resembling the relationship between the metropolis and the colonies). In 1975, when the Final Act of the CSCE was signed in the Finnish capital, Germany signed ground-breaking contracts for the supply of Soviet strategic raw materials, and 22 percent of Western European (mainly German and French) production of machines was sold to Eastern Europe. The Poles got a taste of Coca-Cola; in selected stores, for hard currency or so called vouchers, they could buy Western cigarettes, alcohol, jeans and Walkmans (does anyone still remember these Japanese wonders?). Who was bothered by that, you might ask, with the exception of such people like Havel? And how long would it have lasted, were it not for the collapse of the Eastern bloc economies? For these economies, at least the Polish one, generally were not able to sell for hard currency anything except grain, high-grade wood (and coal); just like in the days of farming estates.

"Revolts in Central Europe have something conservative, I would say almost anachronistic in them: they are desperately trying to revive the culture and history of the modern age, because only in this era, only in a world preserving the cultural dimension, Central Europe can still defend its identity and be perceived in line with its true nature,” wrote Milan Kundera in 1984. All the admiration and respect for the Czech-French novelist notwithstanding, we should note that at the same time in Central Europe it became a necessity to "find a different way of functioning in the international division of labor that an even deeper dependence on the Soviet Union"[1]. Gorbatchev provoked communist elites in Poland or in Hungary to support the changes desired by the most active sections of Eastern European societies when it turned out that a necessary condition of internal reforms initiated by him in the USSR was the deepening of economic dependence of the region. At the same time he himself encouraged them to act by ruling out military intervention in the region. He probably imagined that it would be possible to repeat the Prague Spring of 1968, that is a relative democratization (glasnost') and the consolidation of society around the Communist elite, allowing economic reforms to be carried out (perestroika). But it did not happen. For the era of Dubčeks had passed. Gordon Gekko times had begun. (Remember Michael Douglas in Wall Street (1987), shouting: "Greed is good!"? Right).

Perhaps now history is repeating itself. Perhaps the post-totalitarian regime of Putin, trying to preserve its influence in Ukraine, provoked some local oligarchs to support the libertarian and pro-Western aspirations of the most active segments of the Ukrainian society. Time will tell.

On the 25th anniversary of the Autumn of the Nations I turned to eminent political scientists, historians and intellectuals coming from Central and Eastern Europe, or people dealing with the region and its political transformation, for answers to the following questions:

1. What was the Autumn of the Nations in 1989?

2. Why did it occur at the end of the "short century" (1914-1989)?

3. Are there any parallels between that situation and today?

4. Can the events from a quarter-century back be an inspiration for contemporary Europeans?

5. Was the year 1989 the end of geopolitics in our part of the world?

Nine excellent essays bring sometimes radically different answers. Just like in the famous joke from the Soviet era: answering the question of a listener, who asked if you could predict the future, Radio Yerevan said: "Yes, we know the future precisely, with the past it is not so good, because it is constantly changing."

[1] J. Staniszkis, “Polskie dylematy,” Aneks 48/1987.



Aleksander Kaczorowski, editor-in-chief of Aspen Central Europe Review, previously he was deputy editor-in-chief of Newsweek Poland and Forum and chief editor of the Op-ed section of Gazeta Wyborcza. He is the author of a biography of Vaclav Havel.


Article written as 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.

Oana Popescu

The Autumn of Nations: History Comes Back with a Bang: Oana Popescu

20 August 2014
  • 1989
  • transformation
  • freedom express
  • Central Europe
  • Eastern Europe
  • Autumn of Nations

Twenty-five years ago, when the Iron Curtain was falling, it seemed as if the end of history was starting for Central and Eastern Europe.

Countries of the region were abandoning one by one a utopian narrative which had proved a failure in practice. They did not trade it for the journey of uncertainty which always comes with freedom (such as the challenges of creating a national project, staying the course through thick and thin, learning of self-determination and keeping in check both good and evil forces unchained when there are no external restrictions). Instead, they set off on one very clear path to another 'perfect world': EU membership. It was a homecoming for all of them, a reintegration with the Western fatherland, from which they had been separated not so much by fractured identity, but by temporary, political circumstances.

The choice had been made on both sides. Both geographically, geopolitically and in terms of values and aspirations, there seemed to be a clear and single alternative. The EU wanted to be whole and stronger. Eastern Europe wanted forever out of Russia's sphere of influence and sought to regain and reassert its European identity and to be firmly anchored into a space of prosperity, democracy and security. The roadmap was charted, handed down and candidate countries were taken by the hand and guided all along the way. Fledgling, weakened and slow to recover from the collapse of the USSR, Russia barely put up any resistence.

Communism collapsed in Central and Eastern Europe when it had started to generate extreme poverty for most of the population. Oppression, bad as it may be, is not enough in itself to generate a counter-reaction, despite the fact that yearning for human rights and liberties is indeed a universal aspiration. As long as they find an excuse for themselves, inaction and obedience to power are often just as universal. When it gets so bad though that merely surviving becomes a challenge, people have very little to lose when opportunity arises for rebellion.

Also, communism collapsed when it had become so corrupt and absurd a system of economic and social organisation that it had bred a whole alternative underground system, undermining the official one. From samizdat books, to "creative"methods of procuring food and other basic commodities; from the 'newspeak' in the street and at the work place, to political jokes at home; from fabricated numbers in production reports, to the free exchange of products that was taking place among factories in order to meet the targets set by the central planners in the shortage economy. This other system had already accustomed people to organising themselves differently and was unveiling the failures of official dictates, the hypocrisy and inhumanity of official order. At the same time, this complex underground network had its elites already: some originating in the ruling class - challengers from within, former or current apparatchiks who had either been sidelined or were aspiring to higher positions within the state nomenclature and were ready and able to take the reins of the state; others, dissidents who became intellectual and moral leaders of the anticommunist movements.

Last but not least, communism collapsed when enough of outside (read: Western, free society, free market) world had poured in through the cracks to present a concrete alternative in all of its alluring and tempting details. Part of it was a sustained deliberate effort by the US and Europe, through the likes of Radio Free Europe and other sources of information to penetrate the Iron Curtain. The rest was - to give just one example - the work of fugitives who were sending home video tapes and recorders, pop/rock music, magazines and forbidden books and newspapers, or even coffee and chocolate and what not. And then there were also the unintended consequences of globalisation and technological progress worldwide, that couldn't be stopped at the borders of the CMEA/Warsaw Pact, despite Soviet copying of Western innovation and efforts by countries like Ceausescu's Romania to be self-sufficient.

The almost simultaneous revolutionary movements in CEE are not the result of the interconnectedness of the region. Historical evidence shows that resistence in all of these countries was only loosely, if at all, coordinated. But the system in each individual country, as well as the ideological and authority base in the USSR was so critically ill that it behaved like an elderly patient whose general state of health was much better than the sum of his illnesses would have normally allowed. Yet when one acute disease upset this fragile balance, things just went downhill in an accelerated way - and neither antibodies, nor any treatment could stop the decay.

When it finally collapsed, the neighbouring EU was readily there to offer the alternative and to help a politically and economically inexperienced Central-Eastern Europe to effect massive structural change in record time - build rule of law, a free market and democratic society. It seemed they had reached the blissful end of the road.

If history works in cycles, then developments in this part of the world seem to confirm such view. The end of the last century brought down the final curtain on the Cold War bipolar system. The beginning of the current one seemed to engender a new and final order - in 2004, most of the former communist countries joined the EU and in 2007, Romania and Bulgaria followed suit. For lack of a better word, it was probably best called uni-multipolar. It meant that the United States was still the unequalled hegemonic power, but that it was not able to order the world all by itself, since it was facing opposition from multiple emerging centres of power, not least of which non-state actors such as al-Qaeda, which was quick to prove its relevance as early as September 11, 2001.

Yet this new world order soon revealed continuity with the old one and demonstrated that clean breaks with the past were seldom seen in the course of human progress. Eastern Europe found itself once again caught between a resurgent Russia and the Western eastward push. After Yeltsin's policies signed and sealed the breakup of the former USSR and almost bankrupted Russia, the new 'tsar' Putin embarked on a dramatic crackdown on civil liberties, but recentralised power, annihilated internal opposition, consolidated the cashflow, raised European gas dependency on Gazprom to the level of strategic foreign policy lever and set forth to regain control over Novorossiya - a concept from the tsarist era, covering the area north of the Black Sea, which Catherine the Great controlled in the 18th century. It expands over the part of Ukraine bordering Moldova to the West and up to Donetsk and Odessa to the East.

So much for the end of history. When pro-Russians and Russian special forces (as Putin subsequently admitted) annexed Crimea and caused turmoil in Eastern Ukraine, fears even among EU and NATO-members in the Baltics were of conventional tanks invasion, not of cyber war or terrorism. Poland requested an increase of NATO military presence on its territory as additional security guarantees, as London, Paris and Berlin were being accused of dragging their feet in their response to Moscow aggressiveness because of vested economic interests. While CEE states were congratulating themselves on the timely choice of joining NATO and the EU and thus having now a security umbrella, it also became clear to them that a war waged with masked men without acknowledged appurtnence to a particular state, a war which simply exploits Huntingtonian fault lines in the region to stir latent ethnic conflicts and destabilise internally was hard to identify, localise and isolate, let alone fight.

The former communist states of CEE in fact found themselves again as a buffer zone between Russia and the EU/NATO - exactly the situation they had forever been trying to escape when they joined the Alliance. The region had always been defined by security, because of its geopolitical position, more than by economy or social system, political institutions etc. With a long tradition of being squeezed between two powerful blocs and finding themselves at the crossroads of every possible great power interests, what these states fear most is a new landing in a grey area of tension, clashing agendas and uncertain commitment by those great powers. When they so desperately strove to join the West, they did so in order to be unequivocally anchored to the Euro-Atlantic space of security, prosperity and mutual support in every way.

This unity started being challenged when crisis-struck Eurozone decided on further integration and consolidation at the expense of non-Eurozone members, who were left to face the dire consequences of austerity and had very little to say in defining the new financial framework of the Union. Emerging divisions continued to show in the Vilnius failure of the Eastern Partnership, which these countries felt they had direct interest in pushing forward. The American pivot away from the region only reinforced this perception of becoming 'the periphery' once again, with an unstable and threatening vicinity and deprived of the long-awaited seat at the decision-making table.

Given the slow and ineffective response to Russian annexation of Crimea, Eastern European claims about a new Yalta-type pact have multiplied. Albeit not explicitly and without a 'napkin', the de facto division of the continent in spheres of influence seems an easily visible fait accompli. NATO and the EU have so far made it clear that they are not willing to challenge Russian dominance over the former Soviet space in any decisive way that would reverse the tide, despite the aggressiveness of Moscow's methods, the contempt it shows for international law and the attacks on the sovereign state of Ukraine, Europe's second largest after Russia and one which has repeatedly been declared of strategic importance for NATO and the EU. Instead, secretary of state John Kerry was adamant, at a press conference following the Geneva talks on settlement of Eastern Ukraine conflict, to reiterate that the government in Kiev was willing to go to great lengths to ensure representation and protection of the Russian minority, thus playing into Putin's narrative that the latter was indeed facing discrimination (despite all evidence shown in independent reports).

At the very least and if it stops here, Russia has again succeeded in being accepted to a format of negotiations where, if we are to judge by previous experience with the 5+2 talks on Transnistria, it can liberally exercise its long-practised ability to interpret and bend agreements and treaties as best serves its interests in order to block any resolution. Putin's strategy seems to be to escalate events to such a high point of tension that America and Europe would be forced to use every diplomatic effort to scale down the conflict, while refraining from using too much hard force (military or economic) which might throw things in an out of control spiral of violence.

Very likely, the Russian goal is to control its region without taking full responsibility for it (through Crimea-style annexations), but rather by creating enough trouble and instability to i) hamper the proper exercise of sovereign state authority in these countries (see the experience of the Republic of Moldova with separatist Transnistria), ii) determine to a considerable extent the form and composition of government (increased federalism/autonomy in Ukraine), iii) be able to use economic blackmail to call political shots (see the years of manipulation of Ukraine through gas prices) and at the same time iv) be the inevitable partner of negotiations (i.e. of the West/NATO/EU) for any major decision in the region.

On his side, US president Obama may be betting on a long term strategy and choosing to lose the battle but win the war. Russia is poised for the same kind of structural problems that triggered the collapse of the USSR - it was recently called a "gas station, not a country", because of its exclusive reliance on gas exports, while its unrestructured economy is heading for a downfall, gas prices are being increasingly balanced out by US shale gas, LNG etc, its industrial and even military base is growing ever more outdated and it is facing a huge demographic problem, with an aging population, while also having to keep in check nationalist movements all over its territory. After an unsuccessful reset attempt and with a view to the global issues currently facing the US, Washington may have chosen to look at the big picture, rather than its component parts and let time work its magic on Russia. Unfortunately though, Moscow seems to thrive on frozen conflicts and is able to fuel them for a long time. This leaves the whole region out in the cold and a prisoner to this situation.

For Central and Eastern Europe, this marks the end of an era of illusions of the found shore, as it sinks back into stormy waters. It does not have a fully prepared strategy to deal with this new context and neither do its transatlantic partners. Meanwhile, for the 'periphery of the periphery', where Ukraine, the Republic of Moldova, Georgia & Co. lie, any resemblance with events 25 years ago has mostly stopped at the outer limits of the Euromaidan.

Having gone through an Orange Revolution already, most Ukrainians were not entertaining high hopes for radical regime change. Some might have, in an intensely polarised society, where part of society feels strong ties with the EU, with Poland etc. But many of the rest are either partial to Russia or firmly nationalistic - not necessarily in the radical sense showcased by Russian propaganda, but in the way a people who has only recently re-formed as a nation would naturally be expected to feel.

This is not the first breath of the fresh air of democracy that these countries are taking in. In Ukraine, Yushchenko offered the first flouted opportunity, with its learnt lessons of how good things can go wrong. Georgia is struggling with Saakashvili's positive legacy of strong anti-corruption crackdown, good investment climate, but also the scars of war with Russia not so long ago. The memory of NATO shunning them at the Bucharest summit must still be fresh with both. A new pushback in Vilnius set free internal discontent, but also spelled it loud and clear that the EU was not seeing any of the former Soviet states as such an integral part of Europe as was the case with CEE states 25 years ago. Even the partly-Latin Republic of Moldova is getting ready to vote out its Alliance for Europrean Integration government because of the disillusionment caused by sky-high levels of corruption and to bring in the communists again.

Left to themselves, deprived of the close guidance of the EU (see the obvious lack of clarity and commitment in the Eastern Partnership) and facing challenges countless times greater than those their Western neighbours faced in their time, this ex-Soviet outer circle seems clearly cast in the role of an outlier and a buffer zone, an eternally unresolved mix between East and West. In the absence of a clear path to take, there's always the option of not taking any!

None of these countries had the clarity and certainty of the 'where to' option which was instrumental in the quick and sustainable West-bound advance of CEE. Declarative support was never matched by determined practical steps suited to their individual situation (differences among countries being more marked than among CEE ones) and sufficient resources (given the dire circumstances of their economies and their lack of integration with the EU free market). Most importantly, EU and NATO never offered a solution for how to deal with the utmost challenge: the active, even aggressive push of Russian influence! Russia is no longer ailing and impotent, but exercises every effective method of reestablishing domination over the region. While the EU uses soft power (half-heartedly!), Russia responds with resolute hard power tools.

The effort is minimal, compared to the one it would have had to make in Europe's east two decades ago - it has strong minorities in all of these countries, which are in fact a majority in some provinces, it has frozen conflicts, it has troops stationed on their territory, it completely controls the economy, it has the benefit of a long tradition of Russification, it provides people with the attraction of jobs in Russia.

Moreover, these countries are internally fractured - between the forces of change and those resisting it, between Europe and Russia, between competing identities and languages spoken, between the model of the patriarchal state and that of the democratic, free market state. Hence their ruling elites and those challenging the incumbents are always only representative for a part of the population. They are riddled with corruption, whose terrible impact they see before they can identify any benefit in setting up long-term policies and a legal framework that can help do away with it - over time.

The coctail of Western democracy promotion through civil society and other, of tremendous access to global goods, trends, realities, images of freedom and prosperity, combined with poverty and corruption and lack of perspective at home, plus rising nationalism makes for a perfect revolutionary mix. Except that, with a weak state and in the context of a reserved, coldly polite reception by the West, lack of regional solutions and the Russian war machine standing ready at the borders, this revolutionary energy risks being wasted in infighting and state-ransacking for personal or 'gang' gain - or ultimately, Yugoslav-style dissolution.

Twenty-five years ago, it was the nature of the communist system and of oppressive undemocratic regimes that drove the forces of change out of underground resistence and into active political life. Today, it is the lack of perspective, combined with the untenable situation of endemic corruption + falling human rights and democratic standards + economic bankruptcy that causes people in the ex-Soviet states to take to the streets and demand radical change. As the Arab Spring has shown it most tellingly though, it is never enough to just ask for change of status quo and be a militant for principles, as long as you cannot implement them and put something in the place of the old order - and as long as there are no leaders with enough legitimacy and ability to bridge past and present to chart the path and effect the transition. To keep it going in the long run, as the Eastern Europe recipe of success seems to demonstrate, external support is necessary in providing the guidelines, the targets and the support to achieve them when the (democratic) movement loses momentum. At a minimum, especially in the case of deeply divided societies, the lack of trend-reversing external pressure is required.

The EU and NATO have presented Ukraine and its neighbours with an alternative, they have passively held it in front of their eyes, but have not actively offered, extended the offer with both hands (and wallet!). To be fair, there are legitimate reasons behind this - EU soul-searching following the crisis, US fear of overstretch and hence focus on the Pacific, post-Afghanistan etc. The US is not even all that uncomfortable with a temporary and partial return to the Cold War system - which it knows so well, unlike the unpredictable variable geometry which the global system has presented lately. It thus hands over to Russia influence over a part of Eastern Europe, but also a larger share of responsibility for whatever happens in the Middle East (i.e. Syria), while it keeps its doors open for dialogue regarding more vital stuff such as Iran, China etc. In the long run, it sets the ground for Russia losing on its own 'service' - to use a term from tennis. It will hopefully (according to the EU) stretch itself thin and, unawares, find the earth slipping from beneath its feet as the global energy flows change and its gas-driven economy and power go bust.

Meanwhile though, this spells trouble for Central and Eastern Europe - and the EU as a whole - and sacrifices the ex-Soviet republics altogether. Hopefully, the military planners in NATO and the political and economic planners in the EU have a full strategy ready to deal with the fallout, both in terms of influence, internal and external credibility and prestige and in terms of new geopolitical situation. And the Central-European member states find ways to keep the Americans engaged (TTIP? military bases? missile defense?), to keep the Europeans to their word and the Russians at bay, while rescuing whatever can be rescued from the decades of Western influence in the buffer zone between the Black Sea, the borders of the EU and those of Russia.


Oana Popescu is Director of Global Focus Center, Editor-at-large of Foreign Policy Romania and a contributor to Stratfor.

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.

Vladislav L. Inozemtsev

The Autumn of Nations – 25 years later: Vladislav L. Inozemtsev

20 August 2014
  • 1989
  • transformation
  • freedom express
  • Central Europe
  • Eastern Europe
  • Autumn of Nations

What was 'Autumn of Nations' 1989 about and how should the events of that time be understood?

The events that unfolded from August to December 1989 affected almost every country of the Soviet bloc in Europe – Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Bulgaria and Romania – and became the most powerful revolutionary upheaval in Europe since the collapse of monarchies in Germany and Austria-Hungary back in 1918. They brought the bloc confrontation on the European continent to an end, facilitated demise of the communist ideology and contributed greatly to the final collapse of the Soviet Union.

The success of these movements was determined by a widespread rejection of totalitarian communist ideology by a vast majority of the citizens of Central European countries, as well as by the feeling this ideology was imposed from outside by Soviet nomenklatura.

This rejection, as it was expressed by the time, resulted in two kind of popular demands. On the one hand, the masses demanded freedom – freedom from the continuous dictate of the Communist ideologues and economic bureaucracy; they asked for the opening of borders, for the access to information and for freedom of expression, for their rights to be engaged into private bussinesses. This demand for freedom was by far the strongest, but at the same time it was relatively “abstract” – one may say that the majority of Central European nations were not liberal political regimes in the 1920s or 1930s (perhaps Czechoslovakia was the only exception), therefore I would not mention a desire to return to the days of political freedom. Rather one may speak about the will of the people to build their lives according to principles that were established in all developed countries during the second half of the 20th century, but were neglected and rejected in Communist ones. For these nations liberal democracy was a historical novelty – and it’s difficult to say how successful the way to it might have been without another crucial circumstance.

On the other hand, the intellectual elite supported “return to Europe” which looked much more reasonable and tangible since all the countries of the Communist bloc before the end of the 1940s were part of the European civilization, whose unity was broken up with the beginning of the Cold War. The drive towards the return to Europe was less audible than the demand for freedom and liberty (except for the East Germany, where it took the form of reunification of the divided German nation), but it provided the necessary practical and achievable goal for the reform movement while calls for democracy remained rather ideological. Moreover, given the presence in Western Europe of such a powerful integration association as the EEC and of the strong military alliance like NATO it could be assumed that the “European drive” was able to provide the revolutionary movement with guidelines and/or organizational frameworks, so necessary for its further successes.

Thus, assessing the events of 1989 in Central Europe, I would call them democratic revolutions exceptionally well superposed with a civilizational consolidation; adoption of new values at the time of revitalization of old identities. It is the combination of these elements that determined, in my opinion, the final success of “post-Communist transition”.

Why had it place at the twilight of "short century" (1914-89)?

I believe the concept of the “short 20th century” is an ideological construct that does not carry a significant meaning. One who talks about whether all these events happened “in the twilight” of the 20th century or “at the dawn of the 21st century” engages in the intellectual speculation and nothing more. The shock of 1989 was prepared by both the entire logic of the development of the Soviet system that became less and less competitive on the world scale, and the rise of globalization, which the Soviet bloc had tried to resist. These events could happen ten years earlier or twenty years later – but I do not see any need to tie them to the “beginning” or the “end” of some “century”. The “short 20th century” is merely a name for a period marked by world’s division into two opposing military-ideological blocs, and it passed when such a confrontation completely outlived itself.

Are there any analogies between past and present situation?

Of course, the similarities look very significant – but the differences are not less drastic.

The biggest similarities arise from the very fact that in recent years the ex-Soviet peoples which after the dissolution of the Soviet Union did not fall into the sphere of immediate European influence, became disappointed by the way of their current development. Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova haven’t achieved significant economic progress in recent decades – the living standards in these countries today are several times lower than in Poland or Czech Republic, while there was almost no difference between them in the late 1980s. Politically all these countries are either authoritarian dictatorships (like Belarus) or kleptocratic regimes (such as Ukraine), or even mired in internal conflicts (Moldova). Political oppression and alienation of the state apparatus, economic distress and rampant corruption – all this pushes the citizens of Eastern European countries to call for change as quarter-century before it moved the inhabitants of the Central Europe. The protesters in post-Soviet states use these days the same methods of nonviolent resistance that were used by Poles or Czechs in the late 1980s even while they realize that even non-violent protest may cause a sharp – and tough – reaction from authoritarian governments.

However, between events of 1989 and 2014 there are more differences than similarities. First, today Eastern European countries are still trying to “step into the same river for the second time”. Poland in 1989 stood on the verge of a “shock therapy” which was supposed to move (and actually moved) the nation from a Communist planned economy to a market one. In 1990-1992, all post-Soviet states went along the same way – but they encountered a long period of economic demise instead of a quick recovery. Today Ukraine possesses a per capita GDP that is three times smaller than Poland’s, and Moldova remains the poorest nation in Europe. To repeat the events of the 1990s and once again undergo the “shock therapy” (and just this is today proposed for Ukraine by Western financial institutions), may become too painful even for the freedom-loving nations. Therefore the desire for change in this new environment may well be balanced by skepticism, completely absent in 1989 in all of the Central Europe, but accumulated during the 1990s.

Secondly, the feeling of Europeanness, which largely instigated the recent developments in Ukraine, nevertheless remains today much more abstract in Eastern European countries than it seemed previously for the peoples of Central Europe. Residents of these countries never experienced a life in Europe as in a common civilization; on the contrary, the European lifestyle in Russia for centuries was a privilege of the elites that most of the population didn’t seek to emulate. Imperial and then Soviet legacy spawned nostalgia for special and unique path rejecting the idea of any inclusion into Europe. Moreover, a long history of incorporation into one Union (the Soviet one) provokes a wide distrust of any other unions (of the European as well).

Therefore, one should not succumb to the illusion that the Ukrainians, Belarussians and even Moldovans one and all seek to join Europe; I believe that all new transforming countries lack that pro-European consensus that well existed in Poland, Romania and the Baltic countries at the turn of the 1980s and 1990s.

Thirdly, a certain “Euroscepsis” that exists inside the transforming countries is reinforced by a much greater skepticism with which all these countries are treated by the EU. Fifteen years have passed between the revolutions of 1989 and Central European countries’ accession to the European Union, and till now there is no great enthusiasm in Western Europe about their membership – therefore it’s not surprising that today Poland is more pro-European power than many of the “old” EU countries. Europe is not ready for a new wave of enlargement, and looks on potential new members more as on freeriders rather than on equal partners. This unfortunate and, most likely, deeply flawed, vision is firmly rooted in the minds of many European leaders and these days seriously prevents them from rising to the understanding and fulfillment of their contemporary historic mission.

Fourth, – and finally – a completely different power may be seen these days to the East of the European Union that was in place there 25 years ago. Instead of a changing and democratizing Soviet Union stays now inert and conservative Russia; in place of Mikhail Gorbachev, a devoted “Westerner” and supporter of “universal values”, we have now Vladimir Putin, an authoritarian ruler and admirer of the “civilizational” theory; rather than a complex but declining power, losing the Cold War to the West one may see a new nation-state fueled by nationalistic ideology that feels itself at the apex of an unexpectedly aquired might. Reformist and relatively poor Soviet Union is replaced by a revanchist and quite rich Russia, which may do quite a lot to restore its former greatness that is seen by the majority of the population as the successful fight against the West for Russia’s territorial zone of influence and as restoration of “traditional” Russian or/and Ortodox values.

All these circumstances make the outcome of the current drama far from being evident. Much more “conditional” Europeanness of angry people in the streets of Eastern European; the complicated position of the European Union itself, not to mention the conservative and openly aggressive position of Russia may prevent new revolutions in the region.

Do events of 25 years ago can be an inspiration for contemporary Europeans?

Yes, of course they can – and in fact, would have to be, but this still has not occurred. The year 1989 was in many ways a turning point for Europe – accepting new countries, the European Community (and later the EU) made a claim for global leadership. Not accidentally the second half of the 1990s and early 2000s became a time of the European “renaissance”, with several rounds of EU enlargement, the introduction of the Euro and with a strong economic growth in peripheral European countries. Europe begun to turn from the “ever closer union” of nation-states into a genuine civilizational community – and this, in my opinion, was a much greater result of the revolutions of 1989, than the democratization of former Soviet satellites. Taking this into account I would argue that the main idea, which Europeans must now accept, is the idea that the European civilization has no conventional political borders. Europe should encounter Putin’s doctrine of “the Russian World” stretching from Astana to the Dnieper by the project of “European space” from Porto to Vladivostok; it must use the seducing power of Western cosmopolitanism against the old doctrine of nationalism now reviving in Russia. The weakness of Putinism lies in the very fact that a European may not be a Russian, but any Russian always remains a European – and therefore the “European project” is by itself much more universal than any “Russian project” may become – and, consequently, is much more promising as well. This attractiveness and competitiveness of the European project has been proven by the events of 1989 and since then has not been refuted. The main lesson of those times for Europe, in my opinion, should become its self-confidence and its commitment to Europe’s global mission – which is even more important since Russia of 2014 is more weak and vulnerable – both politically and economically – than the USSR of 1989 once was.

Was 1989 the end of geopolitics in this part of the world?

No, it was not. This idea was born immediately after the democratic revolutions – primarily because for the first time in modern history the spheres of influence were redefined peacefully and not as a result of serious military confrontation. That, I believe, has given rise to the “End of history” thesis, and consequently, to the idea of the “end of geopolitics”. Meanwhile, it was a misleading impression from its outset. Disappearance of two relatively equal – both by their power and by their logic of acion – geopolitical blocks led to a fundamental divergence in political doctrines dominant in Western Europe, and in Russia and its satellites, which became easily noticeable from the beginning of the 1990s.

If the politics of all countries in Europe in the second half of the 20th century was a kind of a modern politics, after the revolutions of 1989 the paths of individual countries diverged. The European Union was established in 1992 which became, as Robert Cooper rightly observes, a post-modern polity. It doesn’t seek military expansion; its members are pooling their sovereignty in order to strengthen supranational institutions; the populist policies give way to a technocratic rule. But in the same 1992 violent conflicts erupted in as the former Soviet Union and in other parts of the post-communist world – from Tajikistan and Nagorno-Karabakh through Chechnya and Abkhazia to Transdniestria and Bosnia. Very soon a post-modern world was opposed by a pre-modern one, where the main identity was determined not by a sense of belonging to a certain civil (or politicial) nation, but by a person’s religious or ethnic affiliation. In the Balkans, for almost ten years some “ethnically clean” states were extensively built, and now Putin annexes the territory of Ukraine arguing about defending the rights of not only the citizens of Russian Federation, but of “Russians” and even of the “Russian-speakers”. In my opinion, it's not just return of geopolitics – it’s an appeal to pre-Westphalian order when religious and tribal origins have remained an important “argument” for justification of certain political claims.

The revolutions of 1989 led to a profound change in European political selfconsciousness. A light coating of “modernity”, which seemed to be evenly distributed from the Atlantic to the Urals, condensed, like mercury uses to do, in the Western part of the continent just in a couple of years – and it condensed there to an extent that gave rise to successive postmodern experiments. But at the same time the politics in the Eastern part of Europe became radically archaic, creating the desire of national leaders to appeal to the ideologies and doctrines, to meanings and concepts of the 19th and preceding centuries.

The “Iron curtain” elevated after the World War II “from Stettin to Trieste”, in fact separated two parts of the modern world – and therefore it provoked the Cold War, which does not necessarily need to develop into a real military conflict because of the rationality of both parties. A “Paper curtain” now dividing Western and Eastern Europe, separates a post-modern world from a pre-modern one, and signals not so much a “return of history” but rather an emergence of a completely new geopolitical situation. Most likely, in the future we will not see a repetition of the Cold War, but rather some reminisences of the 19th century world, divided into the “territory of law and order” in Euro-Atlantic and into the “territory of chaos” around the global periphery. The claims Russia makes now in the North Caucasus and in Crimea, in Transdniestria and in the Eastern Ukraine are not the claims for territorial expansion, but rather the claim to ensure that international law should never apply to the “Russian world” and to guarantee that no one would prevent Russia from if not conquering then from archaizing them. It is by no mean a coinsidence that the Kremlin elite proclaims the ideology of Eurasianism – a concept directly pointing on the “Asianization” of Russia’s politics and of attributing to it a completely new character defined by its civilizational, ethnic and even tribal roots alien to the modern world. The struggle between the post-modern and the pre-modern worlds is a brand new feature of global politics. This confrontation has never occurred in previous history. Modern world easily and severely defeated pre-modern one many times and in different spaces – but the post-modern never encountered such a challenge. Today no one may say what would be the outcome of this new confrontation – but should we hope that Europe will consolidate its forces to resist the upheaval of an archaic order fundamentally and firmly. Because otherwise this new wave of reactionism may bury the whole European project.




Vladislav L. Inozemtsev, the Director at the Centre for Post-Industrial Studies in Moscow, Presidium Member at Russian International Affairs Council and Council for Foreign and Defense Policy, Visiting Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, DC.

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.

Brendan Peter Simms

The Autumn of Nations – 25 years later: Brendan Peter Simms

20 August 2014
  • 1989
  • transformation
  • freedom express

What was the ‘Autumn of Nations’ in 1989 about and how are the events of that time to be understood?

In 1848, much of Europe erupted in revolt against the old order. From Paris in the west to Posen in the east, from Schleswig-Holstein in the north to Italy in the south, liberals took power hoping to inaugurate a ‘springtime of the peoples’, in which national and political aspirations of all the European peoples could be reconciled. Their immediate target was the conservative Habsburg Empire which – in a later parlance – was believed to be a ‘dungeon of peoples’. The main enemy, however, was Russia, which had been the bête noire of European liberals for the past decades, partly on account of its repression of the Poles, and partly because of its status as the reactionary lender of last resort in the European system. By 1849, however, liberal hopes had been dashed, as the old regimes proved far more resilient than expected, and far from the revolutionary side showing international solidarity, it was Russia which ultimately intervened to crush the Hungarian Revolution, while the national aims of the liberal revolutionaries proved incompatible in places like Posen and Prague.

The autumn of the peoples in 1989, by contrast, was a truly collective effort. Starting with the breakthrough of the Polish Solidarity movement and the opening of the border between Austria and Hungary that summer, the populations of Germany, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and ultimately Romania rose against their respective communist dictatorships. There were, to be sure, some signs that the collapse of communist fraternalism would summon back old nationalist ghosts – for example, the riots between Hungarians and Romanians in Transylvania in March 1990. It was only the former Yugoslavia, however, that disintegrated into ethnic bloodshed as extremists manipulated by Belgrade pursued the dream of a ‘Greater Serbia’. In central and much of eastern Europe, the ‘autumn of the nations’ saw a revival of national pride in the countries emerging from Russian tutelage, but in general the vacuum was filled by the twin transnational integrative projects of NATO and the European Union, which spread ever further eastwards in the two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall. This seemingly irresistible process was not intended to threaten Russia, and did not really do so, but was rather designed to reduce the tensions between the new member states, to spread stability, and also to ‘hedge’ against the inevitable revival of Russian activisim.

Why did it take place at the twilight of the short twentieth century 1914-1989?

Historians like to talk of long and short centuries. Some speak, for example, of a ‘short’ eighteenth century between the treaty of Utrecht in 1713 and the French Revolution in 1789, and of a ‘long’ nineteenth century between 1789 and 1914. The idea of a ‘short’ twentieth century was first mooted by the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, and it hinges on the idea that the start of the first world war and the collapse of the Soviet Empire, culminating in the disintegration of the USSR itself in 1991, are its terminal points. Why it happened at exactly that point is surely the result of both structural and contingent factors. The Soviet Union had been slowly worn down in the 1980s by the Reaganite arms race, the sense of technological inferiority, the debilitating war against the Mujahedin in Afghanistan, the costs of empire more generally in Europe and elsewhere, and an oil price deliberately depressed by Saudi Arabia. This enabled the rise of a reforming Soviet General leader such as Mikhail Gorbachev, but it was the determination of civil society groups in eastern Europe to take advantage of these conjunctures, often showing considerable physical courage in the process, which proved decisive. This revolt reflected a profound disenchantment with the Marxist political project, which had failed across eastern Europe, as the laboratory conditions of divided Germany demonstrated beyond all doubt. It took advantage of the small window that opened for civil society groups under the Helsinki Accords in the mid-1970s, in order to hold the Soviet and allied regimes to Human Rights promises that they themselves had signed up to. It also followed a discovery of past models, such as the Habsburg Empire, whose ability to reconcile the peoples of central Europe, was recognised and somewhat transfigured in Mitteleuropa enthusiasm of the 1980s, which emanated as much if not more so from Budapest and Prague as the German lands.

Can the events of 25 years ago be an inspiration for contemporary Europeans?

The events of 1989 should inspire Europeans, today more than ever. They show that we should not take our current freedoms for granted: that the lifting of the threat of nuclear war and Soviet aggression and the spread of democracy was made possible by a robust policy of deterrence in the west and the bravery of protestors in the east. Over the past few months, the courage of the Ukrainian ‘Maidan’ crowds has demonstrated that democratic aspirations are equally strong on the eastern periphery of our continent, where men and women have done something that our jaded age had not thought possible: they have died ‘ for Europe’, to keep open the possibility to join the European Union. Brussels should seize this opportunity to declare the Maidan a European ‘lieu de memoire’, and it could do worse than to name one of its many buildings after a martyred protester.

Are there any analogies between the past and present?

The analogies between the Maidan protestors and the civil society groups who finally overthrow communism in eastern Europe are very clear. In both cases, men and women have risked everything to articulate not so much economic desires, though these are keenly felt, as a yearning for basic human dignity. The demonstrators in Kiev were rejecting outside interference, endemic corruption and political repression. Then as now, Russia (then Soviet) power menaces the freedoms of Europeans and even the sanctity of borders. If the Red Army kept Eastern Europe firmly in check after 1945, intervening openly in Germany in 1953, in Hungary in 1956, and in Czechoslovakia in 1968, today it is the Russian forces of Mr Putin which have occupied and annexed Crimea, and stand ready to strike on the eastern borders of Ukraine. Sadly, the analogy breaks down when one looks at the western response. In 1989-1991 Europe was fortunate in having a visionary German chancellor, Helmut Kohl, and a far-sighted US President George Bush, senior. They steered the continent through the collapse of the Warsaw pact, German unification and the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Today, it is very different. To be sure, figures as Samantha Power, the US representative at the UN and Secretary of State John Kerry have challenged Russia directly over Crimea. There is no sign, however, that President Obama himself is able to rise to the challenge or even to understand it. He signalled in a speech in Brussels shortly after the annexation that there was no strategic reason to engage over the Ukraine only a sentimental one related to the dead of the world wars. The President has in fact consistently sought to accommodate rather than contain Russia, starting with his famous ‘reset’ at the start of his first term and continuing with the attempts to employ Russian leverage in Syria and over the Iranian nuclear programme. He suddenly dropped the plan for a common missile defence, embarrassing the eastern European governments who had supported it. Above all, Mr Obama is driven by the desire to ‘pivot’ to the east, to balance the rise of Chinese power, and has thus taken his eye off the European ball.

Accentuating the problems posed by the American withdrawal is the lack of a visionary German leadership. Already embattled on the common currency front, Berlin has shown no desire to step to its responsibilities over Ukraine as the most powerful Eurozone state with the potential to lead Europe, or even to pull its weight. The government remains heavily invested in Foreign Minister Franz-Walter Steinmeier’s failed policy of engagement with Russia. It may be that Chancellor Merkel is slowly and quietly turning that particular supertanker around, but no real change of course is visible yet to the naked eye.

In fairness, it must be added that there are several significant differences between the two situations. 1989-1991 was about managing the end of the Soviet Empire, 2014 is about its recreation, at least in part. Then, communism no longer had anything to offer Europe, and it was also in global retreat. Today, Mr Putin’s brand of authoritarianism has many admirers across the world, as governments and elites experiment with various forms of partial modernisation. Moreover, the Russian juggernaut of 2014 is not the demoralised Red Army of 1989, which had seen a steady erosion of its combat capability and morale during the long slog in Afghanistan throughout the 1980s. It has been the recipient of substantial investment over the past years, and has learned from the invasion of Georgia in 2008. The western militaries, by contrast, had fully recovered from the Vietnam and other costly extra-European struggles by the end of the 1980s, whereas they have not even fully disengaged from the last war (on terror) today. If western leaders sound a deeply uncertain note in their response to Mr Putin, this reflects domestic views. That said, it should be the task of those leaders to make opinion rather than simply follow it, even if an activist policy post-war on terror remains a very ‘hard sell’.

Was 1989 the end of geopolitics in this part of the world?

It was widely hoped that the end of the cold war would bring with it the ‘end of history’, after which there could no longer be any fundamental ideological disputes in Europe, or at least a lasting ‘peace dividend’ as the large military establishments west and east were reduced. This expectation was soon belied by events, however, as Yugoslavia collapsed and the continent was confronted with the revival of an extreme nationalist ideology believed dead since 1945 and saw the resulting mass murder and deportations nightly on its television screens. The slow response of ‘Europe’ to the outbreak of violence owed much to the persistence of traditional geopolitical thinking, in particular British and French fears of the revival of German power after re-unification. When the west, led by the United States, finally intervened in Bosnia in 1995, and again in Kosovo in 1999, it motivated as much by strategic considerations about the need to uphold European stability as it was by purely humanitarian motivations, though the two strands were complementary.

Nor did the collapse of the Soviet Union end the Russian preoccupation with old-style geopolitics. The Kremlin spent the 1990s and the early 2000s fretting about the steady eastwards advance of NATO, and more recently of the EU as well. It frequently issued dire warnings that Russian ‘interests’, by which it meant the right to hinder the west from preventing ethnic cleansing in the Balkans or to deny neighbouring states a free choice of western political systems and alliances, were being disrespected: during the Bosnian War, the Kosovo War and leading up to the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008. The occupation of Crimea and the intimidation of the rest of the Ukraine is thus part of a longer-term pattern. The Germans, by contrast, did take a holiday from geopolitics after 1989 as the eastward expansion of EU and NATO gave them the secure borders they had always lacked historically. Now, however, Berlin is facing the return of geopolitics as it confronts Baltic and eastern European concerns about Russian aggression while hoping to maintain trade and energy links with Moscow. Unfortunately, German public opinion, which would like their country to act as a kind of ‘super-Switzerland’ on the world stage, entirely concurs with this policy and is blind to the growing concern to the east.

If there is a silver lining in all this, it is the fact that the challenges of today may be the opportunities of tomorrow. Mr Putin has robbed Europeans, or at last many of them, of their complacency. He may over time generate the pressure needed to weld the Eurozone together into a true Democratic Union. If that happens then we can say that twenty-five years on, we began to complete the work of 1989.




Brendan Peter Simms, Irish historian and Professor of the History of International Relations in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge, an author of Europe: The Struggle for Supremacy, 1453 to the Present (2013)

Article written as 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.

Aviezer Tucker

The Autumn of Nations – 25 years after: Aviezer Tucker

20 August 2014
  • 1989
  • transformation
  • freedom express
  • Autumn of Nations
  • elites

1989 was essentially the adjustment of the rights of the late-Communist elite to its interests. The rest was an unintended consequence of this process.

1. What was 'Autumn of Nations' 1989 about and how should the events of that time be understood?

1989 was essentially the adjustment of the rights of the late-Communist elite to its interests. The rest was an unintended consequence of this process.

Rights do not necessarily serve the interests of their holders. Rights holders tend to attempt to adjust their rights to what they perceive as their interests, they attempt to acquire new rights that are needed for the realization of what they consider their interests and neglect or extinguish rights that are not in their interest.

The late-totalitarian elite inherited from its revolutionary predecessor extensive rights to control aspects of the lives of their subjects, to jail them, decide on their employment and the level of education they and their children could enjoy and so on. The extensive rights of the elite against their subjects were of little use to people who perceived their interests as enrichment and passing on their wealth and status to their families. The late-totalitarian elite also inherited from the revolutionary elite some duties against its interests. Ritualistic duties such as marching on May Day and listening to long, jargon filled and meaningless ideological speeches must have been very exciting for the revolutionaries; but for the second-generation bureaucrats they represented a meaningless waste of time. The duty to hide from each other their wealth, avoid engaging in conspicuous consumption and the restrictions on passing on hidden wealth to their families were painful.

The late totalitarian elite had naked liberties to appropriate wealth from the state. Naked liberty allows somebody to act, without any rule that protects that action or guarantees that one can repeat such action in the future, for example, squatters have the naked liberty to live in a house until somebody evicts them. Naked liberties are inherently insecure. Property rights are much better.

The second-generation bureaucratic totalitarian elite gradually ceased to exercise their rights to control the minute aspects of their subjects’ lives, granted them negative liberties. On the other hand, they attempted to gain for themselves property rights and release themselves from the ritualistic duties of Communist ideology. They attempted to exchange their political rights for property rights. Since members of the elite were in charge of enforcing their duties on each other, they could spontaneously relax their mutual controls through neglect and liberate themselves of themselves, first expand their naked liberties, and then turn them into rights. When this process advanced sufficiently, it brought down the state and ended totalitarianism.

Following 1989, some late totalitarian elites lost political rights that were not in their interest, but augmented their economic rights, both by spontaneously appropriating the properties they had managed prior to the end of totalitarianism, and by separating assets from liabilities, rights from duties, possessing the first and transferring the second to the state. The opening of the borders and the creation of modern financial institutions in post-totalitarian states, allowed the elite to further transmute naked liberties into property rights by moving liquid assets they spontaneously privatized to foreign bank accounts. Once liquid assets were transferred to banks in the U.K., or Cyprus (so they thought….), and so on, the naked liberties became ordinary property rights, protected by duty holders in the governments and legal systems of those countries. As Solnik[1] explained, the less “specific,” was the asset, the more uses it could have, the easier it was to appropriate it. Liquid assets are the least specific. Some bureaucratic rents were very specific, for example, selling licenses to businesses or draft deferments to the families of conscripted soldiers required corrupt bureaucrats stay in their positions; they could not move their rent generating “assets” elsewhere. The more tied wealth was to the soil in natural resources, the more specific it was, the more was it in the elite’s interest to cling to political power, directly or indirectly, which partly explains the interest of the Russian elite in politics following the meteoric rise in commodity prices.

internationally shunned communist system.”[2] The adjustment of rights to interests was spontaneous; it did not follow deliberation or a collective decision of the elite to adapt its rights to its interests. The adjustment of rights to interests just happened as the aggregate of individual spontaneous decisions and actions.

Post-totalitarian popular freedom was not Republican self-government by a community that could determine its fate; it was negative liberty from control and interference by the late-totalitarian elite. The people could elect their political representatives and express themselves, if they were so inclined. But the democratic electorate could not determine via elections the distribution of rights that benefited the late-totalitarian elite. The political and geopolitical results of 1989-1991 were the unintended consequences of the adjustment of the rights of the nomenklatura to its interests. By “unintended” I do not mean unforeseen or unpredictable, but uncared for and indifferent to. Private nomenklatura vices generated public democratic virtues.

A less positive unintended result of this late-totalitarian elite adjustment of rights to interests and granting of negative liberties for the people has been popular cynicism towards democracy. Since politicians and governments seemed unable to control the elite, and even worse, sometimes were be incorporated by it, some ordinary people became disillusioned with democratic politics. Desperate voters consequently returned Communist elites to political power through democratic elections. The “new new political class” was made of “people slightly lower down the Communist hierarchy who very rapidly adapt to the rather different techniques of acquiring and exercising power in a modern television democracy. You may not be able to teach an old dog new tricks, but the young dogs learn them in no time. After all, they joined the party in the 1970s not because they believed in communism but because they were interested in making a career and in the real politics of power.”[3] The nomenklatura capitalists financed the old-new Communist parties and so ensured there was no return to state ownership of privatized companies, but the state continued to subsidize and protect them.

The photogenic mass demonstrations in city squares in 1989 contributed to the impression that the end of totalitarianism was brought about by resurrected civil society. Still, by the end of “[T]he main reasons why the late communism’s elite, or its more dynamic networks, relinquished their political monopoly without resistance were… their conversion into capitalists, which suited their long term interests better than did the economically bankrupt and totalitarianism there was hardly any civil society left. Civil society was annihilated by revolutionary totalitarian regimes to create what Arendt called a mass society of unattached atomic individuals.

The late-totalitarian elite, was usually indifferent to democracy, it wanted private property but was hostile to economic free competition and the impersonal rule of law. It preferred a system of economic inequality and a clientelistic social model, the rule of well-connected individuals intertwined with the state from which they appropriated assets and to which they passed on liabilities. Consequently, the elite’s interests were not affected usually by the form of government. They needed little from the government, and they could buy it through bribing politicians and civil servants, forming joint ventures with them or their family members, financing political parties, and influencing elections through ownership of mass media. Democracy may be then an unintended effect of the elite’s relinquishment of direct political power in favor of economic appropriation.

2. Why had it place at the twilight of "short century" (1914-89)?

Throughout the eighties, Soviet Block elites acquired naked liberties and began participating in the second economy, a process that would lead eventually to spontaneous privatization. Once the late totalitarian elite acquired some naked liberties they attempted to gain more and transmute as many of them as possible into rights, according to their interests. In the Soviet Union, the 1987 Law on State Enterprises relaxed central control over managers and initiated in earnest the process of spontaneous privatization. “Once it became clear that the ministerial supervisors were unable (or unwilling, given then rent-seeking potential) to stop enterprise managers from claiming de facto ownership rights over assets the pace of spontaneous privatization accelerated. New “commercial banks” (themselves the result of spontaneous privatization within state banks) became active financiers of managerial buyouts. Industrial ministries consequently disintegrated well before the 1992 initiation of a formal privatization program in Russia.”[4]

This late totalitarian elite, like any upper class that wishes to maintain itself, needed transferable rights, like property rights, to secure its own future and pass on what it accumulated to its families. This had been predicted well in advance of the success of totalitarianism by Robert Michels, who foresaw a hundred years ago the emergence of a bureaucratic hierarchy under socialism, and its transformation into a ruling class when parents attempt to pass on their status to the next generation. Michels and likeminded thinkers, including most tragically Czechoslovak president Beneš, expected this process to quickly follow the revolution. But the first revolutionary totalitarian generation was too fanatic, too psychopathic, too impersonal, and too briefly in power before meeting a violent end to form a class. Class emerged only with the second and third post-revolutionary generations as a result of the selection of bureaucratic successors. This new class was totally in control by the late eighties through generational replacement.

3. Are there any analogies between past and present situation?

Post-totalitarian elite adjustment of rights to interests, transfer of assets to private hands and liabilities to the state resulted in macro-economic crises in practically all post-Communist economies. After a severe economic crisis and devaluation of the local currency, governments were forced to reform their market regulations, often distance themselves from the banks and insurance companies, and impose some measures of the rule of law. In Russia, however, the 1998 crisis did not lead to much restructuring and rationalizing of the market because the rise in the global prices of oil and other commodities happened to follow the crisis. The resulting cash flow has been financing what may be called a utopia of the nomenklatura ever since.

The Russian government’s expropriation of the natural resources that were privatized earlier was not a “re-nationalization” in the sense of a return of state ownership. This was a re-privatization whereby a different clan came to control the natural resources and the cash flow, first for its own benefits, then as a source of political patronage, and finally for strategic geopolitical interests. The cash flow from commodities has allowed the Russian government to continue to subsidize the inefficient parts of the economy and finance corruption and embezzlement without recourse to either printing money or borrowing it abroad. The cash flow paid the national debt of Russia and built a stabilization fund, should commodity prices fall. There was so much money that the elite even paid pensioners and nurses, in effect it restored the late-Communist social contract whereby the elite guaranteed minimal welfare in return for political acquiescence. This system of patronage can continue to thrive as long as the petrodollars continue to flow in.

If income from commodities falls (because Europe buys less, the Chinese would pay less, and the Americans export more), as in the late eighties and the late nineties, Putin’s restoration regime will come under severe strains and that may finally give Russia the opportunity to reform.

4. Do events of 25 years ago can be an inspiration for contemporary Europeans?

Totalitarianism is not dead, it merely disintegrated and melted into the social woodwork. If we are not vigilant it will return, it has already made a start, obvious one in Putin’s secret police restoration in Russia and less obviously in the incremental intrusion of the state into social realms where it has no place in a liberal democracy following the 2007-2008 crisis in Western Europe. For example, in a liberal democracy the state should have nothing more to do with managing higher education than it should have in managing religion or the judiciary; nevertheless it has been intruding to centrally plan the Bolshevization of higher education. To paraphrase Heidegger, only dissidents can save us now. In the long term, I think this will be the one positive legacy of totalitarianism. Dissidents who live in truth and believed in personal integrity and decency irrespective of the cost, are needed now more than ever. If the managerial state continues its steady march towards ever increasing concentration of power and hierarchical unification of social elites, the dissidents should return to revive the vital tradition that saved civilization from totalitarianism.

If there is one thing we learn from the recent crisis of 2008 it is that even the best liberal institutional designs fail. Financial regulation drew the best and brightest minds, not just the obvious fools and fraudsters who designed education systems to have an unaccountable managerial class in charge of meeting graduation targets and linked teacher evaluations to their evaluations of their students. Liberal institutional designs fail, degenerate, and become corrupted by power hungry managerial elites. When they fail, as they inevitably do, the Republican citizen must be there to step in to plug the holes in the institutional design, at least until a better institutional design is put in place and the managerial elite is overthrown or constrained by institutional designs to do less harm. This was the service the dissidents rendered to their societies. Non-totalitarian societies need such dissidents now more than ever.

5. Was 1989 the end of geopolitics in this part of the world?

Geopolitics can end only once politics is disjoined from geography, from territory and from sovereignty. The political theory that advocates non-territorial states in competition over citizens is called Panarchy. Europe is not Panarchic.

[1] Solnik, Steven L., (1999) Stealing the State: Control and Collapse in Soviet Institutions. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.

[2] Łoś, Maria & Andrzej Zybertowicz (2000) Privatizing the Police-State: The Case of Poland. New York: St. Martin’s Press. 107.

[3] Garton-Ash, Timothy (1999) History of the Present: Essays, Sketches, and Dispatches from Europe in the 1990s. New York: Random House, 169.

[4] Solnik, Ibid, 229.




Aviezer Tucker, political scientist, Assistant Director of the Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin, an author of The Philosophy and Politics of Czech Dissidence from Patocka to Havel (2000). Tucker has held research positions at the Australian National University, New York University, Columbia University, the University of Cologne, and the Central European University. He taught in Austin TX, New York, Long Island, Santa Cruz, Olomouc, Prague, Brno, Hartford CT, and Belfast.

Article written as 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.

Marek A. Cichocki

The Autumn of Nations – 25 Years After: Marek A. Cichocki

20 August 2014
  • 1989
  • transformation
  • Central Europe
  • Autumn of Nations

The French historian Jules Michelet famous for his splendid work on the French Revolution claimed that it is unlikely to understand the true sense of great historical events before at least 40 years would pass.

Celebrating the 25th anniversary of the great political turn which began in Europe in 1989 we almost fulfill this precondition gaining more distant look into the events. However one cannot escape from the counter impression of today that respectively to the passing time we more and more lose the clarity and understanding of what had really happened in Europe nearly the quarter of a century ago.

As the comprehensive and clear assessment of the events from 25 years is actually becoming increasingly problematic, same evident facts and interpretations referring to them need to be recalled. The breakdown of communist regimes in Central European countries marked the pick of the longstanding liberation process from the soviet hegemony. The key part of the process was played by the bottom up popular movements – workers, trade unionists, intellectuals, dissidents and students who actively opposed the communist regimes. Apart from the internal forces of systemic decay of communism their effort and devotion brought it finally to collapse. Therefore we need to use theories of social movements or civic society to cover this kind of massive awakening which blew up existing systemic constrains of the soviet order in the Eastern Europe. The popular character of the forces driving the changes of 1989 and 1990 justifies the historical analogies connecting them to the more distant upheaval of the Spring of Nations in 19th century’s Europe or the regained independence of states and nations in Central Europe after the I WW. It proves as well that the great historical breakthroughs and changes are not exclusively performed by political personalities, diplomatic actions and systemic forces but are embedded in people’s resistance, claims, fears and determination. Helmut Kohl might entitle his memoires “I wanted the German unity” but his attempts to start the unification process would be baseless without the thousands of eastern Germans who desperately voted against the GDR by massively fleeing to the West.

The strength derived from popular character of the protests preceding the change in the Central Europe turned into disadvantage as it raised the serious concerns about how to control and canalize the wide spread anti-systemic sentiments. The outbreak of individual freedom and democratic claims provoked the question how the systemic order in Europe can be preserved from the entire decomposition. Due to the need of securing the path from the old cold war order to the new post cold order the West assisted the process of transformative reforms in the Central Europe.

The deteriorating condition of the soviet empire was obviously the main object of constant interest and concern because of the very grave security reasons: the capacity of its nuclear weapons arsenal and the possible wide-ranging destructive consequences of the loss of the control over it. The condition of the West was, however not less important factor in shaping the character and steering the political and economic turn in the Central Europe in the 90s. It was exactly this moment in the postwar modern history of the European democratic capitalism when hopes and illusions of the functioning well-fare state model held for a long period in many countries had been finally and ultimately abandon. For many in the West the collapse of the communism in the Eastern Europe served as the prevailing argument in the debates on the end of socialism in economy as the realistic option for governments, namely in policies regarding the economic responsibility of the state, full-employment target and full-fledged social security. This principles were rejected as misleading and harmful in favor of the new neoliberal approach implementing the substantial reduction of the state’s redistributive policies and its social spending and promoting instead the pure free market mechanisms. Focused on securing the private property rights, individual competition on the free market and combating inflation the new neoliberal ideology appeared as the best remedy for all main weaknesses, evils and challenges the post-communist transition countries had immediately faced after the political turn. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher became the real heroes in the Central Europe because of their assertive policy to Moscow in the 80s. as simultaneously they symbolized the neoliberal vision of the capitalism which raised hopes on structural reforms helping the post communist societies to extricate from the economic mess. For at least one decade the Central Europe became the beloved field of neoliberal experiments where in case of Baltic states even the most desired ideal of low flat rate taxation had been implemented.

It was not only the neoliberal approach to economy and politics that provided framework for the transformation process in the Central Europe. The project of the integrated Europe, the UE (not forgetting the NATO as well), exerted the huge influence even more radically. The prospect of enlargement as a longstanding process which has been managed in the West with many difficulties and constrains up till 2004 offered the strategic response to what has happened in 1989 in the Central Europe. By shaping the economic and political results of the great historical turn from 1989 and 1990 the neoliberal approach and the European integration (two incentives not necessarily complementary by the way) have influenced decisively the democratic life of the new comers.

Free market economy and democratization were carved as so called Copenhagen criteria on the stone tablets of the EU. After the collapse of communism the need to undertake profound efforts to lay foundation for the new economic order was widely accepted by the democratic societies in the Central Europe. Ongoing changes evoked even a certain degree of real enthusiasm. Yet the condition of democratization sounded a little queer and striking in the ears of the people who thought they have proved a deep devotion to the democratic values by rejecting and defeating the communism. This substantial difference in assessing the quality of democratic evolution in the Central Europe has derived mainly from different perceptions what does constitute democracy as such.

In the postwar continental Europe which took the key part in forming the European integration project the concept of constrained democracy prevailed over the popular one. The negative political experiences of the 20th century with mass democratic movements and dictatorships considered as their aftermath strongly undermined the confidence in the sustainability of democracy. Democracy and nationalism merged into the political program of an ethno-political homogeneity excluding any foreign elements has been identified as particularly dangerous. Accordingly to this approach populism is perceived currently as an indispensible element of each popular democracy. In order to avoid the internal threats, democratic forces, claims and expectations have to be succumbing to the higher principle of the rule of law. In fact, democracy constrained and limited by neutral legal mechanisms and institutions can only be effectively functional, stabile and secure. This strong conviction which has deeply shaped the continental political culture of the West in the postwar times and became the key principle of the political order in the EU of today has roots reaching back to the 19th century Europe. It reflects an old post-revolutionary debate on divergence between democracy and national liberation on the one side and constitutional order and the authority of the ruler on the other. Born in the main political conflicts of the 19th century the increasing tension between the revolutionary, republican idea of democratic self determination raising up from the national foundations and the legalistic, imperial order claiming higher rational or divine legitimacy has never ceased to influence the political landscape in Europe and remained valid during the autumn of nations in the end of the 20th century as the main ideological cleavage between the West and the Central Europe. In sake of desired post cold war order in Europe, the West suspicious of the new democratic movements and their trouble making potential, posed the appropriate frame (neoliberalism and European integration) on them and to moderate their inherent explosive potential of populist and ethnic sentiments.

Undermining the post war systemic stability the impetuous of democratic turn in the Central Europe was the source of considerable and constant geopolitical concerns in the West anticipating possible response of Russia. Nevertheless it brought the huge geopolitical shift of the whole region changing the postwar Europe’s geopolitical architecture by considerably minimized level of risks, losses and acts of valiance. This successful transition has to be viewed from a perspective of the long historical process. After the partition of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the twilight of the 18th century the Central Europe has actually ceased to exist as geopolitical space. Three parts of Poland and the whole region had been incorporated into the three different imperial political and economic systems, what resulted in variegated consequences to them. Catherine II and her successors have treated their loot as the inherent part of the consolidated territories of imperial Russia. Prussia has always hesitated whether to choose the strategy of full colonial exploitation of its conquest in the Central Europe or to transform it into the efficient buffer zone securing its Eastern border. For Austria the new territories of Galicia were in fact just the burden and the element of pure geopolitical calculation in the struggle to maintain balance of power with two other eastern empires. Having no particular interest and strategy to this once most advanced and richest part of Poland, Vienna turned it into the poorest and economically backward province of the Habsburg monarchy. The 19th century, rich of failed attempts to change this situation, passed under the banner of status quo broken only in the aftermath of the I WW. Seeking the political integration with France and strengthening the economic ties with Germany the reconstructed new Poland and other countries in the region were practically deprived from any real chance to build the longstanding links to the West in a very short intermezzo between the two World Wars. After Yalta the whole Central Europe was by force turned again to the East. The Autumn of the Nations broke this fatal geopolitical circle which had for so long hold the Central Europe in the firm grasp of the Eastern rulers and opened up the chance for restoring the region and anchoring it decisively to the political and security structures of the West. Never before Central European Nations could enjoy such a degree of security. Provided with the increasing level of prosperity thanks to own reforms as well to financial support from European founds they even could gain a pleasant impression that the golden age finally came in their history. Seductive dream on the happy end of all history and political conflicts created in a strongly suggestive way by Francis Fukuyama has been dreamed particularly intensive in the Central Europe of the 90s.

This dream came to its end. Two great events have shaken the self-confidence of the West in recent times. The financial crisis has undermined the foundations of the modern democratic capitalism and the strong belief in the sustainable economic growth. The geopolitical crisis caused by Putin’s aggressive policy towards Russia’s neighborhood has challenged the whole political philosophy of the postmodern West resting on peaceful cooperation, diplomatic activities, multilateral confidence and the principle conviction of the everlasting peace in Europe. Celebrating the 25th anniversary of the autumn of nations, the 15th anniversary of the NATO membership and the 10th anniversary of the EU enlargement the democratic societies in the Central Europe were suddenly compelled by events to recognize that security, prosperity and friendly geopolitical environment are the public good which require the constant concern and attempts. There is now end of history and the current achievements can be easily undermined by the negative tern of trends. We were not well prepared to that truth.

The autumn of nations started 25 years ago the process which has entirely altered the whole region of the Central Europe but now after the period of unprecedented achievements has passed, the societies and countries of the region are exposed to the new challenges and threats. What has been for long taken as certainty in the West, the ability of Russia to transform itself democratically and peacefully as well as the infallibility of democratic capitalism in Europe, is not more valid. There are still strong efforts undertaken to maintain the mechanisms of solidarity in the EU and in the NATO but the current situation more and more brings many in Europe to the sad conclusion that first and foremost each has to count on his own reserves and capacities. The new generation of free and democratic people in Central Europe grew up after the turn of 1989 and 1990, well-educated and open minded, is quite successful in using all assets to shaping own individual careers but simultaneously very poor in cooperating in favor of own societies and countries. To stand on own footing thanks to own secured sources of sustainable development in economy and certain values and convictions indispensable for the model of good society to sink in do not necessarily belong to the most advanced features of the democratic system in the Central Europe. Dependency and imitation still prevail.

This makes in fact so difficult to assess correctly if the central European democracies of today are already sufficiently resistant to shocks and crisis. Last 25 years were indeed extremely favorable for the region but only now the outcome of the fiscal and geopolitical crisis in Europe by deteriorating the conditions will show us how much our efforts were worth.




Marek Aleksander Cichocki – since 2004 is the Research Director of the Natolin European Centre in Warsaw as well as Editor-in-chief of the magazine “New Europe. Natolin Review”. From 2007 to 2010 Advisor to the President of the Republic of Poland and Sherpa for the negotiations of the Lisbon Treaty. Since 2003 he is also publisher and Editor-in-chief of the “Teologia Polityczna” yearly. Permanent professor in the Institute of Applied Social Sciences of the University of Warsaw.
Mr. Cichocki is the author of many books, essays, articles and dissertations on international relations – i.a. Poland – European Union, halfway (2002), Europe Kidnapped (2004), Power and Remembrance (2006), Institutional Design and Voting Power in the European Union (2010), Problem of Political Union in Europe (2012).

Article written as 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.


Tatiana Zhurzhenko

The Autumn of Nations 1989 and the Ukrainian Winter 2013-14: Tatiana Zhurzhenko

20 August 2014
  • 1989
  • freedom express
  • Ukraine
  • Russia

The “Autumn of Nations” as metaphor for the fall of communism in Europe plays on the reference to the revolutions of 1848 as the “Spring of Nations”.

“Autumn” stands for the “end of history”, the political maturity of the Central and Eastern European nations and their eventual “return to Europe”. Yet seasonal metaphors can be ambiguous when applied to the Ukrainian political crisis that began at the end of 2013, and to Russia’s subsequent annexation of Crimea and subversion in eastern and southern Ukraine. In Moscow, pro-Russian separatist movements in Ukraine have been called a “Russian spring”[i] - the beginning of a new gathering of the “ethnic Russian lands”. The metaphor of “autumn”, meanwhile, fits the dominant Russian discourse on Europe as aging and decadent civilization that has lost its indigenous values and power instincts. This confusion of metaphors reveals nothing less than the crisis of the post-1989 European order. Prospects of a new Cold War[ii] are becoming real and a fully-fledged military conflict at the centre of the European continent no longer seems impossible. From this perspective, we should look back and reassess the meaning of 1989 and its consequences on recent European history.

The triumphal narrative of 1989 presents the revolutions in Poland, Hungary, East Germany, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia and Romania as a wave of civil resistance and broad popular opposition to the local communist regimes. This narrative, however, often obscures the fact that the fall of these regimes was only possible because Moscow’s grasp on its satellites had weakened. The liberal fraction of the Soviet ruling elite, led by Mikhail Gorbachev, believed that confrontation between the two political blocs should cede to a “common European house” reaching from the Atlantic to Vladivostok. Forcing loyalty from the Central and Eastern European Soviet "brother states" became too costly for Moscow both politically and economically.

This is even truer of the former Soviet republics, where the end of communist rule finally arrived in 1991 hand in hand with national independence. As part of the same chain reaction, political changes in the (post-)Soviet space were not a home-grown phenomenon but the result of the collapse of the imperial centre. With the exception of western Ukraine and the Baltic states, there was neither a mass opposition movement in these countries, nor did the end of communist rule bring significant change in the governing elites. Hopes for democracy, freedom and prosperity drowned in a wave of Soviet nostalgia. Even if the declarations of state independence in 1991 entered the official calendars, a myth of national revolution comparable to the ’89 revolutions in East Central Europe is largely absent in the post-Soviet space. The “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine in 2004 was proclaimed as the “birth of a nation”, but this myth faded after only a few years. While the “Ukrainian winter” of 2013-2014 marks a more profound shift in the country’s political culture, it remains to be seen whether the promise of the “Third Republic” as revival of the Ukrainian project will be fulfilled.

1991 as a political symbol and site of memory is even more problematic in post-Soviet Russia. The initial meaning of August 1991 as the birthdate of a new democratic Russia and liberation from Communist rule has been gradually transformed into a symbol of defeat and unconditional surrender to the West – or, in Putin’s words, the “greatest geopolitical disaster of the twentieth century”. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its continuing aggression towards Ukraine sealed this negative interpretation of 1991 as the point in contemporary Russian history when “everything went wrong”. According to Fyodor Lukyanov, editor-in-chief of Russia in Global Politics, what Putin is doing today is attempting to return to 1989/91 and alter the post-Cold War European order, in which Russia has de facto been a defeated country.[iii]

The topos of the ’89 Revolutions has meanwhile become a cornerstone of the narrative of a united, post-Cold War Europe. No wonder, then, that the “Ukrainian winter” of 2013-2014 is often seen as a delayed revolution aimed at completing the post-communist transition. It started as a mass movement in support of the pro-western course and in opposition to the decision of the Ukrainian government to postpone the signing of the Association Agreement with the European Union. Although the agreement offered Ukraine no prospect of EU membership, for many in the country it was the Ukrainian equivalent of a “return to Europe”. The successful postcommunist transitions in East Central Europe have inspired Ukrainian westernizers for more than twenty years, and the Euromaidan was perceived as a catalyst for similar revolutionary change. Lenin monuments toppled across the country – except in the west of the country, where they had already been removed in 1991, and in Donbas and Kharkiv, where they survived the Euromaidan. Demands to ban the Communist Party and communist symbolism, as well as calls for lustration, seem like déjà vu of the early 1990s.

However, even if the Ukrainian “Revolution of Dignity” in some sense resembles the revolutions of ’89, the authoritarian kleptocracy of Yanukovych and his clan can hardly be compared to the former communist regimes in Eastern Europe. The latter's legitimacy was based on a universalist political ideology and the claim to represent the popular will; faced with mass protests and public denunciation of the official ideology, they immediately collapsed. At the end of 2013, protesters in Ukraine gathered in huge numbers on the streets of Kyiv and other cities week after week; they camped overnight in the winter cold singing the Ukrainian anthem; they built a whole city with its own self-governing structure, in the centre of Kyiv. And yet, these protests – the largest in Europe for twenty-five years – did not impress the Yanukovych regime. It turned out that peaceful protest could simply be ignored; that a regime without an ideology need not fear the truth and is thus more difficult to bring down. The Ukrainian revolution was not “velvet”: violence changed the mode of the protest and after the massacre in the centre of Kyiv, any compromise with the regime was impossible. This violent turn, together with the counter-revolution supported by Russia and the subsequent Russian violation of Ukrainian national sovereignty, make the events of 2013/2014 in Ukraine very different from the triumphant revolutions of ’89.

While for many observers the Lenin monuments appear as markers of a Soviet identity that has survived in the economically depressed industrial enclaves of the Ukrainian East, what the Kyiv government is currently confronted with in Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv has, in my opinion, little to do with Soviet ideology and values. Rather, what we are dealing with is what the Russian sociologist Lev Gudkov ten years ago called “negative identity”.iv This identity operates primarily with the category of the “enemy”. From the perspective of pro-Russian protesters, it is “banderists” and “nationalists” from Kyiv and western Ukraine that threaten to steal “our past” and destroy “our monuments”. The Lenin monuments have become a site and symbol of pro- Russian mobilization – “empty signifiers” that carry no ideological value but mark the local identity as “anti-Kyiv”.

As the fear of a new Cold War begins to haunt the West, the question of the nature of Putin’s regime and its aspirations becomes all the more pressing. Aleksandr Etkind arguesv in a recent article that Putin’s actions in Ukraine should be understood as a preventive counter-revolution, an attempt to halt Maidan-type protests at the Russian border. Etkind nevertheless denies historical continuity between Putinism and Stalinism. Indeed, despite the abuse of human rights and political freedoms, the massive and manipulative propaganda effort and the incitement against a “fifth column”, Putin has hardly been able to build a totalitarian system, still less impose it on Russia’s neighbours. Putin’s Russia is integrated into the global economy; its political and business elites see the West as a place to stash away their money, educate their children and spend their holidays. Despite Putin’s ambition to become the world leader of antiwestern conservatism, Russia is not going to be able to challenge the West ideologically and has no desire to lead the planet. In the contemporary multipolar world, a Cold War bipolar architecture can no longer work.

And yet, the phantom of the Cold War is present in current Russian politics as a collective geopolitical trauma that motivates the seemingly irrational, politically and economically costly decisions of Putin’s leadership. As the West prepares to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the post-Cold War order, from the Russian perspective it seems that the Cold War never really ended, at least not with a fair deal. Instead, Russia was forced to capitulate and give up its geopolitical interests in exchange for the vague promise of being treated as an equal. Russia’s ruling elite no longer wants to hide its dissatisfaction with the rules of game. However Putin’s Russia is returning not to the Cold War but to the realpolitik of the 19th century and the language of power politics, strategic interests and spheres of influence. From the Russian perspective, the US never stopped conducting this type of realpolitik, while the post-Cold War European Union is a curious but unviable project that will inevitably be undermined by nationalist forces. No wonder that Moscow counts on radical rightwing (and leftwing) European opponents of the EU project, who enthusiastically support Putin’s actions.

The danger posed by Russian politics is not so much that of a fully-fledged Cold War, but the return of the ghosts of revanchism and nationalism that haunted Europe in the 1930s; of territorial annexations and border realignments under the pretext of the defence of linguistic minorities and “compatriots” in neighbouring countries. Then as now, such a politics can easily lead to a real war. Over the last twenty years, concerns have often been raised that Moscow might use the Russian-speaking populations in post-Soviet countries in the same way that Hitler used the ethnic Germans in interwar Europe. In the 1990s, however, Russia was too weak and unstable to play the ethnic card across its borders, occupied as it was in fighting its own ethnic nationalisms and separatist movements, most notably in Chechnya. Moscow’s strategy in the post-Soviet space was Eurasian integration, which seemed to follow a similar logic to the EU project. Post-Soviet integration was by no means free from power politics and evidently served Russian interests in the “near abroad”; but at least it did not aim at the destruction of neighbouring states. The annexation of Crimea and the threat to use all means necessary, including military intervention, to protect the rights of Russians and Russian speakers in Ukraine, indicated that the Kremlin prioritizes the violent “gathering of ethnic lands” over interstate integration. In other words, Europe is not regressing back to Cold War conditions (when nuclear parity guaranteed the inviolability of borders) but – at best – sliding into 19th century power politics or – at worst – into the world of untamed nationalist ambitions and total mistrust that led to the Second World War.

Will Putin unwillingly unite the West, which in the past decade has drowned in contradictions and quarrels and forfeited global political leadership? Can his aggressive politics breathe new life into NATO and force the EU to overcome its energy dependency on Russia? How firm will the West’s stance be in protecting the foundations of European security subverted by Putin’s actions in Ukraine?

Putinism is not communism, yet it seems that many in the West are willing to understand and even accept Moscow’s actions. Putin speaks the language of realpolitik, and while European leaders might despise his political style, they all too often acquiesce to his arguments.

[i] See, for example, http://rusvesna.su

[ii] Vladislav Inozemtsev, “How to win Cold War II?” in: Eurozine, www.eurozine.com/articles/2014-03-28-inosemtsev-en.html

[iii] Fedor Lukyanov, “Vozvrashchenie na razvilku 1989-go”, Gazeta.ru, http://iphonerss. gazeta.ru/comments/column/lukyanov/5978717.shtml

[iv] Lev Gudkov, “Negativnaia identichnost”, Moscow: NLO 2004.

[v] Aleksander Etkind, “Eine präventive Konterrevolution”, www.nzz.ch/meinung/debatte/einepraeventive-konterrevolution-1.18275438




Tatiana Zhurzhenko is a Research Director of “Russia in Global Dialogue” project at the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM) in Vienna. She was a research fellow in political science at the University of Vienna and a Research Fellow at the Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki. Her most recent book is Borderlands into Bordered Lands: Geopolitics of Identity in Post- Soviet Ukraine, Stuttgart 2010.

Article written as 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.

James Krapfl

Sites of memory, sites of rejoicing. The Great War in Czech and Slovak Cultural History

20 August 2014
  • Great War
  • First World War
  • World War I
  • Slovakia
  • Czech Republic
  • Czechia


This article’s title alludes to Jay M. Winter’s influential Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History. By considering the interwar Czechoslovak memory of World War I, the article demonstrates that Winter’s conclusions – drawn from British, French, and German evidence – do not apply across Europe. While Czech and Slovak veterans whose only fighting experience was in the Habsburg army recalled the war in ironic terms similar to those of Winter’s soldiers, veterans of the Czechoslovak Legions produced unequivocally romantic memoirs. Regardless of wartime trajectory, moreover, Czechoslovak motivations for representing memory differed significantly from those farther west. Narrative theory, emphasizing narrators’ perceptions of agency within social relationships, can help explain these differences and facilitate a genuinely pan-European understanding of the Great War’s impact on cultural history.

On the basis of literature produced by veterans of the western armies, World War I has often been seen as an appalling and needless slaughter that dragged the world into modernism. In Paul Fussell’s (1975) interpretation, the Great War accomplished the transition from a “low mimetic” to an “ironic” mode of symbolic representation, which he equates with modernism. Soldiers with direct experience of the front condemned the naive and romantically patriotic representations of the war that civilians at home produced, offering instead their own, eventually dominant interpretation of the war as cruel, meaningless, and dehumanizing.1 More recently, Jay Winter has shown that the war did not really mark a sharp break between “traditional” and “modern” forms of representation – that in the face of the “symbolic collapse” caused by the war, many Europeans found refuge in the traditional language and representational forms of mourning. Winter concurs, however, that soldiers experienced the war as dehumanizing, and that it engendered a crisis of meaning which effectively expunged simple patriotism and heroic romanticizations from veterans’ symbolic vocabularies (1995, 204, 226).

Fussell and Winter base their arguments on evidence from Britain, France, and to some extent Germany, but evidence from other parts of Europe suggests that their conclusions are not valid for the continent as a whole. Czech and Slovak representations of the Great War between 1918 and 1938 are a case in point. Though Czechoslovak veterans writing about the war in these years may have agreed that it had been cruel, they were far from unanimous about its being meaningless or dehumanizing. On the contrary, veterans of the Czechoslovak Legions, which fought alongside the Entente in Russia, France, and Italy, were virtually unanimous in describing their years in the Legions as the most meaningful, indeed the most beautiful and empowered of their lives. Whereas soldiers on the Western Front evidently rejected the romantic representations of warfare used by ignorant civilians, Czechoslovak Legionaries on all fronts used forms that can only be called romantic, comparing themselves to medieval knights on a quest to liberate their (feminine) homeland.2 Interpretations of the war more consistent with the standard Western understanding were voiced by Czech and Slovak veterans who had not joined the Legions, remaining until war’s end in the Austro-Hungarian army or as prisoners of war in Entente countries, but it was the Legionary memory that came to be privileged in the First Czechoslovak Republic, informing officially sanctioned literature, monuments, and sociopolitical rituals from 1918 to 1938. Subsequent developments largely erased this memory, however, so it has been easy for scholars to overlook it. Since it was Legionary veterans who most vociferously, albeit fruitlessly, advocated armed resistance to Hitler in the late 1930s, the Nazis proceeded to destroy monuments and literature about the Legions when they occupied the Czech lands in 1938–39. In rump Slovakia – an independent state allied with Germany from 1939 to 1945 – the new regime had no choice but to rely on Legionary veterans to fill commanding positions in the army and foreign service, such that active suppression of the Legionary memory did not commence until the Legionary-supported Slovak National Uprising of 1944 and the resulting Nazi occupation of the country. In southern and eastern Slovakia, however, Legionary monuments and records were destroyed when Hungary annexed these territories in 1939. The Communist regime was no less hostile to the Legionary memory of the war, privileging instead the narratives of socialist non-Legionary veterans, whose memory was more in line with the standard Western narrative.3 A quarter-century of post- Communism has not sufficed to restore what previous regimes destroyed.

By examining the Czechoslovak memory of World War I in the interwar period, this article aims to accomplish two things. First, it seeks to extend scholarship on the memory of the Great War beyond its existing western European boundaries, to contribute to the integration of “western” and “eastern” European history. Second, it proposes to correct common wisdom about the “sobering” cultural legacy of World War I by demonstrating that there were more ways of remembering the conflict than scholars have hitherto addressed. To fulfil these tasks, the article analyzes the memoirs of Czech and Slovak veterans written between the two World Wars. This was a period of considerable cultural and political freedom in the newly created, independent Czechoslovakia, such that memoirs could be written and published without the kind of censorship which distorted some other nations’ memories of the war (see, for example, Orlovsky 1999). The only factors preventing an author from publishing his memoirs were those normally operative in a free society: sufficient leisure for the author to write and cooperation of a publishing house. (Failing the latter, some writers arranged the printing and distribution of their memoirs independently.) Memoirs published in this period are therefore quite likely to reflect the authors’ real opinions, though, as we shall see, opinions prevalent in society did not fail to exert a shaping influence. Before discussing the memoirs, however, it is appropriate to review the seminal literature on the memory of the war in the West.

War and Memory

The pioneering work on the memory of World War I is Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory. Fussell insists that the Great War generated myths that have become “part of the fiber of our own lives”; his task is to identify the forms these myths have taken (1975, ix). To do so, he employs the literary critic Northrop Frye’s theory of modes. Frye’s is a mimetic theory, according to which “fictions may be classified [...] by the hero’s power of action, which may be greater than ours, less, or roughly the same” (1957, 33). In classical myth, romance, and the “high mimetic” of epic and tragedy, the hero’s scope for action is greater than ours. In the “low mimetic,” exemplified in post-Enlightenment novels like those of Flaubert, Stendhal, and Proust, the hero’s power of action is roughly the same as ours. The final category, wherein the hero has less freedom to act than we do, is the “ironic” – which Fussell also calls “modern” – exemplified perhaps nowhere better than in Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground. In Frye’s scheme these categories follow one another in historic progression, beginning with classical myth and descending to the ironic before, he suggests, returning to myth. Fussell argues that the memoirs of World War I can be read as fiction (giving convincing examples of the overlap between the two), and that the memoirs of the Great War mark a transition from the low mimetic to the ironic. Memoirs of the Great War, Fussell writes, are replete with

literary characters (including narrators) who once were like us in power of action but who now have less power of action than we do, who occupy exactly Frye’s “scene of bondage, frustration, or absurdity.” Conscription is bondage (“It was a ‘life-sentence,’ says Hale’s Private Porter); and trench life consists of little but frustration (Sassoon, Blunden) and absurdity (Graves). The passage of these literary characters from pre-war freedom to wartime bondage, frustration, and absurdity signals just as surely as does the experience of Joyce’s Bloom, Hemingway’s Frederick Henry, and Kafka’s Joseph K. the passage of modern writing from one mode to another, from the low mimetic of the plausible and the social to the ironic of the outrageous, the ridiculous, and the murderous. It is their residence on the knife-edge between these two modes that gives the memoirs of the Great War their special quality. [...] (1975, 312)

As a result of their position of powerlessness during the Great War, in other words, Fussell’s veterans remembered the war in ironic terms. To find symbols representing what they felt to be the essential meaning (or meaninglessness) of World War I, veterans scanned the field of physically remembered experience and selected scenes of irony and absurdity. Fussell can be criticized on two important counts. First, the lenses of perception he borrows from Frye are teleological, such that he sees evidence of transition from the low mimetic to the ironic among those writers who, he says, “most effectively memorialized the Great War” (1975, ix), while he dismisses evidence of continuity between pre- and post-war recollections. An example of how Fussell forces the evidence to fit his scheme is his presentation of “Thomas Hardy, Clairvoyant” (3–7). Fussell takes a collection of depressing, nihilistic poems written before the war as representative of the war, uncannily foreshadowing it. The Great War is then presented as the cause of a subsequent spiritual crisis of Western man. Another way of presenting the evidence, however, would be to argue that the crisis preceded the war and that the war, if anything, merely extended it or made it more visible.

In choosing his sources, it has been amply noted that Fussell relies “almost exclusively [...on] the ruminations of white Anglo-American males of literary inclination who served on the Western Front” (Vance 1997, 5; see also Hanley 1991, 18–37). While there is nothing wrong with focusing on Anglo-Americans if the goal is to understand Anglo-American memory, and nothing wrong with emphasis on males if the goal is to reconstruct soldiers’ memories of the war, there is a problem with relying disproportionately on veterans who wrote memoirs of “conspicuous imaginative and artistic meaning” (Fussell 1975, ix). The problem is a logical one, for if literary quality is the criterion for source selection, and if literary quality is defined as that which is “imaginative,” it follows tautologically that the sources will provide evidence of innovation. By assuming that sources of “literary quality” are most representative, the historian’s understanding of the social memory of the war is predetermined. While Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, et al. may have been talented writers, this does not mean that their memory was typical. Indeed, as Rose Maria Bracco (1993), David Englander (1994), and others have pointed out, tradition and conservatism were also prominent features of interwar memories of World War I in western Europe.

While Fussell sees the memory of the war expressed firmly in a modern, ironic fashion, Jay Winter adopts a more nuanced position. In Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning, Winter argues that memories of the war involved both old and new forms of representation. Winter dispels the notion that forward-looking apocalyptic artists prior to 1914 somehow predicted the war, reminding us that there was already enough real or potential violence within their societies to warrant reference to despair and fiery transformation. While invocation of apocalyptic images remains an example of the ironic mode reaching back toward myth, Winter makes it clear that the crisis which motivated this invocation preceded the Great War (1995, 153).

Winter suggests that representations of the war, both during and after, looked back to traditional forms while simultaneously looking ahead to innovation. The reason, he argues, is that “the traditional vocabulary of mourning, derived from classical, romantic, and religious forms [...] helped mediate bereavement.” “The backward gaze of so many artists, politicians, soldiers, and everyday families [...] reflected the universality of grief and mourning” (1995, 223). Drawing on an impressive range of sources, including film, sculpture, painting, poetry, and prose, Winter finds widespread evidence of mythical and romantic representations of the war in Britain, France, and Germany. Examples include the images d’Epinal – posters which allegorized the war in a traditional, sentimental fashion, as well as the spiritualist poetry of Rudyard Kipling, in which fallen soldiers achieved peace in another world (72–73, 122–133). According to Winter, these naive and childlike representations were neither taken literally nor intended so. People knew that the reality was worse than the representation, but the romanticized representation made reality easier to bear (127). To reach his conclusions about the coexistence of the traditional and the modern, Winter considers not only veterans’ memoirs, but a host of material created by or designed for the families who stayed behind the front lines. He argues that they can be considered together with soldiers’ artefacts, because both soldiers and civilians were confronted on a massive scale with the death of loved ones as a result of the war. Nonetheless, he notes one significant way in which soldiers remembered the war differently from civilians: “What many soldier poets could not stomach were the loftier versions of civilian romance about the war. Those too old to fight had created an imaginary war, filled with medieval knights, noble warriors, and sacred moments of sacrifice. Such writing in poetry and prose, the ‘high diction’ of the patriots, was worse than banal; it was obscene” (204). It was obscene, Winter suggests, because it betrayed the memory of those who had fallen amid horrors which those at home could not imagine. In misrepresenting the perceptions of those who had experienced the war most directly, it betrayed a galling lack of concern for them. It revealed that those at home regarded the soldiers as means, not as ends. Winter thus meets Fussell in underscoring the sense of separateness which many soldiers felt with respect to those at home – the sense that they had experienced something civilians could not comprehend. Winter also echoes Fussell in writing that veterans sought to “expose civilian lies while expressing both the dignity of the soldiers and the degradation to which they had been subjected” (204). Using Frye’s mimetic standard rather than one based on representational form, the position of even Winter’s soldiers was ironic.

Curiously, in Czechoslovakia, it was not primarily “those too old to fight” who created an image of war filled with medieval knights and such; it was primarily the veterans themselves. Members of the Czechoslovak Legions fighting against the Central Powers identified with the early modern Slovak folk hero Janošík, or with Libuše, the mythical medieval founder of Prague.4 In visual representations of themselves, as well as in their memoirs, Legionaries portrayed themselves as the Knights of Blaník – the fulfilment of an apocryphal medieval prophesy that, when the Czech nation should be in greatest need, the knights of St. Wenceslas would emerge from Bohemia’s Mount Blaník to set their people free. Evidently, Fussell’s and Winter’s conclusions about the memory of the war do not apply universally.

Czech and Slovak Experiences of World War I

On the eve of the First World War, Czech opinions on the proper place of their nation vis-à-vis the Habsburg Monarchy were politically diverse. At one extreme, the Moravian Catholic Party argued for preservation of the monarchy in its existing, centralized form. At the other, the tiny State’s Right Progressive Party advocated independence (Mamatey 1977). Most Czechs envisioned a future within the Monarchy, but sought greater national rights and autonomy, either through recognition of the sovereignty of the Czech crown or some kind of trialism that would make the Empire’s Slavs equal to its Germans and Magyars in political power. When war broke out, there was deep ambivalence among Czechs about precisely what the conflict might mean to them. The schoolteacher Rudolf Medek, who ultimately became a Legionary, writes that when crowds gathered around the newly posted mobilization proclamations in Hradec Králové, they were hushed, with many faces pale. Some, he writes, thought that a “small punitive campaign” was an appropriate response to the assassination of Francis Ferdinand and his wife, while others grew dismayed at the idea of what the German emperor William II was calling “a war between Slavdom and Germandom” (1929b, 1:27–32). Virtually all eligible men reported for duty when called upon to do so, whether out of true loyalty to the Emperor or lack of other options. Whatever the reasons, enthusiasm for the war among newly mobilized Czech troops was noticeably less than among Austro-German or Magyar troops – instead, the evidence suggests that many Czech recruits felt immersed in absurdity. Men of the 28th Prague infantry regiment marched through the Bohemian capital bearing the Czech colours and chanting “jdeme na Rusi, nevíme proč [we’re marching to Russia, we don’t know why]”; later they surrendered en masse to the Russians (Paulová 1937, 205). Civilians cried “Don’t shoot your Slav brothers” to passing Czech soldiers, and trains bearing Czech troops to the fronts were chalked with anti-war slogans (May 1966, 1:353). Seasoned members of the 28th Písek home-defence regiment were even reported to have wept (Šefl 1922, 12–13).

Slovak attitudes toward the war reflected the rigorous Magyarization policies and limited political freedoms of the Hungarian half of the monarchy. Use of the Slovak language was forbidden in schools, so that upwardly mobile Slovaks tended to become Magyars; students who resisted were expelled and often went to study in the Czech lands, where they further cultivated existing pan-Slavic sentiments. The Hungarian government allowed only one Slovak political party to exist and frequently harassed and imprisoned those who dared run for office on its ticket, such that its official program was limited to proposing greater cultural rights for national minorities. When war broke out, there was no great enthusiasm among those Habsburg subjects who identified as Slovak, but few questioned their duty. As a result of Magyarization or uncritical loyalty to their King, Slovaks ultimately comprised only about 7% of the Czechoslovak Legions (Miskóci 1933, 9). Among this minority we can usually identify ambivalence toward the war and pan-Slavic sentiments similar to those among Czechs. Mikuláš Gacek, for example, recalls that as a nineteen-year-old on the train to Galicia in 1915 he and his friends practised Russian for their anticipated surrender, but he notes that his parents never understood his support for independence (1936, 7, 91).

Save for one small group, surprisingly little is known about the wartime experience of those who remained behind.5 The group in question consists of Czech and Slovak politicians – particularly the network that developed around Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, Eduard Beneš, and Milan Rastislav Štefánik to work for the creation of an independent national state of Czechs and Slovaks. Masaryk, a Reichsrat deputy for the Czech Realist Party, and Beneš, also a Realist, left Austria early in the war to advocate the Czechoslovak cause in London and Paris; Štefánik, a Slovak, had already been in France when war broke out. For the remainder of the war, these three men worked and travelled in Britain, France, Russia, and the United States to influence public opinion and raise awareness among politicians and military leaders. At home the National Liberal Karel Kramář managed to pass an editorial through the censors, wherein he developed the notion that the war was a struggle between Germandom and Slavdom, implying that Czechs should side with the Russians and await liberation from this mighty Slav brother (Z. Zeman 1961, 43; Mamatey 1977, 7). Members of the State’s Right Progressive Party circulated copies of Tsar Nicholas II’s manifesto of solidarity with the Slavs of Austria-Hungary, attracting immediate repression (Rees 1992, 13). The Czechs Josef Scheiner (head of the Sokol nationalist gymnastics organization), Přemysl Šámal (head of the Realist Party in Masaryk’s absence), and František Soukup (a leading Social Democrat), together with the Slovak Vávro Šrobár (who had spent a year in prison for seeking election to the Hungarian parliament) joined Kramář in organizing a secret society, the “Mafia,” which sought to cooperate with Masaryk, Beneš, and Štefánik from within Austria-Hungary (Beneš 1971, 44–45).

Another group of Czechs and Slovaks who would play an important role in the war were those living abroad, especially in Russia. Over 120,000 Czechs and Slovaks were living in the Russian Empire in 1914, many of them descendants of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century agricultural immigrants, others technical advisors, apprentices, or students (Bradley 1991, 14). In the summer of 1914, just before Russia declared war on Austria-Hungary, Czechs in Moscow asked to be allowed to establish a volunteer unit within the Russian army. Originally the army command intended this “Družina” (band) to be strictly an intelligence and administrative unit, but as the number of volunteers increased, they were allowed to fight alongside regular Russian troops (Bradley 1991, 16; Hoyt 1967, 21). The Russo-Slovak “Memories of Štúr” cultural organization endorsed the Družina, which Slovaks began joining (Bôčik 10). The Družina thus became the base of the Czechoslovak Legion in Russia; beginning in December 1914 the Družina was allowed to recruit members among Czech and Slovak POWs and in December of 1915 it was reorganized as a full-fledged regiment under Russian command (Bradley 1991, 17–19). The Revolution of 1917 substantially changed prospects for the growing Legion. In July 1917, after Czech and Slovak soldiers had distinguished themselves in the Battle of Zborov, Kerensky reorganized them into a division with four regiments under Czechoslovak command (Hoyt 1967, 50–52). Following the October Revolution and the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, when the Eastern Front dissolved, Masaryk (who by this time had become the acknowledged leader of the Czechoslovak independence movement) decided to move the Legion from Russia to France. Initially the Bolshevik government permitted this, and a few companies left via the White Sea while the majority set out across Siberia for transport from Vladivostok. On their way, however, armed conflict erupted between Bolsheviks and Czechoslovak troops. The Czechoslovaks fought their way successfully to the Far East, but then the Allies asked them to remain, first in the hopes of renewing the Eastern Front and then with the prospect of overthrowing the Bolshevik regime. The Allies ultimately decided to cancel their intervention in Soviet affairs, but not before the Legion had regained control of the entire Trans-Siberian Railroad and the lower Volga River valley. As a result of their extra mission to combat Bolshevism, the war experience of Czech and Slovak Legionaries in Russia was prolonged, and it was not until 1920 that their army of nearly 70,000 was able to go home (Bradley 1991, 156; Michl 2009, 285).

Czechs resident in France at the start of the war also volunteered to fight against the Central Powers. Of the roughly 1,600 Czechs living in France, some 300 volunteered in August 1914 to fight in the French army, and by September the French administration had agreed to form a Czech company, along the lines of Polish, Belgian, Spanish, and Italian companies that were also developing within the French army at this time. In late October they were sent to the front (A. Zeman 1926–29, 1:169–173). As the war progressed, Czechs and Slovaks from Britain, Canada, the United States, and neutral European countries joined the “Nazdar” company in France (the word nazdar, initially meaning “for success,” emerged as a nationalist greeting among Czechs and Slovaks in the latter half of the nineteenth century). Czech and Slovak POWs from Serbia and ultimately Romania and Italy also helped swell its ranks (Sychrava 1927, 248–254). In December 1917 the French government agreed to permit the establishment of an independent Czechoslovak army on French soil, under the leadership of a Slavophile French general. When the war ended, this army consisted of about 12,000 men in four regiments (Kalvoda 1985, 425; Michl 2009, 285).

The entrance of Italy into the war created another major front for Austria- Hungary, and soon there were thousands of prisoners of war in Italy. In one prison camp, in January 1917, thirty Czech and Slovak prisoners established the Czechoslovak Volunteer Corps, offering their services to the Italian war effort. By April 1918 their organization had grown to 10,000, but the Italian government hesitated to accept their offer. At the same time, Czechs defecting from the Austrian army turned against the Austrians at the front, helping the Italians achieve significant local victories. František Hlaváček, a first lieutenant in the Habsburg army, brought valuable military documents when he defected and thus gained authority to negotiate with the Italian government about systematic involvement of Czech and Slovak volunteers. Following the disaster of Caporetto in October 1917, where 400,000 Italian troops were lost, the government finally agreed to arm the Volunteer Corps and permit the creation of a Czechoslovak Legion under Italian command (Kalvoda 1985, 425–430). By the end of the war, this Legion consisted of approximately 26,000 men (Lokay 1970, 27; Michl 2009, 285).

While all the Legions originated on the basis of independent local initiative, they all came eventually under the direction of the Czechoslovak National Council in Paris, which Masaryk, Beneš, Štefánik, and the exiled Agrarian Reichsrat deputy Josef Dürich established in 1916. This process was not without considerable interpersonal squabbling, during which Dürich fell out of the picture and Štefánik came into conflict with Hlaváček, but ultimately the leadership of the Paris Council was accepted and Masaryk was acknowledged as the “little father” of the Czechoslovak independence movement (Mamatey 1973, 14). Following the creation of an independent Czechoslovak republic in October 1918, the Czechoslovak Legions became the core of the new state’s army.

Depending on whether they remained to the end of the war at least ostensibly loyal to the Habsburgs, or joined one of the Czechoslovak Legions, Czech and Slovak soldiers experienced the Great War in radically divergent ways. Veterans of the Legions tended to recall an existential transition from absurdity in the Austro-Hungarian army to synergy in their own volunteer corps, while veterans who remained in the Austro-Hungarian army described an intensifying experience of absurdity and frustration, finding release (perhaps) only in the end of the war and return to their now-independent homeland.

Absurdity in the Austro-Hungarian Army

In their memoirs, Czech and Slovak veterans unanimously describe their time in the Austro-Hungarian army as a miserable experience. In Hegelian terms, they did not see themselves reflected in their work, such that their enforced participation in the Habsburg war effort was an affront to their human dignity. The primary reason that most memoirists give is that Austria- Hungary’s war aims conflicted with their own nationalist and pan-Slavist sentiments; powerlessness in the face of official decisions that soldiers considered inept or immoral made matters worse.

Veterans repeatedly testify to having professed nationalist or patriotic convictions well before the outbreak of the war. The national awakening of the nineteenth century had created an awareness of Czech national history which permeated the Czech school system and the grassroots Sokol organization. The nationalist version of Czech history emphasized the independent medieval Czech kingdom, the reform movement of Jan Hus, and loss of independence to Austria after the Battle of White Mountain in 1620. Rudolf Medek, who surrendered to the Russians in Galicia and later joined the Legion, recalls that he had written poetry in the third grade about Jan Hus and the Hussite general Jan Žižka. Following the Bosnian crisis of 1908, he had come to the conclusion that Austria-Hungary should be broken up and the Czech kingdom restored (1929b, 1:9, 12). Karel Zmrhal, who also joined the Legion in Russia, was typical of many Czechs who regretted the catastrophe of White Mountain, as a result of which “For almost three hundred years we as a nation have borne the sacrificial candles of our lost freedom” (1919, 53). The Slovak Legionary Ferdinand Čatloš had earned expulsion from his school in Upper Hungary for collaborating on an underground Slovak literary magazine (Čatloš 1933, 17; Gacek 1936, 45). Even before the war many Czechs and some Slovaks had believed that their position in the Dual Monarchy was an unjustly subordinate one; this perception carried through to the Habsburg army.

Closely related to Czech and Slovak nationalism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was pan-Slavism. As a minimum, pan-Slavists advocated cooperation among Slavic peoples; at most, they sought the unification of all Slavs in a great political entity under Russian leadership. When Stanislav Neumann set off in 1914 for Montenegro, he hoped secretly that the Entente would win the war (1928, 13). The idea of fighting fellow Slavs was absurd for him, as certainly for many of his compatriots. “The little Czech soldier, who in schools and patriotic books was inspired by pan-Slavic ideology and heroic tales of Montenegrin chetas, neared and looked upon Mount Lovćen with a peculiar emotion. Wearing an Austrian uniform – all too justly hated [...], feeling clearly that he was in the service of imperialism, everywhere equally putrid, forced to impinge upon the fate of a brave and healthy tribe, he saw in the peak of Lovćen a martyr’s crown, which the Austrian army and its despotic ruler had illicitly placed there” (81). Josef Šefl, on his march to the Eastern Front, also felt profoundly absurd about having to fight fellow Slavs. “We [Czechs] knew that those against whom we were fighting were our brothers, fighting for us and for our independence” (1922, 10). Mikuláš Gacek writes that he and his schoolmates had made plans with Serbian friends before the war that Serbs would come from the south to assist the Slovaks, while “the august Russian Tsar, when he sees how Slovaks are struggling for freedom, will come and help” (1936, 46).

Disorganization that Czechs and Slovaks perceived in the Austro-Hungarian army provided a vehicle for further justifying their irritation. “It often happened that a given order contradicted an order given just a minute previously,” writes Šefl (1922, 15). Cyrill Růžička (n.d.) dilates on an incident when he was ordered by one officer to boil water and by another not to use any fuel. Augustín Drobný laments that his regimental officers once ordered an attack on their own forces, and he complains that “only those at the bottom are the executive organs – everyone else just gives orders” (1933, 69, 121). While such absurdities may be characteristic of all armies to varying degrees, the use of these comments in the memoirs was primarily to provide further evidence of the rottenness of Austria-Hungary, not necessarily to highlight a root cause of dissatisfaction. Drobný, however, does suggest that Austro-Hungarian ineptitude was worse than necessary, contrasting the effectiveness of German weapons with the unreliability of his own army’s and noting that, in the marshes of eastern Galicia, Austro- Hungarian trenches were impossible to maintain, whereas the Germans’ were “perfectly organized” (116, 165).

More grievous to Czech and Slovak soldiers were what they saw as the moral excesses of the Austro-Hungarian command. Šefl and Růžička both protest against the ruthlessness with which the Austro-Hungarians treated prisoners in Galicia and Serbia, respectively. When the Russians attacked Przemyśl, Medek notes that they approached without artillery support or even hand grenades. His commander (who happened to be Czech) ordered them to keep shooting, even though the result was a gratuitous massacre, and Medek writes that he was not the only one to feel ashamed (1929b, 1:115). Several veterans draw attention to the medieval forms of corporal punishment that officers inflicted on their own soldiers when they collapsed due to heat, hunger, sickness, or exhaustion, sometimes to the point of caning them to death (Drobný 1933, 93–100; Fidrich 1933, 30; Potôček 1933, 68). Drobný uses the intervention of Imperial German officers on one occasion to point up the absurdity of Austro-Hungarian practices, for the Germans evidently shouted, “You tyrants! You barbarians! [...] You want to win this war? These men are supposed to follow you?” (100).

In sum, Czech and Slovak memoirists widely perceived their participation in the Austro-Hungarian war effort to have been, in Medek’s words, “vain, stupid, and pointless” (1929b, 1:119). Many soldiers described a feeling of being led like sheep to slaughter, but added that they felt powerless to do anything about it (Medek 1929b, 1:119; Šefl 1922, 10).6 While certainly there were Czechs and Slovaks sincerely loyal to Francis Joseph and Charles who did not question their orders (Bôčik 1933, 12; Kajan 1933, 97; Klátik 1933, 101; Michal 1933, 38), the experience of most was one of relentless absurdity. Some soldiers were compelled to deal with this absurdity until war’s end, while others found a way out.

Synergy in the Czechoslovak Legions

Over 100,000 Czechs and Slovaks managed to escape the absurdity by joining the Czechoslovak Legions. Some surrendered intentionally to the Entente with hopes of joining the struggle against the Central Powers, while others learned of this option only after spending some time in prison camps. Memoirists describe the experience as a breathtaking personal transformation. “It is Christmas [1917],” writes Karel Zmrhal, quoting from his diary, “the Christmas of a Czech volunteer. What a difference...! It is a Christmas with thoughts so peaceful, like never before. I feel that I am fulfilling my responsibility, and I have only one wish, just quickly to return to a free Bohemia and to my loved ones. In old Bohemia I would not feel satisfied even among my dearest” (1919, 62). A metaphysical boundary had been crossed, and neither the world nor the self appeared to be the same. “It was as if we had been completely reborn, become new beings,” recalls Štefan Michal (1933, 37). Jan Tříška writes that when his father joined the Legion in Italy in 1918, “he could hardly believe the sudden, dramatic, and sweeping change in his fate. From a wretched member of a despised, defeated army, he was elevated, almost by magic, to the honorable position of a valued soldier in the army of his own free country, a sovereign state, a respected member of the Allied Powers!” (1998, 117). The reasons for the metaphysical metamorphosis which Czech and Slovak soldiers experienced after joining the Legions can be summed up in Hegel’s old, familiar formula: they now saw themselves reflected in others and reflected in their work, to a significantly greater extent than before. Social relations were markedly better in the Legions than in the Habsburg army. All the Legionaries spoke a common language (Czech and Slovak are mutually intelligible), and all were volunteers fighting for a cause in which they sincerely believed and for which they were willing to risk death. Perhaps for these reasons, there were closer relations between officers and troops in the Legions than in the Austro-Hungarian army. Memoirists quote their commanders and speak of them with reverence. A former officer remembers correcting a new volunteer who addressed him with Habsburg-style deference, impressing on him that “we’re all brothers here” (Michal 1933, 43). Another veteran memorializes his first captain, who “could spend hours walking with any brother” (Gacek 1936, 109). Still another recalls that when General Štefánik visited Russia he shook the hands of all the troops and invited all the Slovaks for an informal chat. Štefánik’s penetrating, confidence-inspiring gaze, he writes, was something he would never forget (Čechovič 1933, 74).

In recalling his experience with the Legion in Russia, Josef Pitra draws attention to the feeling of unity and brotherhood that prevailed among the troops there. Following usage adopted by all Legionary writers, Pitra writes of his fellows not just as fellows, but as brothers – all sons of a common Motherland. This brotherhood applied regardless of whether a fellow soldier was actually known or not. Near Penza, for example, one of five Czechoslovak trains heading toward Vladivostok was attacked by Bolsheviks. Alerted in advance by their scouts, the troops managed to set up a line of defence, which the Bolsheviks placed under siege. “Let us not lie here forever! wrathfully cried an unknown brother. It’s best to charge at them now – now!” (Pitra 1922, 51, emphasis added). This feeling of brotherhood fostered identification as well as tolerance. When Pitra found another soldier sleeping in his hole, he did not get angry, but just went to dig another one (Pitra 1922, 43). A day of heavy rain, which leaked into a Legionary train, was an opportunity for yet another experience of solidarity. “Places where the rain did not drip were tightly occupied from the ground up. And it wasn’t bad! A joke struck like lighting, a memory sprang forth, a song was whistled into being, and our spirits shone. We were home! Our home was our train, our wagon. We were one family!” (Pitra 1922, 67). Mikuláš Gacek, too, writes explicitly of his fellow Legionaries as members of a common family (Gacek 1936, 46). For Jenda Hofman, serving with the Legion in France, “the solidarity among us was the best” (quoted in Werstadt 1923–35, 1:22).

While the trains may indeed have felt like home, the soldiers never lost sight of the fact that the freedom of their homeland was their goal. Rudolf Medek (1929b) summed up his whole experience of the war as “a pilgrimage to Czechoslovakia” (the title of his two-volume memoir). The sense of a sacred mission found its way into romantic analogies which the soldiers represented in words and art both during the war and after. During the war, Legionaries stylized themselves as the heirs of Jan Žižka and his Hussite army, which in the fifteenth century had maintained the independence of Bohemia and the Utraquist Church against the assaults of all surrounding powers (figure 1). Their regiments were named after Hussite generals, and their flags and gravestones bore the Chalice – an old Hussite symbol – rather than the Cross. On train cars in Russia, Legionaries painted images of Janošík, a Slovak folk hero prophesied to return to earth with his comrades in his people’s hour of greatest need (figure 2). Memoirists included photographs of such images in their books, recalling fondly how they had impressed members of their host armies during the war. A Legionary chronicle, published for veterans after the war, proclaims: “Hardly had the enemy heard the singing of God’s warriors when they threw down their swords, abandoned their banners, and in panic-stricken horror and fear, fled before the Hussites” (Vaněk 1922–29, 4:5). The chronicle speaks of “how strangely the old legends about the Knights of Blaník were fulfilled, as well as the prophesy of Comenius [written after White Mountain], ‘to thee shall return the rule of thine own things, O Czech people,’ ” (Vaněk 1922–29, 4:4).

Among at least some memoirists, this sense of a sacred mission took on messianic proportions. Reference to Jan Hus, who in Czech and Protestant Slovak nationalist historiography had really started the Reformation, informed this sense; Legionary heirs to Hus confirmed it.7 According to Otakar Vaněk, “the great truth of free human conscience, which today is the property of all humankind, is a Czech truth, the Czech national idea, the greatest Czech victory that has ever been – immortal” (1922–29, 4:5). Rudolf Medek, interpreting the entire Legionary experience in Russia, writes of the Czechoslovak nation as “a nation which, though numerically not among the greatest peoples of the world, had proved that in its struggle for law, order, and freedom, it could achieve great things. From that time dates the truly international character of the Czechoslovak national movement” (1929a, 35). In Russia, after the October Revolution, Legionaries saw themselves as liberators, teaching the Russian peoples how to organize and defend themselves. Some, at least, came to see their cause as self-determination for all subject peoples. “Freedom of my nation and those of others,” wrote Karel Zmrhal, “or death!” (1919, 63; see also Gacek 1936, 87).

Legionaries distinguished themselves at the Battle of Zborov on the Eastern Front, of Artois on the Western, and of Doss Alto on the Italian. Russians called the Czechoslovak Družina “the Battalion of Victory or Death” (Medek 1929a, 34). István Deák suggests that “whatever their motivation for joining, [the Legionaries...] fought well, for they were convinced that they would be executed as traitors if captured by the Austro-Hungarians” (Deák 1990, 198). While this may indeed have been one of their motivations, the memoirs suggest that it was incidental. Legionaries do not recall fighting out of fear, but out of love for their nation. It should be remembered that the Legionaries were a special group, who had volunteered for their task in full knowledge of the risks. At least as much as fear of execution, nationalist fervour coupled with the intense social synergy of the Legions should be acknowledged as motivating factors. Jan Tošnar, whose fluency in Italian enabled him to evade recognition as a Czech Legionary after Hungarians captured him in the battle of the Piave, writes that he feared being discovered not because it would mean hanging for treason, but because such a death would not help his nation (1930, 84–85). Karel Zmrhal provides another perspective: “Here we have learned how to think and speak freely, and we desire freely also to act. We know today only one thing: freedom. For freedom we are sprinkling this beautiful white Ukrainian snow once again with blood. For us there is only one road: to a free Bohemia, or death!” (1919, 57–58).

Veterans of the Russian Legion attest to having shared a feeling of invincibility. “No one doubted,” writes Pitra; “faith in our success was universal” (1922, 59). As Gacek puts it, “We were convinced there was nothing on earth at which we would not succeed, if only we really wanted it” (1936, 116). Legionaries repeatedly emphasize their ability to defeat the Bolsheviks with minimal casualties. What could explain it, given that they were so outnumbered? According to Pitra it was the “good Spirit of our nation, which directed our actions and did not permit that we might be the first to lift a hand to fight with the disillusioned and misled Russian nation” (1922, 14). If the good Spirit of their nation was for them, who could be against?

In Russia, Czechoslovak soldiers found an excellent “Other” against which to define themselves. Zmrhal speculates that one of the reasons why the Tsarist regime had agreed to the Družina’s formation was that Czechs were more cultured (1919, 54). When the Revolution began in 1917, the Czechoslovak army “did not succumb to the Russian revolutionary chaos and disorganization. It became an island in the storm, an island of discipline and order in the wild confusion which shook the old Russian Empire to its very foundations” (Medek 1929a, 7). Indeed, Czechoslovak troops “defended the ‘Russian Revolution’ against the reactionary and imperialistic armies of William II in the great Battle of Zborov” (Medek 1929a, 13). Gacek quotes with reverence a speech Masaryk gave in Russia in the summer of 1917, in which the Czechoslovak leader evaluated the ongoing Russian revolution. “We can see how anarchy has established itself where there should have been democracy; let us take this as a cautionary tale in planning our own course of action” (1936, 105). After the Bolshevik Revolution, when the Legion was compelled to set off across Siberia, Legionaries insisted that it had not been they who started the fighting, but the promise-breaking Soviet government (Medek 1929a, 8). Rudolf Pitra emphasizes that Czechs showed far greater respect for life than the Bolsheviks, whose barbarisms he declares too gruesome to describe, and that everywhere the peoples of Russia and Siberia hailed them as liberators from Bolshevik tyranny. Eventually, of course, they had to leave liberated townspeople to their own devices, but “not before teaching them what a people’s democratic army really is” (Pitra 1922, 27; see also Medek 1929a, 18).

Reinforcing solidarity among Legionaries in France, and the feeling that they were fighting with a purpose, was the need to prove themselves to their French hosts. “Everywhere we meet with unfamiliarity and misunderstanding,” wrote Jenda Hofman in his diary. “Let us not forget that we are not free, that despite the rights we enjoy here, in England, and in Russia, very few have absolute faith in us. Let us show them who we are, that we are not ciphers” (quoted in Werstadt 1923–35, 1:22). In Russia, after American, Canadian, French, and Italian troops got involved in the Civil War, Legionaries reported feelings of superiority with respect to their Allied partners. “The peculiar psychological conditions in Russia and Siberia,” writes Medek, “began to tell on foreign armies unused to the stifling and chaotic atmosphere of a war that was, after all, a civil war. The Czechoslovaks alone did not succumb to this disorganization, and seeing the hopelessness of further enterprise in Russia [after the Allies had given up], they, too, set off for home” (1929a, 31).

The soldiers in the three Czechoslovak Legions fought different battles and experienced different living conditions, which naturally produced significantly different memories. Nonetheless, the mode used to structure memory remained overwhelmingly romantic across the three groups. Their experience in the Austro-Hungarian army had been one of contradiction and absurdity, while fighting with the Legions for the independence of their homeland was a liberating experience in itself. The Legionary experience, however, was not the most common one for Czech and Slovak soldiers in World War I. Most remained to the end in the Austro-Hungarian army, or awaited the end in hospitals and prison camps.8 Now it is time to consider how they remembered the war.

Alternative Memories

Veterans who had not served in the Legions published far fewer memoirs in the interwar period than did Legionary veterans. The reasons for this are open to speculation. Perhaps most Czechs were happy about their independence and saw the Legionaries as directly responsible; for this majority the Legionary story would be more interesting than their own absurd experience. Most Slovaks, if Slovak Legionaries are to be believed, were as indifferent to independence as they had been to the war, and so might have felt no particular need to document their experience (Jokel 1933, 36; Kajan 1933, 96; Potôček 1933, 81). The intense synergy of the Legionary experience, by contrast, may have given Legionary veterans more motivation and social support to write. In any case, it is clear that a standard narrative of World War I emerged early in the interwar period, and it was the narrative of the Legionaries. Memoirists of the Austro-Hungarian army experience had to respond to the “liberation legend” either explicitly or implicitly; they can be classified on the basis of whether they reinforced or subverted it.

Josef Šefl’s book is an apology, seeking to explain and justify his own nonparticipation in the Legions. He writes that he missed the chance to be captured by the Russians when he fought them in Galicia, because at that time (1914) he still expected the war to end soon, with Russia occupying Bohemia. Instead of allowing himself to be captured, he used his authority as a non-commissioned officer to order his men to retreat (1922, 26–27, 42). Stuck in the Austro-Hungarian army, he writes that he joined other Czechs in conducting a “passive” revolution, even while the Legions abroad were carrying on the “active” revolution (58). Evidently he was not passive enough, for he ended up being arrested for treason in November 1914 and spending six months in prison, before being sent back to the front for lack of men. His crimes: 1) saying that officers had fled a battle, 2) saying that soldiers were hungry, 3) saying that a revolution would break out in Bohemia, 4) saying that Francis Joseph should have had himself crowned King of the Czech lands, and 5) saying that his parents wrote to him what was going on at home (68). Šefl emphasizes the absurdity of his situation, and that of all Czechs in the Habsburg army.

The explicit purpose of Augustín Drobný’s memoir is “to describe the suffering of Slovak and Slavonic troops fighting under foreign flags, for foreign interests” (1933, 5). A student in Germany when the war began, he was called home to Pressburg when Francis Joseph ordered general mobilization, and sent to the Eastern Front in 1915. Initially he did not question his duty, though he was by no means enthusiastic, but as the months went by he became disgusted with the brutality and hypocrisy of Austro-Hungarian officers as well as the “lords” at home who required innocent young men to kill one another while they sat in safety and profited from the want of common citizens. As Drobný came in contact with Russian POWs and soldiers dying on the battlefield – people “just like us” – he developed pan- Slavic sympathies, and as he engaged in battle after horrible battle – which he describes in grisly detail – he became a self-avowed pacifist. “The bitterness of our present life is poisoning us,” he writes. “We are indifferent to everything. We don’t know why we are fighting. The brutality of war has stripped us of our humanity and turned us into animals” (215). An escape attempt failed, though he was not caught; he learned of the Czechoslovak Legions only in April 1916, just before he was seriously wounded and sent home for the remainder of the war (140, 240). Though he states that a goal of his book is to prevent future wars, he is equally insistent that peace can be maintained only if the rising generation is always ready to defend the Slovak nation and the democratic Czechoslovak state, which were freed from a militaristic monarch and nationally chauvinistic aristocrats only by the sacrifices of the previous generation and particularly the Czechoslovak Legions (5). “The truth,” he insists, echoing Masaryk, “must prevail!” (240, 248).

Whereas Šefl and Drobný present narratives of the war very much in harmony with the “liberation legend,” Stanislav Neumann does not. He opens each chapter of his memoir with a discussion of death by disease – which in the Balkans, he writes, was ironically more common than death at the front (1928, 5). He writes of Austrian officers as “parasites,” protesting that even when all the soldiers were hungry, they had plenty of food. Only one officer – a fellow Czech, who “liked to talk and joke with us” – escapes Neumann’s indignation (8). Inclined toward socialism before 1914, wartime injustices like this evidently pushed Neumann further to the left, and afterwards he joined the Communist Party. While at the beginning he had placed his hopes in the Allies and especially France, he writes that he was ultimately “disillusioned” by the western powers, who seemed more interested in themselves than in humanistic ideals. For Neumann, the war was “dirty,” and the order that emerged afterwards not much cleaner (85).

Josef Váchal, who served on the Italian front, makes the ugliness of war his central theme. An artist by profession and Buddhist by confession, Váchal claimed not to be concerned with who might win the war. For him, war was simply a means for restoring ecological balance between humans and other animals when natural catastrophes failed to do so. “All those whose limbs and innards will soon be torn apart in the trenches,” he writes, “have in any case trespassed against their brother animals and nature in general” (1996, 144). Nonetheless, the gruesomeness of death in the trenches weighed heavily upon him, becoming the subject of several woodcuts and poems. He thought he had escaped these horrors when a serious injury sent him to a field hospital, but ironically, when he had sufficiently recovered, he found himself assigned to the manufacture of grave markers. In sum, Váchal considered the war to have been a pointless evil, which could have been avoided if men had been content with the simple joys of family and craft. Even the postwar independence of his country Váchal regarded as of little consequence; all he desired was to be with his family and to pursue his art (218–221).

While relatively few memoirs present a non-Legionary perspective of the Great War, interwar novels partially fill the lacuna. Many, of course, like Rudolf Medek’s pentalogy, merely retell the liberation legend in fictional form, but others speak with a sense of disillusionment characteristic of what Fussell considers great war literature in Britain. Jan Weiss’ Cottage of Death, Karel Konrád’s Dismissed, and Vladislav Vančura’s apocalyptic Tilled Fields are all gloomy documents “of the psychology of post-War mal de Siècle” (Hostovský 1943, 83). By far the most popular and famous of these novels was Jaroslav Hašek’s The Good Soldier Švejk (1921–23). Hašek, who had fought with the Legion in Russia until he joined the Soviet Communist Party, created a hero who, many Czechs believed, personified their wartime predicament of having to fight for an empire they hoped would lose. Švejk is an enigmatic character, simultaneously clever and stupid, who engenders absurd situations by ostensibly serving the Austrian cause with enthusiasm.

By taking regulations more seriously than army officers themselves, Švejk actually undermines the Austrian war effort. Naturally, Hašek’s novel attracted the condemnation of Legionary veterans and other adherents of the emerging standard narrative, not only because of what they saw as his wartime treason, but because they believed Švejk set a bad example.9 Czech heroes, they argued, should be brave and chivalric, like the Legionaries who died fighting for Czechoslovak independence; Švejk was an insult to their memory (Medek 1929b, 1:123).

Death and the Morality of Memory

In The Great War and the British People, Jay Winter suggests that British veterans wrote their memoirs for three reasons: to memorialize their fallen comrades, to expose the ugliness of war, and to address their feeling of guilt for having survived (1985, 289–304). In the Czechoslovak case, the first of these reasons appears frequently, the second occasionally, and the third not at all. Instead, we find two more reasons: to preserve veterans’ own sense of identity, and to contribute to the building of a new society.

All Legionary memoirists speak respectfully of their fallen “brothers,” and it is clear that a major purpose for writing was to memorialize them. Václav Ivičič, in his history of his Russian Legionary regiment, provides photographs of all known resting places of comrades who fell in Siberia, as well as maps of their cemeteries (1924, 212–43) (figure 3). Rudolf Pitra writes that the fallen still “live with us in spirit... in our memories” (1922, 57). Veterans do not speak of the dead with sadness, however, but with a certain confident joy. In Siberia, remembers Pitra, “we spoke of them lightly and without concern – in a way that no one who knew the difficulty of our situation could understand.” After burying four brothers, Pitra recalls, Legionaries even invoked humor: “Where there are four Czechoslovaks, there it is good – like home!” (1922, 61). This phenomenon may be partly attributable to the intense bonding that took place among Legionary brethren, in conjunction with the deep sense of mission they felt. The death of Legionary soldiers was widely considered to be an efficacious sacrifice for the freedom of their homeland (Gacek 1936, 145, 161; Sajda 1933, 7; Zuman 1922, 12–13). An exhaustive chronicle designed to be an heirloom for Legionary veterans, which includes a nameplate at the front for owners to record the details of their own participation, closes with an image of a fallen soldier, his last gaze looking through parted clouds to the shining spires of liberated Prague – a direct pictorial connection between the sacrifice of fallen Legionaries and their country’s independence (figure 4). The chronicle indicates that “our brothers lie with smiles on their lips” (Vaněk 1922–29, 4:841).

If the monuments built to Legionaries after the war are any indication, the belief in a direct causal relationship between the Legions and Czechoslovak independence was widespread. Šefl and Drobný say as much in their non-Legionary memoirs. This was a memorialization of the dead which emphasized not death, but life. As one author proclaimed, fallen Legionaries “did not live in vain” (Dančenko-Němirovič 1922). In the memoirs of Neumann and Váchal, however, death does not assume a heroic mask. Insofar as Neumann discusses death, it is casually or ironically, as if to emphasize the pointlessness of it all. Váchal, too, insists that the terrible deaths he witnessed in the Italian trenches served no purpose besides an ecological one. Neither author memorializes individual soldiers; they merely protest the social forces that caused such a great and absurd loss of life.

Of the memoirs we have discussed, only Drobný’s and Váchal’s make the ugliness of war a central and insistent theme. The other authors acknowledge the ugliness, but either push it to the background – more or less as a matter of course – or seek to understand its social origins. Perhaps because the war in the Balkans was such a mobile war, in which the Serbs suffered far more than the Austro-Hungarians, Neumann and Růžička do not find the violence there worthy of any special comment. For the Legionaries, the horror of the war did not seem to be as noteworthy as the spirit of solidarity and purposefulness which prevailed among them. “It was a horrible and beautiful time,” writes Jaroslav Werstadt, who proceeds to focus on the beauty (1923–35, 1:5). Even in their visual representations of battles, Legionaries tended to create beautiful images of good triumphing over evil (figure 5). Drobný insists on describing the horror of fighting on the Eastern Front, but still sees good beyond the evil in the Legions he never joined, as well as in honest common soldiers who occasionally found enough humanity within themselves to resist or mitigate the inhuman orders of their superiors. In Váchal’s memoir and his woodcuts, on the other hand, there is only violence, with no good to be seen (figure 6).

Survivor guilt is a common part of grieving, either out of desire to undo the past or dread of the future. It is characteristic of a state of mind wherein bereavement cannot be placed in a meaningful historical scheme. While such guilt may have been common in Britain, it does not seem to have characterized the collective Czechoslovak memory of the war, whether Legionary or not. Legionaries insisted that their brothers fell for a cause – the independence of their homeland – and with this cause achieved, their deaths did seemed not without meaning. Moreover, they maintained that any one of them would have accepted the same fate. Drobný and Váchal, who echoed Western assertions that World War I was a needless slaughter, did not profess any guilt either. Guilty for them were the powerful – the monarchs and aristocrats (Drobný) or the politicians and capitalists (Váchal) who had caused the war. The ordinary people, with whom they identified, were in principle innocent – save those who sought their own prosperity within the existing power structures.

A central reason for writing both memoirs and histories of Legionary regiments was the need to reinforce identities that soldiers had assumed during the war, and to preserve the synergy they had shared. As Ferdinand Čatloš wrote, “nowadays these meetings [of Legionary veterans] are being organized in order to preserve a spirit, to strengthen national groupings and to build a tradition of military solidarity, friendship, and community, to keep faith to oneself and to one’s comrades – faith, which in those most horrible times full of tests, joined us and united us, for it was often sanctified with blood” (1933, 17). Rudolf Pitra wrote that just before finally leaving Russia, “we strolled among familiar places, looking one last time on a countryside that will never disappear from our memories. We were glad to leave, even though we felt that a piece of ourselves would remain here, a captivating episode of our lives” (1922, 72). Many veterans recalled the Legions as the most glorious period of their lives, a time when they had discovered hitherto unsuspected strengths, when they had transcended their former selves. Writing and reading about their experiences provided a way to revisit and potentially even recapture that spirit.

Perhaps the most prominent reason why Czech and Slovak veterans wrote their memoirs was didactic. Proponents of the standard Legionary narrative wanted to provide inspiring examples of the new political morality they hoped would characterize the new republic. “Even if we don’t like to remember the painful days, months, and years of the world war,” writes Josef Šefl, “we dare not, in this post-war chaos and turmoil, forget the recent past. It is good to look to bygone years, to draw lessons from them, so that we might truly value the Freedom for which our brothers suffered and died on all the battlefields of the world” (1922, 7). The fact that so many Legionaries had died to bring their country independence made it a moral imperative for survivors to tell their story. The struggle for freedom had not ended with the establishment of Czechoslovakia; the Legionaries now had to make sure their people were trained for freedom (Čechovič 1933, 42). Taking a pessimistic view of things, Rudolf Medek asked: “Is it worth it to these rascals, that for the freedom of their land and for a better future for their children the Czech Družina bled in Russia and assembled a great army, which should come to the Czech lands and Slovakia and proffer the banner of liberty to the hands of immature, weak, cowardly, and even refusing people? Won’t we hear some speak of the full coffers of Egypt, or how under Austria it was better?” (1929b, 1:119–20). Such questions are very similar to those featured in the French film J’Accuse – which Winter discusses at length in Sites of Memory – wherein the dead rise up to visit a French town and see whether the living are worthy of their sacrifice. The moral implication in both cases is that readers and viewers should mend their ways, lest the sacrifice lose its meaning.

Masaryk and the Legionaries with him stood for active involvement in political life – even at the risk of personal loss. Adherents to this political philosophy found the passivity which so many Czechs and Slovaks had demonstrated in the war to be problematic. As Karel Zmrhal proclaimed, “Woe to those who slept while others created” (1919, 74). Socialist writers like Neumann and Hašek, and writers with socialist inclinations like Váchal, challenged the standard war narrative upon which all this didacticism was based. With very few exceptions, divergences in the Czech memory of World War I crystallized into a schism between the dominant “liberation legend” and a subversive socialist interpretation. That, at least, is how contemporaries saw it. One of the few revisionist Legionary memoirists protested against this polarization. “The ideology of the class struggle and the political reaction to it,” he wrote, “have stifled any realistic history of our revolution, which would be based on historical fact and actual developments. Politics has triumphed over science and real history” (Zuman 1922, 10).10

The socialist counter-interpretation was not as pronounced in Slovakia, where the main cleavage in the public memory of the war seems to have been between the Legionary minority and a silent majority. Slovak Legionary memoirists, however, did occasionally draw attention to misunderstandings with their Czech brethren during the war – misunderstandings that at the time they had tried to overlook, but which in retrospect appeared as intimations of future tragedy. Mikuláš Gacek recalls being delegated by his regiment with one other Slovak to travel to distant Borispol, where Masaryk in July 1917 was to address the main Legionary host. “He spoke entrancingly,” writes Gacek. “We trembled. Our hearts were fully open... And with every transition to a new thought our spirits quivered with the happy expectation: now, here it comes – the next words will be for us, for Slovaks.” Alas, Masaryk spoke extensively about Czech history and the mission of the Czech nation, but never once mentioned the Czechs’ partners in the Czechoslovak Legions (1936, 102–06). In January 1919, when a new, mostly Slovak regiment was created in Irkutsk, the Slovak officers petitioned their Czech colonel to make Slovak the unit’s language of command, suggesting that Slovak POWs would be more likely to join the Russian Legion if their language were the language of administration in at least one regiment, and since theirs was already mostly Slovak, it was the logical choice. The Czech commander refused, however, on the grounds that Czech was a richer, more established language and that all Slovaks understood it. When the Slovak officers complained at higher levels, they were accused of separatism (Gacek 1936, 198–280). Incidents like this did not lessen Slovak Legionaries’ commitment to the Czechoslovak cause, either during the war or after, but they did warn that, “as a result of misunderstanding from the Czech side, Slovaks might really become separatists” (Gacek 1936, 205; see also Vnuk 1933, 200).

Throughout Europe, the memory of the Great War held the key to two fundamental social questions of the interwar period: Who are we, and where are we headed? Veterans wrote in order to answer these questions for themselves and for their people. The five motivations we have discussed were really different ways of posing the questions. Memorialization of the fallen was an essential component of these meditations because of the critical question of sacrifice. If soldiers’ deaths were clearly related to a positive result, then survivors had a moral responsibility to honor their ideals. If there was no correlation – if, in other words, the sacrifice was inefficacious – then the beliefs and institutions that had required this sacrifice needed to be reconsidered.


This article has argued that those Czech and Slovak soldiers who recalled the war in positive terms did so because they had been involved in the genesis of a new, transcendent sense of community. Whereas the experience of World War I may have been an experience of disillusionment for British, French, and German soldiers on the Western Front, it was an experience of profound “illusionment” for those Czech and Slovak soldiers who left the Austro-Hungarian army and joined the Czechoslovak Legions. Whereas British, French, and German soldiers may have enlisted enthusiastically and optimistically, only to find their hopes ironically and absurdly shattered, Czechs and Slovaks tended to find their participation in the Austro- Hungarian war effort absurd from the beginning. For those who remained in the Emperor-King’s army, the sense of absurdity proved enduring and even comparable to that experienced in the west; for others – a small but important minority – incorporation into the Czechoslovak Legions endowed the war with profound, even sacred meaning.

It still remains to consider Czechoslovak memory of the Great War according to Frye’s modes, and to compare Czechoslovak and western cases in their light. Insofar as they deal with life in the Austro-Hungarian army, Czech and Slovak memoirs fall unambiguously into Frye’s ironic category. These documents emphasize absurdity, their humor is black, and they depict the plight of powerless souls with minimal freedom of action. Legionary memoirs, on the other hand, use a mode best described as romantic. Their writers compare the Legionaries to medieval knights, their language is elevated, their humor noble. The scope of action they describe is grander than that of ordinary men in ordinary times. Pitra writes that, after reading Jack London’s Adventures, captured from the Penza soviet, he had been moved by these tales of how people in exceptional circumstances develop exceptional abilities and energy; Pitra identified with these characters and poured his enthusiasm into his writing (1922, 77).

Both the Legionaries and the standard Western narrative’s British, French, and German soldiers agreed that “he who wasn’t in the fight belongs to another world” (Pitra 1922, 59), yet they do not seem to have belonged to each others’ worlds, either. One might be tempted to attribute the difference to the novelty and peculiarity of trench warfare, which was indisputably most gruesome on the Western Front and figures so prominently in the disillusionment which British, French, and German soldiers described. If the Western Front were the only factor, however, then we would expect Czechs and Slovaks fighting there alongside the French to have experienced a similar sense of dark irony. This is not the case. On the contrary, Czechoslovak veterans of the Western Front recalled the same experience of synergy described by their comrades to the east. Legionaries in France did notice the demoralized mood of French troops, but found it puzzling rather than resonant with their own perceptions of the war. Jenda Hofman described his surprise at French morale in his journal, published posthumously in 1924: “Could it be that they have forgotten why we are fighting? It would be an unforgivable sin on all our parts, if these years of labor and all those victims should be for nothing” (quoted in Werstadt 1923–35, 1:24).

A further hypothesis might be that the Legionary narrative is characteristically a “winner’s narrative.” The British and French also won the war, however, and the insular British even experienced less domestic hardship than Czechs and Slovaks in the blockaded Habsburg Monarchy. Only two conclusions are possible: either the standard narrative of irony and disillusionment was not as pervasive in Britain and France as historians and literary critics have believed, and veterans there also articulated elements of a romantic “winner’s narrative,” or the type of warfare at the various fronts is not the only factor behind the divergent standard narratives of interwar Czechoslovakia and western Europe.

Since the modal difference between irony and romance is mimetic – a difference in the scope for an individual’s independent action with respect to others in a real or imagined social relationship – these relationships are the place to seek a resolution to our dilemma. In explaining why a soldier’s experience was ironic or romantic, it may be that the structure of his metaphysical relations with fellow soldiers, with officers, and with his nation was at least as important as the physical conditions of warfare. While physical circumstances can, of course, constrain agency, there would seem to be an important correlation, on one hand, between egalitarian or quasi-familial relations within an army and the experience of freedom in its ranks, and on the other between a more regimented structure and an experience of powerlessness. It is significant, for example, that Legionaries remained volunteers even after they joined; unlike British, French, and German soldiers, who frequently enlisted voluntarily only to be bound thereafter to inescapable military discipline, Czechoslovak Legionaries were as free to leave as they had been to join, and some did (Gacek 1936, 128; Styka 1933, 86). This freedom heightened the sense of responsibility among the majority who remained – a responsibility inseparable from an awareness of agency. Czech and Slovak veterans frequently recall that, because of the nature of social relations in the Legions, the experience of serving in them was itself liberating (Čatloš 1933, 23; Gacek 1936, 45). The revolution in which Legionary veterans universally claimed to be participating began, as they recall it, not in the future, with the achievement of Czechoslovak independence, but in the present, with the creation of a new society in their own ranks. It was, to be sure, a nationalist revolution (Legionaries themselves describe it in these terms, e.g. Čatloš 1933, 23), but it was not yet an imperialist nationalism. Whereas regular soldiers in the Great Powers’ armies could question whether the patriotism for which they were asked to kill and be killed was really a form of oppression, volunteers in the Czechoslovak Legions were convinced that they were fighting for their own national liberty. While nationalism provided the framework in which a specifically Czechoslovak revolution could be organized, moreover, with respect to feelings of empowerment it was far more important that this revolution was democratic. Indeed, it was precisely after December 1918, when the new Czechoslovak state introduced a more regimented structure (including former Austrian officers) into the Legions-turned-Army, that veterans recall their enthusiasm waning – despite the continuation of the war in Russia and the need to secure the new state’s borders at home (Gacek 1936, 190–253; Tošnar 1930, 241–42).

A cursory examination of Polish memoirs would seem to confirm these tentative conclusions. The Polish case is comparable to the Czechoslovak because of the Legions that fought for the restoration of Polish statehood under Piłsudski, but it is also more complex, not just because the Legions became divided between the 2nd Brigade, which swore “brotherhood in arms” with Germany, and the 1st and 3rd Brigades, which refused, but also because Polish troops fought in the regular German, Austrian, and Russian armies on both sides of the Eastern Front (not to mention the Southern and the Italian). Nonetheless, the patterns by which Polish veterans narrated their memories in the interwar period closely match those of their Czechoslovak counterparts. Veterans of the three regular armies consistently describe their experience in ironic, even dystopian terms, frequently recalling a sense of powerlessness and indifference as to whether they won or lost (Henning- Michaelis 1928–29; Iwicki 1978; Rapf 2011). Veterans of the 1st and 3rd Brigades, by contrast (especially the 1st, led by Piłsudski himself), relate stories of heroism in romantic pursuit of a glorious future and emphasize their sense of fraternity and equality in the Legions. They describe even the period after the Oath Crisis, when they were interned as POWs or drafted into the German and Austro-Hungarian armies, in romantic terms, for sacrifice was necessary to achieve the “resurrection” of Poland (Składkowski 1932–33, 1:196; see also Herzog 1994; Porwit 1986). Veterans of the 2nd Brigade – whose officers came from the Habsburg army and used German rather than Polish as the language of command – do not seem to fit either pattern. For example, the major theme of Stanisław Rostworowski’s (2001) memoir is duty, initially harmonious between Habsburg and homeland, then painfully conflicted, but ultimately resolved through the interplay of individual probity and external circumstance. This memoir falls between the high mimetic of romance and the non-mimetic of irony in the realm that Frye calls the “low mimetic,” where the protagonists’ power of action is constrained by social forces, but not slavishly so.

The Polish evidence can help us make sense of a further difference between British and Czechoslovak memory: survivor guilt as a motivation for writing in the former case and its absence in the latter. Whereas most Polish veterans align with their Czech and Slovak counterparts on this matter, those who were officers in the 2nd Brigade and the regular armies do occasionally acknowledge survivor guilt (Orobkiewicz 1919; Rostworowski 2001). Agency, of course, is a prerequisite of guilt. It would appear that most Polish veterans of the three regular armies, like Czech and Slovak veterans of the Habsburg forces, do not evince feelings of guilt because they regarded their position as powerless from the moment they were called up to the time when death, injury, capture, or the end of the war set them free. Veterans of the Czechoslovak Legions and Piłsudski’s 1st and 3rd Brigades do not describe feelings of guilt because they felt they were fulfilling the “sacred” destiny of their nation (Čatloš 1933, 17, 21), acting in complete harmony with its “good Spirit” (Pitra 1922, 14), mutually reinforcing with their peers an extraordinary sense of agency that approached the divine (Gacek 1936, 187–88). Winter’s (1985) British soldiers and some Polish officers were capable of experiencing survival guilt precisely because they possessed – at least at the outset – an “ordinary” sense of human agency. Even if British soldiers may not have felt free in the trenches, they had grown up in a relatively free society, accustomed to personal responsibility. It is, as Fussell suggests, “their residence on the knife-edge” between low mimetic and ironic that gives British war narratives – like the memoirs of some Polish officers – their distinctive character.

Further transnational comparison would be necessary to test and refine this hypothesis. Consideration of Serbian memoirs, for example, might confirm that egalitarian, familial relations – like those Victor Komski (1934) recalls in the Serbian army, where even King Peter donned an infantryman’s uniform and shared the sufferings of his host in its retreat across Albania – are correlated with subsequent romantic interpretations of the war. In order fully to understand the diversity of ways in which Europeans remembered World War I, and the reasons behind this diversity, a genuinely pan-European study is necessary. This diversity, it bears emphasizing, had important consequences. The Nazis’ ability to launch the Second World War depended very much on the diverse ways in which Germans remembered the First. The diverse European responses to the Nazi threat corresponded extremely closely with the ways in which particular European societies remembered the Great War. It is no coincidence that the British and French, who tended to remember the war ironically, chose the path of appeasement, while Poles and Serbs, among whom a romantic memory of the war prevailed, chose resistance in the face of certain defeat. In Czechoslovakia, as mentioned at the beginning of this article, veterans of the Legions were among the foremost advocates of armed resistance to Hitler – even after the western democracies had refused to support Czechoslovakia at Munich. The behavior of France and Britain confused Czechoslovak public opinion, however, such that Slovaks and especially Czechs began increasingly to suspect that the socialist interpretation of World War I – which emphasized the bourgeoisie’s selfish disregard for humanity – was after all the correct one. The course of European history even after the Second World War would depend, to a significant extent, on how Europeans remembered the First.


James Krapfl. Teaches European history at McGill University in Montreal, specializing in modern Central Europe and the comparative cultural history of European revolutions. He is the author of Revolution with a Human Face: Politics, Culture, and Community in Czechoslovakia, 1989–1992 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2013). Dr. Krapfl completed his PhD at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2007 and has commenced a new project on the popular experience of the late 1960s in Central Europe.


The author thanks David Dalibóg and Nikola Sirovica for assistance with the research behind this article, as well as Margaret Anderson, Richard Grainer, Nancy Partner, and the late Gerald Feldman for comments on earlier drafts.

1 Samuel Hynes’ A War Imagined: The Great War and English Culture (1991) is another prominent, albeit theoretically less profound, example of the “modernist” interpretation.

2 The word for homeland in Czech and Slovak, vlast/ť, is feminine.

3 For examples of Communist-era interpretations of World War I, see Jindřich Veselý’s Stalinist Češi a Slováci v revolučním Rusku, 1917–1920 (1954), and Karel Pichlík’s more balanced but still ideologically committed works, Červenobílá a rudá: Vojáci ve válce a revoluci 1914–1918 (1967), and Zahraniční odboj 1914–1918 bez legend (1968).

4 For details of these and other Czech (and Slovak) legends, see Alois Jirásek’s canonical Old Czech Legends (1992).

5 A partial exception, Domov za války (Žipek 1929) provides some information on the everyday life of ordinary people behind the lines, but most space is devoted to the activities of political conspirators.

6 British soldiers in Serbia reported seeing railway cars chalked with the words “Export of Bohemian Meat to Serbia” (May 1966, 1:353).

7 Though Protestants were a minority among Slovaks, they were significantly more likely to join the Legions than their Catholic co-nationals.

8 According to Jan Křen, roughly one million Czechs and Slovaks served in the Austro-Hungarian army during the war; of these, about 300,000 ended up in prison camps. The ratio of Legionary to non-Legionary veterans was approximately 1:9 (Křen 1989, 386).

9 It was only Masaryk’s general amnesty that allowed Hašek to return safely to Bohemia (Pytlík 1983, 59–63).

10 Zuman protested as well against what he saw as a by-product of this polarization: the tendency of Czech adherents of the “liberation legend” to see Russia only in negative terms. (Slovak Legionary veterans generally retained their affection for Russia, if not for Bolshevism.) Zuman had lived in Russia for 23 years before the war started and had been one of the first volunteers in the Czech Družina. While he was antagonistic to Bolshevism, he remained faithful to the old idea of pan-Slavic union. He was therefore dismayed that, with independence, Czechs had seemed to abandon pan-Slavism. Před dvaceti lety (Šapilovský 1934) is another work in this vein.

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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

Paweł Jaworski

Review: The Stockholm “Solidarity” Memoirs

20 August 2014
  • Solidarity
  • book review
  • Sweden

Torbjörn Nilsson & Thomas Lundén (eds) 1989 through Swedish Eyes: Witnesses’ Seminar of 22 Oct., 2009,
(Stockholm : Samtidshistoriska institutet, Centre for Baltic and East European Studies, 2010).
Fredrik Eriksson (ed.) It All Began in Poland : Sweden and “Solidarity ” 1980–1981, (Stockholm: Samtidshistoriska institutet, 2013).

Among the sources used by scholars of contemporary history, oral accounts are becoming increasingly popular. These are told by eye-witnesses, people who had major or minor impacts on the events in question, or who have knowledge that could not possibly be found in written sources.

This method, however difficult in its techniques, has become practically indispensable. It encompasses not only individual interviews, but also panel discussions. Meetings of this nature, called “witnesses’ seminars” (Vittnesseminarium), have been regularly held by the Contemporary History Institute at Södertörn högskola in Stockholm since 1998. After each of the meetings a precise account of all the speeches and discussions is published.

Over the last few years four of the meetings have dealt with the historic events of 1989. The first, held in 2006, concerned Sweden’s role in the Baltic States’ struggle to break free from Soviet domination. A year later Swedish policy towards the Baltic States in the first years of their independence became the focus of discussion. The opening of the 2009 sessions was marked by a conference devoted to the meaning of “the peaceful revolution of 1989” and the subsequent “witnesses’ seminar.” This time, the subject was treated from a broader perspective, inviting panelists who were able to talk about the changes in the GDR, Poland, Hungary, and the USSR from a Swedish perspective. A seminar organized on 13 December, 2010, devoted entirely to Polish issues, was an important complement to the above-mentioned series of meetings. The last two publications are particularly noteworthy, because this is where the voices on Polish events were heard. These voices represent part of Swedish historical memory dealing with the proceedings of the 1980s.

We should note that during the first of the two seminars the discussion revolved primarily around the demolition of the Berlin Wall on the night of 9 November, 1989.

Jan Blomqvist, Sweden’s military attaché in Bonn, focused on the German context of the dissolution of the Communist Bloc. He mentioned that the reunion of the two German states swiftly became a point of debate between the superpowers. He praised the policy of Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who had been taking advantage of all possible opportunities to maximize his gains. Ingrid Thörnqvist, a Swedish TV reporter, who was in Berlin on that day, interviewing passers-by about their emotions, first followed in Blomqvist’s footsteps. The Swedes could hardly believe what was happening. First reports of the opening of the border crossings in the capital of the GDR were unconfirmed, so not counting their chickens until they were hatched, the journalists remained rather conservative in their enthusiasm.

Örjan Berner, the Swedish ambassador in Moscow at the time, also spoke about the Berlin events. For him, the reaction of the Soviet authorities was key. As he recalls, there was a cool reception to the news from Berlin, with visible symptoms of being taken by surprise. At least nobody spoke of a military intervention, a fact which was decisive in the Swedish perception of the situation in the GDR. As for the long-term aftermath of the liberation of the Soviet satellite countries, the reaction of the West, including Sweden, was more reserved. What the western democracies feared most was the prospect of unpredictable domestic turmoil within the Soviet Union itself, which could easily lead to a civil war.

Journalist Arne Ruth of Dagens Nyheter, a leading Swedish daily, emphasized that the fall of the GDR and the rapid changes in Eastern and Central Europe were a great surprise. Now it seems obvious that these countries took the path leading to NATO and the European Union, but back then it was simply inconceivable. In Ruth’s opinion, a few other important figures of the time apart from Helmut Kohl should be mentioned: US President Ronald Reagan, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and above all, the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

The notion of fear about Europe’s future made I. Thörnqvist reflect upon the chronology of its origins. She mentioned that the anxiety appeared right after the rise of the “Solidarity” independent trade union, when it was the deepest. Western observers were afraid of pan-European destabilization. Ingrid Thörnqvist also supplemented the list of main actors of the time, mentioning the role of the Roman Catholic Church in Poland, the Protestant Church in East Germany, trade unions in various countries which had their ties to Solidarity, because “Poland was where the collapse of the Berlin Wall began.” Thörnqvist added that it had always been her conviction that “it was the Poles who did all the work, paved the way to freedom, fought against the regime through acts of resistance and made several endeavors.” She recalled the elections of 4 June, 1989 and the fact that a few weeks later Tadeusz Mazowiecki became prime minster of the first non-communist government in the Eastern Bloc. The others only followed in Poland’s footsteps.

Örjan Berner mentioned that he had a chance to observe the Polish grass roots movement of the anti-communist opposition in mid-1980s, when he was the ambassador in Warsaw. At a glance, this social movement seemed genuinely invincible, but on the other hand, the attitude of the regime, which still had the power to take repressive measures, was very important. From the Swedish perspective, then, the eventual changes came as a surprise, for the communist repressions were not lifted or diminished. According to Berner, the internal economic problems appeared decisive.

In his final statement, Arne Ruth stressed that the prime mover of the change was “the civil revolt, which coincided with the Soviet domestic crisis.” Without the civil opposition, anchored in the tradition of the Polish KOR [Worker’s Defense Committee] and the Czechoslovak Charter 77, the transformation would have been far less likely. It was the resistance of individuals, then, that made the first step in undermining the dictatorship.

A follow-up seminar, devoted to the Swedish response to the events in Poland in 1989, was also held. Sten Johansson, a renowned social-democratic politician, once the editor-in-chief of Tiden magazine and an adviser to Olaf Palme, talked about his contacts with Maria Borowska, who was spreading knowledge about the real nature of the communist dictatorship and the democratic opposition in the PRL (People’s Republic of Poland). With admiration, but doubtful of its effects, he observed the phenomenon of samizdat in Poland and the activities of the Workers’ Defense Committee in the 1970s. It was not until the dawn of the Solidarity era that he finally believed in the opposition, however small a group of activists they might have been.

Jakub Święcicki, Borowska’s close associate, active mainly in liberal circles, remarked that the sense of KOR’s existence lay not in the number of its members, but in openly expressed views shared by the majority of society, that is, a rejection of communism. Disregarding the circumstances at hand, it was a battle for democracy. Another speaker about Maria Borowska’s service was Bengt Säve-Söderbergh, a leading social democratic activist, a diplomat, and the leader of Arbetarrörelsens Internationella Centrum [International Working-Class Movement Center], now the Olof Palme International Center. He described Borowska as an “astute and stubborn” person and remarked that the Swedish Social Democratic Party had supported Solidarity from the very beginning through the Swedish Trade Union Confederation. All the people involved were well aware that the meaning of Solidarity was much broader than that of a trade union movement, but these aspects had to be avoided at all costs, or else the authorities in communist Poland would have had a pretext for making accusations of anti-state activities and repressing the Solidarity activists. Generally speaking, in Sweden Poland had been associated with opposition against oppressive and unwanted rule since the nineteenth century and anti-Russian uprisings. Another characteristic feature of the time was the strong position of the Catholic Church, whose cooperation was absolutely necessary in terms of distributing humanitarian aid, which seemed quite an exotic alliance for social democrats.

Sven Hirdman, a professional diplomat, focused on the international safety issues. He reminded the audience that Solidarity was formed in a difficult period, right after the beginning of the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan and just before Ronald Reagan took office, which were “two events that made us really anxious.” In spite of relatively correct bilateral relations (Olof Palme visited Poland in 1974 and a year later Edward Gierek made a trip to Stockholm), Hirdman held the conviction that the communists in the Eastern Bloc, deprived of popular legitimization of their authority, would collapse. The only question was when and how they would give up their rule. On the other hand, any changes on the international arena in that phase of the Cold War could have resulted in a nuclear conflict. Considering this context, the Swedish diplomacy feared that Solidarity would eventually destabilize the region, which, in the end, nobody would be able to control. Håkan Holmberg, a journalist connected to the Liberal Party [Folkpartiet], mentioned that the Committee for Solidarity with Eastern Europe [Östeuropeiska Solidartietskommittén], where he served with Jakub Święcicki, was active in Sweden in the time of KOR’s activities in Poland. Their main task was to provide real information about the situation in the Communist Bloc, as a counterweight to the official propaganda of the PRL regime.

Above all, they worked toward making the Swedish public aware that the communist regime in Poland was illegitimate. As a result, Polish democratic activities were unofficially and extremely cautiously supported, while the official Swedish line remained in concert with the Brandt and Kreisky doctrine, that is, curbing the opposition movements as dangerous, not only to the domestic order in Poland, but also from an international perspective. Hirdman admitted that the Swedish politicians, no matter who formed the government, “obeyed the Germans.”

Święcicki emphasized that had the Brandt “neutral line” continued, the Soviet Union would still exist. Säve-Söderbergh protested, denying that Palme followed Brandt’s policy toward Poland. In his opinion it was just the opposite: support for the Polish and Czechoslovak opposition was evident, as were the Swedish anti-apartheid activities in South Africa. The evidence for the involvement were transports of printing equipment and material aid for Solidarity, which continued even after 13 December, 1981.

A considerable part of the seminar was taken up by Sven Hirdman’s address, in which he exposed a government report of December 1980. It showed the consequences of the crisis for Sweden caused by the expected Soviet intervention. As the report had it, for the first time since the conclusion of WWII the Swedish government made a decision to raise the level of combat readiness of the Swedish armed forces. This meant extending the obligatory service period in the navy. The government also considered accepting a larger number of refugees from Poland, including soldiers and officers. Yet the most serious concern was that, should an armed conflict between the Polish and the Soviet army occur, the combat would unquestionably spread through Swedish territorial waters and airspace.

Hirdman himself did not believe the Soviets would decide to take military action, neither in 1980, nor a year later, as this would have meant “serious consequences for their relationship with Europe and the United States.” Swedish diplomats took every opportunity to explain to their Soviet peers that the Poles should handle their own affairs and that they would undoubtedly do this. Considering this position, it became even more difficult for the participants to express an unequivocal judgment of General Jaruzelski’s decision to declare Martial Law. The disputants agreed that, in order to state beyond doubt if this decision was in fact a lesser evil or not, access to secret, still inaccessible archives would be necessary. Attempts to assess General Jaruzelski’s conduct become even more complex considering his later approval of the elections of June 1989, which led to the eclipse of his rule.

In essence, the seminars on the Swedish perception of the events of 1980s which culminated in the fall of the communist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe show that the collapse of the Berlin Wall still dominates the popular reception of those times. Deeper analysis is needed to realize that in fact it was Poland where “it all began” in 1980, and which was also the country which played the leading role in 1989 in a series of changes that transformed the entire Communist Bloc.


Paweł Jaworski. Researcher and instructor at the History Institute of the University of Wrocław. His research interests include the history of Poland and the world in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the history of Scandinavia and Polish-Scandinavian relations, the history of Central-Eastern Europe, and Czechoslovakia in particular, and the history of diplomacy and international relations. He has written Independent Poland and Scandinavia 1918–1939, Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Wrocławskiego, Wrocław 2001 and Dreamers and Opportunists: Polish-Swedish Relations from 1939–1945, Wydawnictwo IPN, Warsaw 2009.

Sabine Stadler

Review: The Black Cross. Remembering the Victims of War – for Peace

20 August 2014
  • Great War
  • First World War
  • World War I
  • Second World War
  • book review
  • Austrian Black Cross

Review: The Black Cross. Remembering the Victims of War – for Peace (Wienna: BM für Inneres, 2012)
Das Schwar ze Kreuz. Kriegsopferfürsorge-Arbeit für den Frieden (Wien: BM für Inneres, 2012)

The Austrian Black Cross is an organization that dates back to the First World War. It looks after and renovates graves and cemeteries of soldiers who perished in the two world wars.

The Republic of Austria spent a great deal of money in publishing a large report on the activities of the ÖSK. The ÖSK was founded after the First World War to commemorate the soldiers who had died in the war. The organization is responsible for Austrians of the former Wehrmacht and their graves abroad, as well as for all graves, graveyards and cemeteries of foreign and refugee soldiers in Austria. The ÖSK has its office in the center of Vienna, and a large scientific and administrative board, headed by Dr. Stefan Karner, a history professor at the University of Graz. The administrative board is composed of representatives of the nine federal states, and South Tyrol, a province in Italy. Its duty in the nine federal states is to maintain the graves and graveyards of the soldiers, and ensure visitation rights for their families from all over the world. Anyone who has an ancestor in an Austrian cemetery has the right to visit the grave. The central office in Vienna works like a travel agency; it employs several translators and organizes group excursions from Ukraine, Russia, and Eastern Europe to visit graveyards. Maintaining the cemeteries where soldiers are buried and commemorating the deaths of our ancestors are the tasks of the Black Cross.

Academic research and publications are created by the LB Institute für Kreigsfolgenforschung, Universität Graz, where large conferences are held, and books and individual articles are published. A book has been issued, for example, on all the cemeteries in Austria and all the graves of Austrians in other European countries and South Russia. Since the Second World War the Black Cross has been involved in care for and commemoration of stone monuments and ceremonies in graveyards, helping to locate graves, to identify people, and to inform families. The organization also maintains foreign soldiers’ graves in Austria. Its photographs and documents are used for scientific reports all over the world. Some examples of its cooperation are the Austrian-Italian peace meeting, and the peace service for the Near East in North Israel-Syria (for the UN). The young people’s organization of the Black Cross offers practical assistance for graveyard work. The documentation contains a list of all the foreign programs since 1963–2011. These special programs are located in Poland, Croatia, Italy, Germany, and Austria.

Young people have come to St. Pölten from Germany, Austria, Russia, Poland, Eastern Europe, and twice from Russia.

Every federal state in Austria has its own organization.

Forty-seven locations are cemeteries, thirty-eight for the Red Army or Russians.

Nine hold Austro-Hungarians, Serbs, Italians, Dutch, Romanians, or laborers from the east. All of Burgenland is full of graves of Russians who died in 1945 as a third Ukrainian army. Vienna’s roll-over to the Nazi troops is history, but the number of victims is not. Lower Austria is another province which holds an enormous number of graves, but cites 202 cemeteries, with the graves of the parents of Austrian oligarchs like Abramovich or Deripaska among them (all Zwettl).

Twenty-one were dedicated to German Wehrmacht, thirty-two to the Red Army, thirty-four to the Austro-Hungarian army, seven to Germans expelled from the Czech Republic, and small graves for Russia, Italians, Serbians, Romanians, and Montenegrins, as well as three cemeteries for Jews.

The list of grave-related activities concludes with gardening, preservation, tourism etc.

The second emphasis is on the foreign work on World War I and II graves abroad. In the years 2007–2012 old graves were renovated and reconstructed in Italy. This work was done by a organization of volunteers called Alpinis und Fantis. The Austrian Black Cross paid for part of the work, but the bones of Austrian soldiers were exhumed and placed into “Sossarien.”

The nine federal states and South Tyrol describe their activities on all graveyards. Only men take part in the work. The masculine character of the organization is overt, and as such, the Black Cross is denounced as conservative or reactionary. It is a gathering of soldiers, officers, and military personnel from the Austrian army, as well as high-ranking civil servants. The organization is gathered in nine boards, the general assembly, with two heads and two vice-secretaries, presently managed by General Barthou, in Vienna, on behalf the Ministry of Internal Affairs. The various tasks are a very important factor in the life of the organization, and the nine federal states describe their history and practices to date, as well as the tradition of the groups, the people, the journeys, the cemeteries, the spending policy, and public opinion. South Tyrol is a special case, as it is Italian; its three cemeteries, in Meran, Brixen, and Bruneck hold 699 Austro-Hungarian soldiers, 103 Russians, thirteen Serbs, and seven Romanian soldiers. The book ends with the foreign graves, as Austrians are buried in Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Germany, Italy, Croatia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Montenegro, Poland, Russia, Switzerland, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Ukraine, Hungary, and Cyprus.

The timetable at the end is a summary of the activities from 2000–2011 (international conferences, work with children, commemoration ceremonies, peace services in churches, commemorative sculptures etc.)


Sabine Stadler studied social sciences, political science, and European studies in Vienna and Paris. She is a social worker and documentalist; speaks five languages. She works for the Austrian after-care service and in the Federal Academy of Public Administration and the Austrian State Archive. She has been a freelance social scientist, adult educator, and museum/library/archive worker since 2000. She is an Austrian expert to the European Commission and University teacher in Slovenia, Slovakia, Czech Republic, and Russia. She has contributed around 140 publications in German, English, and Russian on Youth, Central Europe, Women, Russia and EU expansion. She is an expert in cultural heritage, and on the gray scientific literature in Austrian files.


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


Przemysław Furgacz

Review: Patrick Pesnot, Russian Spies: From Stalin to Putin

20 August 2014
  • Russia
  • book review
  • spies


There are few countries in the world in which various secret services have, over the centuries, played such a major, significant, and infamous role as they have in Russia. From the notorious Ivan the Terrible’s oprichnina to Vladimir Putin’s secret service, the Russian political police have always enjoyed a tremendous influence on the fate of the country and the peoples living within its boundaries, whatever shape Russia has taken throughout its history. In most cases this influence was exerted by criminal or murderous means.

Patrick Pesnot, a French writer and journalist specializing in the secret service or, in a broader sense, in historical sensation, shares his reflections on the titular issue in Russian Spies: From Stalin to Putin in an interesting and compelling way. Pesnot’s book is not a thorough and in-depth study of the evolution of the Russian intelligence over the last century; instead, it is a subjective choice of stories connected with Russian intelligence activities. In the eighteen chapters of his book, the author analyzes various aspects and cases of the Soviet, and then Russian intelligence working both inside the USSR/Russia and abroad in the twentieth century, and at the turn of the new millennium.

In one of the most interesting parts of the book Pesnot touches on the time of the system transformation in the Communist Bloc countries, in particular the bloody Romanian revolution, the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, and the process of the decomposition of the Soviet Union.

Pesnot argues that the overthrow of Ceauşescu was the result of a USSoviet conspiracy. Both superpowers, acting in line with a behind-the-scenes agreement, disposed of the dictator through the sinister Romanian political militia, Securitate. According to the author of the book, in the late 1980s every other Securitate functionary was a Soviet intelligence informer or a secret collaborator. Being so deeply infiltrated, the Romanian political militia was in fact totally subservient to Moscow. The entire Romanian revolution was by no means a spontaneous act; on the contrary, it was played according to a script written in Moscow. Admittedly, the author’s reasoning is suggestive and convincing. The Velvet Revolution, as Pesnot argues, was also controlled. He lists a number of strange coincidences, instances of inexplicable behavior of Czechoslovak security forces, which form a picture of a controlled removal of the Czechoslovak Communist Party from power. The French journalist argues that in this case, too, the initiative came from Moscow. While other communist parties in the satellite countries obediently and meekly followed the Kremlin directives on political and economic liberalization, the leaders of the communist party in Czechoslovakia were not so eager to make more than cosmetic changes, and clung onto power for dear life. As Gorbachev did not like this very much, a scenario was developed in the Kremlin to make the rulers of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia renounce their power.

The chapters of the book describing the political transformation of the USSR are very interesting. Pesnot claims that it was not Vladimir Putin, but Yuri Andropov who laid the foundations of the current power of the secret service in Russia. It was under his command that the KGB [Committee for State Security] reached its all-time peak of power and influence in the Soviet Union. Throughout his entire career in the KGB and the Soviet Communist Party, Andropov was committed to making the KGB not only an important tool, as it was before, but indeed the central instrument of power in the USSR. And he undoubtedly succeeded.

Pesnot describes how the KGB infiltrated the democratic opposition in the USSR, and even in some cases created it. All this was in order to maximize control over changes in the country. The book contains passages on the Soviet secret police preparing for the inevitable political transformation by taking enormous amounts of capital out of the USSR through various channels, which then returned to the Russian Federation to become the foundation for the gigantic fortunes of oligarchs – a new Russian business elite, in most cases connected in various ways to the Soviet or Russian secret service. The author of Russian Spies... claims that as early as in Andropov’s time it was evident (at least for him) that the USSR would not survive and would lose the Cold War. Thus, long before the Gorbachev era began, he started comprehensive preparations to guide the Soviet Union through the system transformation. All in all, Pesnot’s version of the former Eastern Bloc transformation bears slight resemblance to what is commonly believed about these events in our country.

The book is full of other interesting theories, usually backed with fine examples and arguments. Several pages are devoted to Russia under Putin. These chapters provide an inside story of the Chechen war and Putin’s rise to power, though the author’s revelations add little to what has already been revealed by Alexander Litvinienko and Yuri Felschtynski. In this respect, therefore, the book is not innovative, though the fragments about Putin’s scams in the St. Petersburg Mayor’s Office or disappearing documents concerning a secret biography of the incumbent President of the Russian Federation are a good read.

The book teems with mysterious suicides, unexplained murders, and accidents met by important Russian dignitaries, businesspeople, and officials. All this adds up to an image of Russia as a mafia state, where violence, crime, deceit, and trickery are par for the course in how the highest state officials wield power. Patrick Pesnot seems to share Spanish crimefighting prosecutor Jose Grinda Gonzales’s opinion about Russia. Quoting a diplomatic cable revealed by WikiLeaks, Gonzales, in a private conversation with the American ambassador in Madrid, said that “Russia is a corrupt, autocratic superpower run by Vladimir Putin, in which the officials, the oligarchs and organized crime hand-in-hand create a virtual mafia state.”

In sum, the book will be interesting for all those who are interested in the history of Russian secret services and also for those who are unsatisfied with the conventional, naïve story about the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, told to gullible listeners as the only indisputable truth, challenged only by “conspiracy theory freaks.”


Przemysław Furgacz. Read international relations at Jagiellonian University, earned his PhD in political science, and wrote his doctoral dissertation on the position of the People’s Republic of China in the military security policy of the United States during the presidency of George W. Bush. He has published academic and feature articles in numerous journals and magazines, such as Politeja, Przegląd Morski, Kwartalnik Bellona, and others. His research focuses on US security policy, military science, and international economic relations.


Małgorzata Popiołek

Review: Jan Salm, The Reconstruction of Eastern Prussian Cities after World War I

20 August 2014
  • Great War
  • First World War
  • World War I
  • book review
  • Prussia

Jan Salm, The Reconstruction of Eastern Prussian Cities after World War I (Olsztyn: The Borussia Cultural Community, 2006)
Jan Salm, OstpreuSSische Städte im Ersten Welt krieg. Wiederaufbau und Neuerfindung (Munich: Oldenburg Verlag , 2012, German translation)

In the summer of 1914 the Russian army crossed into Eastern Prussia, the easternmost region of the German Empire. That same year, after the German victory at the Battle of Tannenberg, discussion began on how the devastated cities and villages might be reconstructed. Until this time, East Prussia had been a somewhat neglected region of the Empire (apart from its cultural center of Königsberg), and, paradoxically, it was only the destruction of World War I that turned the attention of the German public toward the problems of this area. The efficient reconstruction of the Eastern Prussian cities did not merely aim to put roofs over the heads of the residents as quickly as possible; it was, above all, an important tool of German propaganda during the still-raging war. Over the next ten years, architecture changed not only outwardly in the Prussian East; it acquired an entirely new political significance.

After 1945 Eastern Prussia’s architectural heritage was located on Polish and Soviet territory. While the Teutonic castles and medieval churches enjoyed a great deal of interest from their new owners, the architecture of the early twentieth century was less appreciated, in part because it was newly built.

Architectural historian Jan Salm is among the first to turn attention to this issue, after having read a volume from 1928 entitled Der Wiederaufbau Ostpreußens. Eine kulturelle, verwaltungstechnische und baukünstlerische Leistung, which he stumbled across in the Łódź University Library. This book opened the floodgates to the lost land of Eastern Prussia and its architectural heritage from the first two decades of the twentieth century.

There are dwindling numbers of architectural sites built on the ruins of buildings destroyed in World War I in Eastern Prussia: what was not consumed by World War II and the Red Army in 1944/1945 was gradually dealt with by the policies of the People’s Poland and subsequent neglect. After 1945 Eastern Prussia was primarily researched by historians who dealt with it from their own specific angles.

Jan Salm’s book is the first in-depth publication on the manner and course of reconstruction of the cities in Eastern Prussian after World War I from the point of view of architectural history. The book includes source materials culled from Polish and German archives and analyses of selected sites. The publication is also furnished with maps of various cities with markings on areas that were destroyed during World War I. A most definite advantage of Jan Salm’s book is its depiction of the reconstruction of Eastern Prussia set against other tendencies in European architecture of the time, and the ways in which cities in Belgium, France, Italy, and Poland were rebuilt after the First World War. The rebuilding of Eastern Prussia harnessed the most important tendencies of European architecture: a longing to return to the style ca. 1800, the search for a national style, reform architecture, an interest in “local architecture,” and the attempt to create a stylistic “national” alternative to the aesthetics of historicism and Art Nouveau. The architecture of the reconstructed Eastern Prussian cities, which was meant to express the German spirit on the Eastern borderlands of the German Empire, was in fact deeply rooted in the European architectural trends of the day, and one finds numerous parallels to ways in which cities in other parts of Europe were reconstructed.

For inhabitants the ravages of war mean losing the roof over their heads and the landscape they know; for architects it is generally a chance to rebuild and modernize. No reconstruction aims to recreate old mistakes, it rather brings the opportunity to improve both the aesthetics and the layout of architecture. And although the reconstruction of the Eastern Prussian cities destroyed during World War I carried a clear political agenda, the architectural roots of the reconstruction methods were derived from the European architecture community, which transcended political divisions.

Jan Salm’s book reveals an architectural picture of Eastern Prussia that is full of gaps and question marks – a land which had, until recently, evoked political resentment, is treated as a research area without the historical baggage. One might say that the author’s research has come at the very last moment, though for some sites it is already too late, and others have lost their urban contexts. We can be sure that this book does not exhaust its topic. It expresses the hope that it will merely serve as a point of departure for further, more detailed work.


Malgorzata Popiołek is an art historian specializing in history of architecture and city planning. She studied art history in Warsaw and in Freiburg im Breisgau, as well as heritage conservation in Berlin. In 2012 she began writing her PhD at the Technical University of Berlin on the reconstruction of monuments in post-war Warsaw and its European context.


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