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Photo of the publication Warsaw’s Forgotten War
Robert Blobaum

Warsaw’s Forgotten War

21 August 2014
  • Poland
  • Great War
  • First World War
  • World War I
  • Warsaw
  • remembrance
  • Piłsudski
  • Dmowski


By the winter of 1916–1917 most Varsovians likely believed their world was coming to an end, as their city was being visited by rapidly escalating incidences of starvation, disease, death, and conflict over increasingly scarce resources. Overshadowed by the greater horrors of a war yet to come, the existential crisis of Varsovians during the Great War has largely been forgotten. This article draws on various theoretical perspectives from the field of memory studies, particularly of the political and cultural structures which create silences, in an effort to explain why the First World War is likely to remain Warsaw’s forgotten war.

By the winter of 1916–1917 most Varsovians likely believed their world was coming to an end, as their city was being visited by rapidly escalating incidences of starvation, disease, death and conflict over increasingly scarce resources necessary to sustain human life. Were it not for copyright law, the title of Tadeusz Konwicki’s famous novel, A Minor Apocalypse, would serve as an apt heading for a study of the impact of the world’s first total war on the daily lives of the inhabitants of one of central Europe’s great cities. Overshadowed by the greater horrors of a war yet to come, the major apocalypse of devastation and destruction which characterized Warsaw’s amply-documented experience of the Second World War, the deprivation and desperation marking the existential crisis of Varsovians during the Great War has been largely forgotten. In Warsaw today, one is hard pressed to find any sign or site of public memory that might recall or reflect on the suffering of its citizens during the Great War, even as minor apocalypse. This is in stark contrast to the innumerable commemorative plaques, memorials and monuments devoted the Warsaw’s experience of the Second World War that dominates the city’s memory culture.

Not surprisingly, the historiography on Warsaw during the Great War is extremely limited, while that devoted to Poland more generally occupies little more than a shelf in the stacks of the Warsaw University library. Again, the contrast with the ever-expanding literature on the city’s experience of the Second World War could not be more striking. Moreover, in the traditional Polish national narrative that has dominated the existing sparse scholarship on the First World War, Warsaw figures little more than the major urban political setting in the larger story of the recovery of an independent Polish state (Królikowski and Oktabiński 2008; Wyszczelski 2008). One glance at the existing Polish-language secondary literature reveals an overwhelming preponderance of outdated titles on the military history of the war, devoted primarily to battles in which Polish legions participated, along with accounts tracing the activities of political parties and personalities during those years, especially those identified with the struggle for Polish independence. This has been supplemented in recent years by important German and English-language scholarship on the German occupation regime, which established its seat in Warsaw following the Russian evacuation of the city in August 1915 (Polsakiewicz 2009; Kaufman 2008). However, inasmuch as Warsaw appears in these studies, it does so mainly as a setting or target of German occupation policy, rather than a subject worthy of study in its own right.

The only real scholarly treatment of the experience of Warsaw’s inhabitants during the Great War is the one written by Krzysztof Dunin-Wąsowicz, published nearly forty years ago (Dunin-Wąsowicz 1974). While Dunin’s focus was directed partly at the material condition of the population and the demographic consequences of the war, his short monograph is descriptive rather than analytical and interpretive, and lacks any kind of comparative perspective. Given the context in which it was written, Dunin’s book also ignored important issues related to class, ethnicity, gender, and culture that have inspired the best recent scholarship of the wartime experience of other capitals and major cities. Three years earlier, Dunin was also responsible for the publication of the only significant anthology of memoirs on the First World War in Warsaw, which informed and shaped his later study (Dunin-Wąsowicz 1971). The perspectives presented, as we shall see, were predominantly those of the male Polish intelligentsia and, as such, they focused more on wartime political developments than on everyday life.

Truth be told, literature on the urban experience of World War One in European metropolitan centers is still in its infancy. The pioneering volume of essays on the war’s social history in London, Paris and Berlin, Capital Cities at War, edited by Jan Winter and Jean-Louis Robert, was published only in 1997. This was followed by a second volume devoted to a cultural history of the war in the three capitals in 2007. In between, Belinda Davis, one of the contributors to the first Capital Cities volume, published Home Fires Burning: Food, Politics and Everyday Life in World War I Berlin (2000). Outside of the “Big Three” capital cities, David Rechter published an analysis of Jewish politics in wartime Vienna in 2001 (The Jews of Vienna and the First World War); but the real breakthrough came with Maureen Healy’s Vienna and the Fall of the Habsburg Empire: Total War and Everyday Life in World War I (2004) with its focus on shops, street corners, schools, pubs, and apartment buildings, everyday sites of conflict and “communal disintegration” on the home front as a consequence of growing hunger, violence, and the deterioration of social norms. More recently, Roger Chickering’s The Great War and Urban Life in Germany: Freiburg, 1914–1918 (2007) adopted a comprehensive methodological approach to a micro-history that illuminates the wartime experience of a medium-sized frontline city.

If the literature on the social and cultural history of the Great War in major European urban settings has yet to extend much beyond London, Paris, Berlin, and Vienna to places like Warsaw Budapest and Prague, there is even less to be said of studies of war-related memory and memorialization in these latter cities. In Warsaw’s specific instance, one basically needs to start from scratch. In its attempt to initiate such a discussion, this article draws on various theoretical perspectives in the field of memory studies, beginning with the classic “socio-constructivist” approach to memory originally developed in the 1920s and 1930s by Maurice Halbwachs (Halbwachs 1980), as well as its significant amendment by Jan Assmann to account for institutionalized commemoration through cultural evolution (Assmann 2011). It has also benefited from the considerable theoretical contributions of Pierre Nora and his collaborators, particularly those related to the “places” (or “realms”) of memory, an academic enterprise developed over several decades (Nora 2001 and 2007). Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s analysis of the relationship of power to silences in memory, commemoration, and the production of historical narratives (Trouillot 1995) is especially relevant to this study, which focuses not only on what has been forgotten from Warsaw’s lived experience of the First World War, but also why it has been forgotten. At the same time, this article will contrast the forgotten war with the minimally memorialized one. Commemorating the social and economic experiences of non-combatants in wartime is a challenge in any case, but a monument constructed in 1925 in Vienna’s Central Cemetery depicting a grieving mother who was just as likely to have lost her child to malnutrition and disease as to battle during the war, suggests at least one possibility (Healy 2006, 54). Present-day Warsaw’s memory landscape of the First World War, as we shall see, contains nothing of the sort.

A Past Buried by Memory

Over twenty years ago, in his famous discussion of the recovery of memory of the Second World War, the late Tony Judt argued that in contrast with Western Europe, the problem in post-communist Eastern Europe was not a shortage of memory, but its reverse: “Here there is too much memory, too many pasts on which people can draw. [...]” (Judt 1992, 99). For our purposes, Warsaw’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (Grób Nieznanego Żołnierza) in present-day Piłsudski Square offers a case in point. In 1923, a group of anonymous Varsovians, inspired by state-sponsored monuments and commemorations originating in Britain and France, placed before the Saxon Palace, then the seat of the Ministry of War, a stone tablet commemorating the unknown Polish soldiers who had fallen during the years 1914–1920. This effort at commemoration already conflated two wars, the Great War of 1914–1918 and the Polish-Soviet War, not to mention the border wars and armed conflicts with Ukraine, Lithuania, and Germany. Soon enough, the initiative for an official tomb was taken up by the War Minister, General Władysław Sikorski; some forty battlefields were considered by the Ministry for removing and transporting to Warsaw the remains of an unknown soldier, and ultimately Lwów during the Polish-Ukrainian War in eastern Galicia was selected. On 2 November 1925 the ceremonial reburial was accompanied by a twenty-one gun salute and the lighting of the eternal flame by President Stanisław Wojciechowski (Ministerstwo Obrony Narodowy 2005).

The burying of memory of the Great War, by heaping on it more recent memory, had clearly begun. In fact, it was already in process before the appearance of the tablet of the anonymous citizens in front of the Saxon Palace. Without a doubt more unknown Polish soldiers had died on the battlefields of the Great War than in independent Poland’s subsequent border wars and war with Soviet Russia. Accompanying this process of historical production were more fundamental silences about the everyday experiences and sufferings of Warsaw’s non-combatants, who died in even greater numbers than did its soldiers fighting in various armies during the First World War.

Let us return for a moment to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The Ministry’s decision to use the site of the tomb to honor those who had died fighting for an independent Poland since 1794 contained a silence about the majority of Poles who had died fighting in the Great War in the service of the imperial Russian, German, and Austro-Hungarian armies. Of the thirteen battles of the years 1914–1918 currently inscribed on tablets at the site, all of them involve Polish legions and brigades which fought – presumably for the idea of independent Poland – under their own banner, but as part of other armies, particularly the Austro-Hungarian and French. If the reality of Pole fighting Pole (rather than for independence) for the greater part of First World War contradicted the emerging narrative, so too did the collaboration of Polish political elites with ruling regimes and occupation authorities, even if those elites were divided in their support of the Entente and Central Powers. This includes those rival political figures now credited through their combined efforts with the restoration and defense of an independent Poland, Józef Piłsudski and Roman Dmowski, to whom statues, squares, and roundabouts have been dedicated in Warsaw.

In any event, the thirteen battles featured in Piłsudski Square are not representative of Polish combat during the First World War. However, they are overshadowed by twenty-four battles from late 1918 to 1920, the years of the Soviet-Polish war and of Poland’s border wars with its Ukrainian, German, and Lithuanian neighbors, when Polish soldiers were mobilized and fought for a Polish state. The Battle for Lwów, as mentioned, fits this category, and that one of its battlefields, Gródek Jagielloński, was selected over dozens of others for the removal of the remains of an unknown soldier was not accidental. General Sikorski had commanded troops there in fending off a bloody Ukrainian siege in January 1919 (Wapiński 1997, 471). The wars of 1918–1920, too, would be dwarfed after 1945 by the seventythree inscriptions commemorating land, naval, and air battles of World War II in which Polish forces fought, or, like Katyń, were buried. They would also be bracketed by fifty-two “battles” prior to 1914, including terrorist attacks on Russian troops during the revolutionary years of 1904–1908. Thus, of the 162 battles featured at Poland’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, approximately 45% are dedicated to World War II, 32% to the period 972 to 1914, 15% to the wars of 1918–1920, and only 8% to the years of the Great War – none of which, again, commemorate the thousands of Polish soldiers who died in the service of imperial armies. “Commemorations,” according to Trouillot, “impose a silence on events they ignore and fill that silence with narratives of power about the event they celebrate” (Trouillot 1995, 118). Whatever the intentions of the Warsaw citizens and their homemade tablet in 1923, the state-driven narrative at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is about the state, and those who fought and died for it for nearly a millennium. The tomb embraces accompanying themes of victimization and martyrdom, while excluding and trivializing what does not fit the conceptual framework which shaped its creation and evolution. The effective silencing of Polish military casualties during the Great War is not the result of conspiracy or even a political consensus. Instead, its roots are structural. This memory structure is also reflected in Warsaw’s larger monument landscape, which, in its few references to World War One, emphasizes its outcome – namely, independent Poland – at the expense of its actual course.

One can hardly expect military cemeteries, even symbolic ones like the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, to commemorate non-combatants of any era, yet as Katrin Van Cant has shown in her analysis of the nearly eighty open-air monuments erected in Warsaw between 1989 and 2009, the emphasis on the heroes of recent Polish military history and particularly those of World War II is similarly pronounced in the city’s streets (Van Cant 2009). 1 30% of these monuments are directly related to World War II, the majority of which commemorate the Home Army and the Warsaw Uprising. By comparison, only 6.5% of the new statues refer to World War I. “The most natural explanation for this,” according to Van Cant, “is that in Polish national memory, this war, despite the terrific human and material losses on the Polish side between 1914 and 1918, mainly has a positive connotation, because of its outcome” (Van Cant 2009, 98–99). In other words, the Great War does not easily fit the dominant narrative told by Warsaw’s monuments (any more than it did the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier), “of Poland and the Polish people as victims of their history, nevertheless always displaying an indestructible will to fight for the existence and freedom of the nation” (Van Cant 2009, 113).

However, if we look closely at these monuments, we will see that there is more to the story. None of the monuments in Van Cant’s study refer to the Great War as it was experienced by non-combatants in Warsaw, but to its “positive outcome” for the Polish nation. That outcome had been a relatively taboo subject in the communist era, during which not a single monument was erected to commemorate a person or event that took place prior to 1945, with the exception of the monument to the Polish communist and founder of the Soviet secret police, Feliks Dzierżyński, in the city center. 2 The 1998 Memorial to the Military Action of the Polish American is dedicated to Polish-American soldiers who fought under the command of General Józef Haller in France and against the Ukrainians in eastern Galicja in 1918. There is also the 2005 memorial to Father Jerzy Skorupka, a chaplain in the Polish army who died in 1920 during the war with the Soviets. In the 1990s three statues were dedicated to Piłsudski, the acknowledged “founder” of the interwar state, and a final one to Dmowski in 2006. Due to Dmowski’s primacy of place in the pantheon of Poland’s radical right, the monument and surrounding roundabout in his name proved the most controversial, despite Dmowski’s “positive” role at the Paris Peace Conference.

Also honored, in Skaryszewski Park, is Colonel Edward M. House, advisor to the American wartime president Woodrow Wilson and “friend of Poland,” whose 1932 statue was removed by the communists in 1951 and restored in 1991. 3 Wilson and Herbert Hoover are two other Americans connected to the First World War honored in the Polish capital. Tellingly, Wilson is honored with a plaza (plac in Polish) for making an independent Poland one of his Fourteen Points and an American war aim. Constructed in the interwar period as a major transportation hub, plac Wilsona and its name survived through and beyond the communist era. Meanwhile, Hoover, the head of the postwar American Relief Administration responsible for saving thousands of lives, is honored with a skwer (which really isn’t a square) adjacent to Warsaw’s most prominent boulevard, Krakowskie Przedmieście. Skwer Hoovera remains the only physical marker of Warsaw’s existential catastrophe of the Great War. In 1922 a monument “of gratitude to America” had been erected in Hoover’s honor that portrayed two women holding children who had presumably been saved from starvation as a result of American relief efforts, but by 1930 the sandstone sculpture was already falling apart and had to be removed from the square. It was subsequently destroyed during the Second World War. Under the communist regime, the square was stripped of Hoover’s name along with the pedestal for the original monument, but the square’s original name was restored in 1992, accompanied by a stone memorial. Plans to restore the original statue of 1922, however, have not been realized to date (Hoover Institution 2005).

Two groups, as Van Cant shows, are completely underrepresented in Warsaw’s public monuments – women and Jews. Three of Warsaw’s currently standing monuments commemorate Jews, all of them directly related to World War II and the Holocaust, of which only one was erected after 1989, in the distant suburb of Falenica. Women come off slightly better, with four new monuments since 1989, raising the total to seven, which honor “the fighting (and caring) woman and first-class patriot” (Van Cant 2009, 109). Primarily viewed as non-combatants during the First World War, no member of either group is remembered for this time period. More significant, however, is that Varsovians themselves are woefully underrepresented in the monuments and statues of their own city. Only a few local heroes have been honored with their own monument in Warsaw, and none of them are connected to the First World War. The emphasis is clearly on the national rather than the local. As Van Cant explains, “Warsaw as the capital fulfills the role of visiting card to the entire country” and the narrative delivered by its monuments is firmly focused on the later history of twentieth-century Poland “because it was extremely traumatic and [because] the scars inflicted by those events are still very fresh in the national consciousness” (Van Cant 2009, 112). However, the problem with remembering the First World War in Warsaw may run much deeper than a preoccupation with what came after it, but with how its “history” was recorded in the first place, in its very sources.

The Root of the Problem

The recording of history, Assmann argues, gives rise to “a dialectic of expansion and loss,” the latter “through forgetting and through suppression by way of manipulation, censorship, destruction, circumspection, and substitution” (Assmann 2011, 9). According to Trouillot, “[Sources] privilege some events over others, not always the ones privileged by the actors [...] Silences are inherent in the creation of sources, the first moment of historical production” (Troiullot 1995, 48 and 51). If, as Trouillot argues, “History is the fruit of power” and “in history, power begins at the source” (Trouillot 1995, xix and 29), what can be said of the sources available for an examination of the everyday lives of ordinary Varsovians during the First World War?

Let us begin with the archival evidence. Warsaw was under Russian rule during the first year of the war, until early August 1915, after which the city came under German occupation. The documents written and compiled by these political authorities obviously reflect a certain perspective, if not always from the top, then from various ranks of administrations concerned primarily with the preservation of order and control. Seldom do we hear from those who are the subjects of these documents, except when they offer resistance to or come under suspicion of the authorities. The most significant archival collection of Russian administration for the first year of the war, the files of the Warsaw Superintendent of Police, demonstrates a preoccupation with requisitioning and evacuation, along with ungrounded fears of Jewish espionage on behalf of the Central Powers. 4 No attention is paid to the steady deterioration of living standards caused by the war and requisitioning, at least in the documents available to us. And what is available to us represents only a small fraction of the written record, since many documents were deliberately destroyed during the Russian evacuation, while others were transported from Warsaw, never to return. Thus what have survived are fragments, such as the files of the requisitions commission for Warsaw’s fourth precinct, 5 which historians may take as representative – at least for a particular process.

The documents of the German occupation authorities in Warsaw fared no better, in fact, even worse. Again, there was purposeful destruction. The majority of the most important and secret documents from the Warsaw Governor-General’s office were burned in November 1918, as described in his memoirs by Bohdan Hutten-Czapski, the principal “Polish expert” of Governor-General Hans von Beseler (Dunin-Wąsowicz 1971, 478–479). Nevertheless, some 980 volumes were preserved, as were those of the Chief of Administration, and deposited in the Archiwum Akt Nowych (AAN). Following the German invasion of 1939, these documents were packed off in their entirety to Potsdam, where they were destroyed in 1945 during the siege of Berlin. Meanwhile, fragments from Beseler’s personal collection had been preserved by his family and after World War II were transferred to the German federal archive in Koblenz. Some were reproduced on microfilm and photocopies and returned to Poland. Today, some thirty-six files as well as fragments from fifteen others, only a tiny fraction of what had once existed, are available to researchers at the Archiwum Główne Akt Dawnych (AGAD). 6 These consist primarily of Beseler’s reports, the quarterly reports of the Chief of Administration, and a small number of announcements, declarations, orders and petitions. The collection of the Imperial German Presidium of Police in Warsaw contains only a few random documents, which are practically useless, since it is difficult to place them in larger contexts.

Nonetheless, the available German documents, taken as a whole, reveal more about wartime living conditions in Warsaw than the Russian documents, perhaps because their political implications grew as the war continued. Official quarterly reports, for example, discuss the refugee crisis the Germans encountered upon entering Warsaw, high inflation and unemployment, threats to public health, tensions in Polish-Jewish relations, fraternization of German troops with Polish women, and especially issues related to the food supply – its control and distribution, and associated activities, such as smuggling. Appendices to the reports of Chief of Administration contain particularly valuable statistical data on various diseases and levels of employment. What is striking, however, is the absence of references in these documents to the political situation in Warsaw, perhaps because these were precisely the kinds of documents that were purposefully burned in November 1918.

In an early report from the Fall of 1915, Beseler claimed that one of his main tasks was “to contain or deflect political propaganda” for independence. 7 To do so, the German occupation regime first permitted cultural expressions of Polish (and Jewish) national sentiment and, as the war continued and the Russians failed to sue for peace, the establishment of quasi-state institutions and self-governing bodies such as municipal councils. Among the former was the Provisional State Council (Tymczasowy Rada Stanu – TRS), a consultative body formed to work with German and Austrian authorities to design state institutions in the occupied Polish Kingdom. Before it was replaced by one of those institutions (the Regency Council), the TRS lasted some seven and a half months, from 14 January to 31 August 1917. It is estimated that over 25% of its archive survived the Second World War, 8 a far higher percentage than that of its successor, both of which are located in Warsaw’s AAN. Whereas one is hard-pressed to find references to the political situation in the German documentary collections housed in Warsaw-based repositories, this appears to have been a primary concern of the TRS, whose files reveal a careful monitoring of the Warsaw press, both legal and underground, thanks to which we have some evidence of incidents of unrest – food riots and student strikes in May 1917, demonstrations and political vandalism following the arrest of Józef Piłsudski in July 1917. However, such documents afford us only fleeting and fragmentary glimpses into the lives of ordinary Varsovians during the First World War, and these through lenses trained on other objects.

The same could be said of the collections of private papers of individuals who served in these “Polish” institutions which are also housed at AAN, principal among them the Dzierzbicki and Drzewiecki papers. 9I mention these two in particular because of the positions held during the war by Stanisław Dzierzbicki and Piotr Drzewiecki, respectively. A civil engineer by training, Stanisław Dzierzbicki was a dedicated public servant who, during the war years, became involved in the provision of relief and assistance to victims of the war, most significantly as the president of the Main Welfare Organization (Rada Główna Opiekuńcza – RGO), after which he became a member of the Provisional State Council and Minister of Agriculture under the Regency Council. To judge by his papers, Dzierzbicki was concerned primarily with issues related to funding, provisioning, and the distribution of assistance before 1917 and, as his functions changed in that year, by outbursts of unrest in Warsaw’s streets and universities. Piotr Drzewiecki, who had presided over a number of industrial and commercial boards before the war, was one of the founding members of the Warsaw Citizens’ Committee, an NGO formed with imperial Russian approval in August 1914 in order to deal with war’s side-effects, economic or otherwise, on the Warsaw home front. As the war continued and the needs of Warsaw’s inhabitants mounted, the Citizens’ Committee became the main welfare agency in the city. Following the Russian evacuation, its executive branch was transformed into the Warsaw city administration, where Drzewiecki served as vice president. Drzewiecki’s papers for this period reveal the perspective of an administrator dealing with German demands for labor, unwelcome German supervision of the city’s judicial and educational institutions, and a strained city budget. They also reveal a National Democrat concerned with electoral politics, in this case, the newly formed Warsaw City Council. In both the Dzierzbicki and Drzewiecki papers, with the focus on the administrative and political, only side-glances are offered toward the quotidian struggles of those whom they presumably served.

The best view of these struggles from the archives, at least for the first twenty-one months of the war, is contained in the minutes of meetings of the Warsaw Citizens’ Committee and its presidium, which are available in the Warsaw city archive. 10 The minutes of these meetings are quite detailed and demonstrate how the committee’s responsibilities expanded in conjunction with the needs of the city and its population. From concerns about the city’s unemployed, waves of refugees, energy supplies, and setting price ceilings in the early months of the war, to the provisioning of public kitchens, food rationing, the spread of infectious diseases and drafting an electoral ordinance during the first year of the German occupation, the challenges facing the Committee are well documented. However, while the Committee’s discussions of the reports of its sections and sub-sections appear in the minutes, they are abbreviated, while the reports themselves – which would provide an even closer view of everyday life on the ground – are not available. Thus, what we often see is in the aggregate – the number of refugees sheltered, or meals served in public kitchens over a particular period – instead of the specific. Far less complete are the archives of the Committee’s successor organizations, the Warsaw city administration and the Warsaw city council, although what is available provides evidence of financially strapped city institutions trying to make ends meet while dealing with an implacable occupier and growing urban unrest, including a strike of municipal employees. 11 Basically, the documentary evidence is far more robust for the first year of the war, when Warsaw remained under Russian rule and before the Warsaw Citizens Committee and its sections were transformed into organs of self-government, than in the last three-plus years when the general economic crisis experienced by the city’s inhabitants was gradually transformed into an existential catastrophe.

Indeed, a similar imbalance can be noted in a reading of the mass circulation press, the principal chronicler of everyday life. The difference can be explained by censorship, whose constraints were fewer under the Russians than the Germans. In part, this was because Warsaw’s Polish-language daily press, by and large, was pro-Russian, as were the National Democrats, who possessed the strongest political organization in the city. Greater press freedom was also a consequence of the Revolution of 1905, which led to a veritable explosion of press titles in Warsaw, including those in Yiddish and Hebrew. Compared to its Polish counterpart, the Jewish-language(s) press in Warsaw was viewed with far greater suspicion by the Russian government during the first year of the war, to the point that it was shut down entirely as the Russians prepared their evacuation from Warsaw in the summer of 1915 (Zieliński 2005, 116). While reporting on the situation at the front, especially as it drew closer to Warsaw in the fall of 1914 and again in the summer of 1915, was largely taboo, the Polish press remained free to express itself on practically everything else, including the now perennial “Jewish question.” More to the point, through featured sections titled “Z miasta” (“From the City”), dailies such as the long-standing Kurjer Warszawski, with its close ties to the city’s Polish political and cultural elites, as well as Nowa Gazeta, representative of Warsaw’s assimilated and liberal Jewish elite, were able to offer relatively clear snapshots of how the city’s residents sought to negotiate the hardships of the war’s first year, although the accompanying commentary reflected the biases of journalists and editors.

This situation was reversed under the Germans, who were well aware of the politically destabilizing effects of the ever-deteriorating living conditions in the city, to which their policies of requisitioning and control of resources were the main contributing factor. Thus, reporting on those conditions and their consequences became increasingly taboo, particularly following the establishment of preventive censorship on 25 September 1915, which specifically targeted “all rumors, news and commentaries about the decisions of the occupation authorities, whether civil or military” and “all articles about incidents, accidents, epidemics and poverty.” 12 While some circumvention of the censor was possible, as I have discussed in another article devoted to a discussion of Warsaw’s “barefoot” phenomenon (Blobaum 2013), the issues had to appear politically innocuous to avoid scrutiny. One will therefore find no mention of Warsaw’s major food riots of June 1916 and May 1917 in the officially registered Warsaw daily press – a most dramatic instance of silencing. What we know about these riots come from other sources – a list of ransacked grocery stories subsidized and administered by the city that Nowa Gazeta and other legal dailies intended but were never able to publish, as well as accounts in the clandestine press. Interestingly, even in a media outlet whose self-proclaimed goal to provide information that could not otherwise appear in the Warsaw press, news about the May 1917 riots appeared in its back pages, this despite the fact that looting had lasted an entire day. 13

As if in compensation, the German occupation authorities were more than willing to permit public expressions of Polish national pride in commemorations, the most significant being the celebrations of the anniversary of the Constitution of 3 May 1791, and in the press commentary leading up them. Particularly welcome was the discussion of events in Polish history that had an anti-Russian flavor, such as the 1830 and 1863 uprisings. There was another form of venting, however, that proved even more valuable to the Germans. After an initial attempt to put a lid on public expressions of Polish-Jewish hostility in order to prevent disturbances in the rear of their armies, as the war continued the German authorities gradually began to lift it in order to release steam from frustrations built up by their own policies. By the end of the war, the vitriol in Polish-Jewish press polemics in Warsaw matched that of the last years of Russian rule.

The point here is that, over the course of the war, as everyday struggles in Warsaw literally became a matter of life and death, the Warsaw press moved away from these struggles in its coverage. One might blame the German censor in the case of the legal press, but the issues of malnutrition and starvation were not a priority of the uncensored “independent” press, even when the collapse of living standards resulted in food rioting.

Memoirs are often taken by historians as a more suspect type of primary source, even if they place too much faith in the value of archives and contemporary press accounts. However, it is important to raise questions about which memoirs get published and with what objective. A look at those compiled by Krzysztof Dunin-Wąsowicz in his anthology for Warsaw during the First World War is instructive here. As mentioned, despite its claim to represent a cross-section of perspectives, the anthology displays a clear bias in favor of political activists and journalists from the male Polish intelligentsia. Bogdan Hutten-Czapski, a landed Polish aristocrat close to the Kaiser who arrived in Warsaw as a member of the entourage of Governor- General Beseler, is the sole voice of the German occupation authorities in the anthology, while the perspective of the of the imperial Russian regime lacks a single representative. Despite Warsaw’s pronounced demographic feminization during the war, excerpts were taken from the writings of only two women, Maria Kamińska and Władysława Głodowska-Sampolska, activists with ties to the radical left, ancestors of the communist regime which ruled Poland at the time of the anthology’s publication in 1971, but who were politically insignificant during the war years. Further exaggeration of the role of proto-communist formations is evident through the inclusion of memoirs written by male activists Bronisław Fijałek and Aleksander Tomaszewski. The anthology also appeared three years after that regime’s 1968 “anti-Zionist” campaign, a purging of Jews from the state bureaucracy, party apparatus, and positions of prominence in Polish society. Excerpts from the memoirs of two assimilated Jews – those of Kamińska (whose real name was Maria Eiger) and the journalist Aleksander Kraushar – do make an appearance, but their authors’ ancestry remains unacknowledged by the editor. Wartime Warsaw thus appears in the anthology as ethno-religiously homogeneous, and without a single mention of Polish-Jewish relations, the defining issue of local politics following municipal council elections in 1916.

This is not to suggest that Dunin-Wąsowicz’s anthology is worthless for the study of everyday life in Warsaw from 1914 to 1918. As mentioned, Dunin’s book on Warsaw during the First World War pays a great deal of attention to material conditions and their deterioration, and his anthology does provide space for the memoirs of social workers. One of the most revealing comes from Franciszek Herbst, who served as secretary of the Labor Section of the Warsaw Citizens Committee and continued to serve the city administration following the Committee’s dissolution. Yet even Herbst writes that the distribution efforts of the Citizens Committee were exclusively carried out by women volunteers (Dunin-Wąsowicz 1971, 306). If women were in the front lines in the distribution of aid during the war, the direct recipients of this aid, first and foremost, were also women. These two categories of women are absolutely crucial to understanding the experience of war in Poland’s once and future capital, but their voices are nowhere to be found in Dunin’s anthology. Nor will we find them in the works of professional historians.

History and Memory

Pierre Nora has succinctly defined historiography as “the scholarly construction of memory” (Nora 2001, xx). Michel-Rolph Truillot ties that “scholarly construction” to power and to “the size, the relevance, and the overwhelming complexity of the overlapping sites where history is produced, notably outside of academia” (Trouillot 1995, 19). “The value of a historical product,” he argues further, “cannot be debated without taking into account the context of its production and the context of its consumption” (Trouillot 1995, 146). In this sense, history – as the story about what happened – becomes part of continuous myth-making and sanitization processes that include the creation of sources, the social construction of memory itself, and its cultural organization, commodification, and institutionalization through ceremony and commemoration. Despite professional historians’ belief in scientific history and an ability to set aside their own preferences and stakes, only broad and profound transformations of consciousness and identity can create new ways of understanding the past – for example, of the kind in France identified by Nora which gave birth to memory studies.

In Poland, while the beginnings of such transformations may be perceptible, national consciousness and identity are still largely shaped by feelings of victimization and the “struggle” for independence which, in turn, have provided the conceptual framework that makes some narratives rather than others powerful enough to pass as accepted history. Except for its outcome, as we have already noted, the First World War ill fits this framework and the everyday travails of non-combatants on the Warsaw “home front” during the war even less so. To demonstrate this point more specifically and the way that “history” can be made to fit an established and accepted framework, let us return for a moment to how women and their wartime roles are featured in the few studies devoted to them.

As mentioned previously, Warsaw’s women, broadly speaking, can be divided into two categories. The first, to borrow Belinda Davis’s term used throughout her study of wartime Berlin, were the “women of lesser means” (Davis 2000), who, in the case of Warsaw as well as Berlin, comprised the vast majority of women. In Warsaw this included the laboring poor, but more significantly the female unemployed, particularly former domestic servants, who before the war comprised the largest number of employed women in Warsaw and whose jobs were lost due to the evacuation of Russian officials and the growing impoverishment of middle-class and intelligentsia households. Joining these “women of lesser means” were single mothers and wives left temporarily or permanently without male partners due to wartime circumstances of conscription and labor out-migration. Among the most publicly and politically visible women in this category were the rezerwistki, soldiers’ wives whose sense of entitlement was publicly acknowledged – that is, until it came to be perceived as a threat to the existing social order. Finally, there were the “women of loose morality,” as they were referred to in the press, occasional prostitutes whose numbers increased significantly in the midst of the city’s economic destitution.

The second kind of women in Warsaw were similar to those identified by Maureen Healy in her study of wartime Vienna, defined as a vocal minority among affluent women who spoke on behalf of “women” in general, including “women of lesser means” (Healy 2004, 167). Although the numbers of women of affluence, if anything, declined in Warsaw during the war years as economic misery traveled up the social hierarchy, the size of the minority speaking on behalf of women grew noticeably as a small number of prewar feminists of conviction were joined by a much larger group of feminists of wartime circumstance. The latter can be defined as the female members of prewar social and cultural conservative elites whose perspectives and, ultimately, demands were shaped by their wartime experience in philanthropy, social work, and public assistance. These women, conservative in their political outlook but well aware of the importance of their wartime social roles, made and ultimately won the case for women’s suffrage and equal political rights by the end of 1918.

Neither of these two groups of women, however, is featured in the scant literature on women during the First World War. Instead, the focus has been placed – or misplaced – on those women who served as volunteers in auxiliary military organizations, particularly those which supported the Polish Legions. These organizations, with a combined 16,000 members by the middle of 1916, were also the largest wartime women’s associations on Polish lands. As noted by Joanna Dufrat, their agenda included the promotion of equal political rights (Dufrat 2008), but to assign the achievement of those rights to these organizations is to exaggerate. To claim, moreover, that “the most significant role” played by Polish women during the war years was their work in auxiliary organizations (Kuźma-Markowska 2011, 267), trivializes and even silences the wartime home front roles played by the majority of women, as consumers in dire need of philanthropy and public assistance and social workers attempting to meet that need, especially in urban centers like Warsaw.

The fact that women are featured at all in the Polish narrative of the First World War – even as patriots contributing to the recovery of an independent state – is the outcome of a slight alteration in the conceptual framework resulting from the introduction of women and gender studies to Polish universities since 1989. An even more fundamental change has occurred in the discussion of Polish-Jewish relations, starting in the late 1980s and accelerating with the publication of Neighbors by Jan Tomasz Gross in Polish (Gross 2000). Over the last couple of decades there has been a great deal of new research into the phenomenon of anti-Semitism in Poland (Blobaum 2005) and on the parallel and interrelated trajectories of modern Polish and Jewish politics (Porter 2000 and Ury 2012). For the period of the First World War, the work of Konrad Zieliński particularly stands out (Zieliński 2005).

There is a danger, however, in reducing the histories of Poles and Jews in the modern era to their “relations,” to the emergence of radical nationalism and anti-Semitism, and more generally to the rise of mass political organizations. I raise this issue as someone who recently has become conscious of his own participation in this distortion and, therefore, in the neglect of other possible narratives. As Assmann reminds us, the past is not something that can be “preserved,” but is “continually subject to processes of reorganization according to changes taking place in the frame of reference of each successive present” (Assmann 2011, 27). In this instance, professional historians have become prisoners not only of a fashionable historiographical trend focused on the rise of modern and competing nationalisms, but also of sources that confirm their own predispositions, in particular the writings and memoirs of political activists and intellectuals, as well as the articles and columns which characterized a highly politicized Polish and Jewish press. In the process, we have taken evidence of political mobilization, the development of national identities, and growing antagonism between Poles and Jews to shape what is becoming an accepted narrative, while ignoring evidence to the contrary: namely, that majorities of Poles and Jews, even in Warsaw’s hothouse, were not politically mobilized, and that the numbers of those who were not only waxed, but also waned.

During the First World War, only a minority of eligible voters participated in Warsaw’s first-ever municipal elections in 1916. What then can be said of the even larger numbers of Poles and Jews, especially women, who were not embraced by the limited suffrage in the electoral ordinance approved by the German occupation authorities earlier that year? In the end, identity politics were likely of secondary or even tertiary concern to the majority of Poles and Jews who by circumstance should have been, and were, focused on pursuing strategies of surviving the wartime existential crisis, even if it came at the other’s expense and, truth be told, at the expense of fellow co-nationals.

According to Trouillot, historians, whether amateur or professional, are full participants in the processes of historical production, of shaping and reshaping of conceptual frames of reference that determine what is thinkable and unthinkable, and of making the unthinkable a “non-event” (Trouillot 1995, 98). Warsaw’s two major food riots during the First World War, clear expressions of concerns at the street level, have thus become non-events in conceptual frameworks that contain space only for events of political and national significance. Recovery of the lived experiences of ordinary Varsovians during the war and the capacity of such a narrative to pass as accepted history require a fundamentally different, if not directly competing, framework. The odds, at least in the short term, are against its emergence.

Conclusion: An Imagined Centennial

The hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of the Great War is rapidly approaching. It will be interesting to see how this event will be commemorated in Warsaw, or if it will be treated as a “non-event.” Given the layered structures of memory, commemoration, and historical production, one can imagine possible scenarios. As a consequence of the war’s “positive” outcome in November 1918 – the restoration of an independent Polish state – the centennial of August 1914 may not pass by entirely unnoticed. Perhaps a wreath will be laid at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in honor of those Poles who died as members of the Polish legions, to the neglect of those who did not. Perhaps honorable mention will be made of women who served in auxiliary organizations supporting the legionnaires. One might expect to hear speeches of politicians in front of Warsaw’s two monuments to Józef Piłsudski, likely in competing claims to the founder’s legacy. This expected accentuation on the end point of independence may not be entirely exclusive, however. Perhaps newspapers and magazines will publish articles by local, non-academic historians focusing on the nuts and bolts of the city’s history to include stories from the war’s first days and weeks – of a city in motion, of the run on banks, of panic-buying, of the shortage of coin to make spare change, of the prohibition on sales of alcohol.

Such stories, if they do appear, will not challenge the existing conceptual framework. No mention will be made of the thousands of young men who volunteered to serve in the Russian army, or of the support of Warsaw’s political elites for the generally popular cause of Russian arms. No mention will made of the thousands of young women who volunteered to serve on the home front as nurses and nurses’ aides in treating the Russian wounded. No mention will be made of the Russian government’s financial support for and fruitful working relationship with the Warsaw Citizens’ Committee in managing the immediate economic consequences of the war’s first weeks and months. Mention might be made of Warsaw’s most popular political figure during the war’s first year – Prince Zdzisław Lubomirski, co-founder and presiding officer of the Warsaw Citizens’ Committee and the city’s first president following the Russian evacuation – but a proposal to honor his contributions to the city’s well-being and his efforts to fend off existential disaster is extremely unlikely. After all, in November 1918, Piłsudski technically seized power from the Regency Council, one of the quasi-state institutions created by the German occupier and headed by Lubomirski who had “collaborated” with not one, but two imperial regimes. To date the sole tribute to the well-meaning prince’s activities during the war remains the publication of the diary of his devoted wife (Pajewski 2002).

Just as Lubomirski’s profile fails to fit the statuary mold of hero and martyr, so too does that of Dr. Justyna Budzińska-Tylicka. Trained in France as a specialist in tuberculosis Budzińska-Tylicka began practicing in Warsaw in 1908, where she became an early pioneer in the area of women’s health and formed part of the leadership core of the prewar feminist movement that focused on equal rights. During the war years, Budzińska-Tylicka organized courses in the delivery of first aid and organized a field hospital for treatment of the wounded, while also continuing her advocacy of women’s rights. In September 1917, she presided over the Polish Women’s Congress, whose most prominent delegates came from the fifteen organizations that comprised the Union of Polish Women’s Associations. Following the meeting of this “small women’s parliament,” as Nowa Gazeta called it at the time, 14 Budzińska-Tylicka and the executive committee of the Women’s Congress intensively lobbied the Warsaw city council and administration to revise the electoral ordinance of the previous year, while organizing mass meetings to pressure male elites into granting voting rights at both the state and local level. Following the war and the death of her son from the Great Influenza, and with the success of the suffrage campaign behind her, Budzińska-Tylicka became a prominent spokesperson for planned parenthood and birth control. Budzińska-Tylicka’s support for “conscious motherhood,” including abortion, was condemned at the time by Poland’s interwar Roman Catholic Church and would be condemned now by its more powerful and more politically influential contemporary version. Moreover, Budzińska-Tylicka opposed the Sanacja regime established by Józef Piłsudski following his coup d’état of 1926 (Sierakowska 2006, 80). Thus, despite Budzińska-Tylicka’s prominent place in the successful women’s suffrage movement of the war years, we should not expect to see a public monument constructed in her honor any time soon. A more likely candidate would be the better known “national feminist” Iza Moszczeńska, who, as founder of the Women’s Military Auxiliary League sought to merge women’s desires to participate in the struggle for independence with their emancipatory aspirations as early as 1913 (Dufrat 2008, 118). Moreover, Moszczeńska was an early twentieth-century defender of the more traditional notions of “Polish” motherhood (Blobaum 2002, 807), and thus better fits existing conceptual structures for commemorating women in Warsaw. That said, the odds against a Moszczeńska monument are long as well, given the general paucity of public statues devoted to women in the Polish capital.

There remains the monument of the desperate mother and her two hungry children which once stood prominently on Hoover Square – to my mind, the most symbolic representation of everyday life in Warsaw during the First World War. The planned reconstruction and resurrection of that monument, originally announced in 2006, has been inexplicably delayed. I can imagine no better moment than the centennial of August 1914 for a ceremonial unveiling of that statue, not necessarily “in gratitude to America” (the inscription on the original statue), but in remembrance of a forgotten war and its horrific impact on the lives of the majority of city’s non-combatants. After all, a conceptual framework once existed to accommodate that statue in the heart of Warsaw. The question is whether one exists in the present.


Robert. Blobaum. In Eberly Family Professor of European History and Director of the Transatlantic MA Program in East-Central European Studies at West Virginia University. His books include Rewolucja: Russian Poland, 1904–1907, which was awarded the Oskar Halecki Prize, and Antisemitism and Its Opponents in Modern Poland, both published by Cornell University Press. He is currently working on a book devoted to everyday life in Warsaw during the First World War.


1 Being interested primarily in the “street scene,” Van Cant’s study deliberately excludes cemeteries.

2 The monument to “bloody Feliks,” whose hands were repeatedly painted red by politically-inspired vandals in the 1980s, was removed immediately after the 1989 revolution.

3 This according to the inscription on the base of the statue.

4 Archiwum Państwowe m. st.Warszawy (APW), Zarząd Oberpolicmajstra Warszawskiego (ZOW).

5 APW, Komisja Rewizyjna IV Rejonu Miasta Warszawy (KR).

6 These are available in three collections: Cesarsko-Niemieckie Generał- Gubernatorstwo w Warszawie (CNGGW), Szef Administracji przy Generał-Gubernatorstwie w Warszawie (SAGGW), and Cesarsko-Niemieckie Prezydium Policji w Warszawie (CNNPP).

7 AGAD CNGGW 1, Beseler to the Kaiser, 23 October 1915.

8 Archiwum Akt Nowych (AAN), Tymczasowa Rada Stanu w Warszawie (TRS), description of collection.

9 AAN, Akta Stanisława Dzierzbickiego (ASD) and Akta [Piotra, Ludwika i Wiesława] Drzewieckich (AD). The Drzewiecki collection, in addition to the papers of Piotr Drzewiecki, also contains those of his brother Ludwik and Ludwik’s son, Wiesław.

10 APW, Komitet Obywatelski Miasta Warszawy (KOMW), 1914–1916.

11 APW, Zarząd Miejski m. st. Warszawy (ZMW), 1915–1919.

121 APW, Redakcja Nowej Gazety (RNG) 1, Circular #12 of the Press Department of the Chief of Administration under the Warsaw Governor-General, 6 October 1915. This collection of documents from the editorial board of Nowa Gazeta contains communications and announcements from the German occupation authorities and offers a rare perspective on how one Warsaw daily dealt with German censorship.

13 See “Rozruchy żywnościowe wybuchły w Warszawie,” Komunikat Informacyjny 1 (9–11 May 1917), p. 4. The same could be said for Rząd i Wojsko, an “independent” press organ published by Piłsudski’s supporters; see “Głód i polityka” and “Rozruchy w Warszawie,” Rząd i Wojsko 18 (20 May 1917), pp. 7, 8.

14 “Po zjeździe kobiet”, Nowa Gazeta 446 (10 September 1917), p. 1.

List of References

Assmann, Jan (2011) Cultural Memory and Early Civilization: Writing, Remembrance, and Political Imagination (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Blobaum, Robert (ed.) (2005) Antisemitism and its Opponents in Modern Poland (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press).

Blobaum, Robert (2013) “Going Barefoot in Warsaw during the First World War,” East European Politics and Societies 27, 2, pp. 187–204.

Blobaum, Robert E. (2002) “The ‘Woman Question’ in Russian Poland, 1900–1914,” Journal of Social History 35, 4, pp. 799–824.

Chickering, Roger (2007) The Great War and Urban Life in Germany: Freiburg, 1914–1918 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Davis, Belinda J. (2000) Home Fires Burning: Food, Politics and Everyday Life in World War I Berlin (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press).

Dufrat, Joanna (2008) “Ligi Kobiet Królestwa, Galicji i Śląska. Próba polityczne jaktywizacji kobiet w okresie I wojny światowej,” in Agnieszka Janiak-Jasińska, Katarzyna Sierakowska and Andrzej Szwarc (eds) Działaczki społeczne, feministki, obywatelki. Samoorganizowanie się kobiet na ziemiach polskich do 1918 roku (na tle porównawczym) (Warsaw: Neriton), pp. 113–130.

Dunin-Wąsowicz, Krzysztof (1974) Warszawie w czasie pierwszej wojny światowej (Warsaw: Państwowy Instytut Naukowy).

Dunin-Wąsowicz, Krzysztof (ed.) (1971) Warszawa w pamiętnikach pierwszej wojny światowej (Warsaw: Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy).

Gross, Jan Tomasz (2000) Sąsiedzi. Historia zagłady żydowskiego miasteczka (Sejny: Fundacja Pogranicze).

Halbwachs, Maurice (1980) The Collective Memory (New York: Harper).

Healy, Maureen (2006) “Civilizing the Soldier in Postwar Austria,” in Nancy M. Wingfield and Maria Bucur (eds.) Gender and War in Twentieth-Century Eastern Europe (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press), pp. 47–69.

Healy, Maureen (2004). Vienna and the Fall of the Habsburg Empire: Total War and Everyday Life in World War I (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Hoover Institution Library and Archives (2005) “An American Friendship: Herbert Hoover and Poland,” available online at: http://www.hoover.org/library-and-archives/exhibits/27245, accessed 13.07.2013.

Judt, Tony (1992) “The Past is Another Country: Myth and Memory in Postwar Europe,” Daedalus 121, 4, pp. 83–118.

Kaufmann, Jesse C. (2008) Sovereignty and the Search for Order in German-Occupied Poland (Stanford University Doctoral Dissertation).

Królikowski, Lech and Krzysztof Oktabiński (2008) Warszawa 1914–1920: Warszawa i okolice w latach walk o niepodległość i granice Rzeczypospolitej (Warsaw: Wydawnictwa Akademickie i Profesjonalne).

Kuźma-Markowska, Sylwia (2011) “Soldiers, Members of Parliament, Social Activists: The Polish Women’s Movement after World War I,” in Ingrid Sharp and Matthew Stibbe (eds) Aftermath of War: Women’s Movements and Female Activists, 1918–1923 (Leiden and Boston: Brill), pp. 265–286.

Ministerstwo Obrony Narodowy (2005) “Grób Nieznanego Żołnierza,” available online at: http://wojsko-polskie.pl/articles/view/3109, accessed 09.07.2013.

Nora, Pierre (ed.) (2001 and 2007) Rethinking France: Les Lieux de Mémoire, 2 volumes (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press).

Pajewski, Janusz (ed.) (2002) Pamiętnik księżniej Marii Zdzisławowej Lubomirskiej, 1914–1918 (Poznań: Wydawnictwo Poznańskie).

Polsakiewicz, Marta (2009) “Spezifika deutscher Besatzungspolitik in Warschau 1914–1916,” Zeitschrift für Ostmitteleuropa-Forschung 58, 4, pp. 501–537.

Porter, Brian (2000) When Nationalism Began to Hate: Imagining Modern Politics in Nineteenth- Century Poland (New York: Oxford University Press).

Rechter, David (2001) The Jews of Vienna and the First World War (London: The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization).

Sierakowska, Katarzyna (2006) “Budzińska-Tylicka, Justyna (1867–1936),” in Francisca de Haan, Krassimira Daskalova, and Anna Loutfi (eds) A Biographical Dictionary of Women’s Movements and Feminisms. Central, Eastern, and South Eastern Europe, 19th and 20th Centuries (Budapest: Central European University Press), p. 80.

Trouillot, Michel-Rolph (1995) Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon Press).

Ury, Scott (2012) Barricades and Banners: The Revolution of 1905 and the Transformation of Warsaw Jewry (Stanford: Stanford University Press).

Van Cant, Katrin (2009) “Historical Memory in Post-Communist Poland: Warsaw’s Monuments after 1989,” Studies in Slavic Cultures 8, pp. 90–119.

Wapiński, Roman (1997) “Władysław Sikorski,” Polski Słownik Biograficzny 37, 3, No. 154, p. 471.

Winter, Jay and Jean-Louis Robert (ed.) (1997, 2007) Capital Cities at War: Paris, London, Berlin 1914–1919, 2 volumes (New York: Cambridge University Press).

Wyszczelski, Lech (2008) Warszawa Listopad 1918 (Warsaw: Bellona).

Zieliński, Konrad (2005) Stosunki polsko-żydowskie na ziemiach Królestwa Polskiego w czasie pierwszej wojny światowej (Lublin: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Marii Curie-Skłodowskiej).


This article has been published in the second issue of Remembrance and Solidarity Studies dedicated to the European memory of the First World War.

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Photo of the publication Warriors and Victims: Commemorating War on the Stadtfriedhof Tübingen – A Local-National Perspective
Benedict von Bremen

Warriors and Victims: Commemorating War on the Stadtfriedhof Tübingen – A Local-National Perspective

21 August 2014
  • Great War
  • First World War
  • World War I
  • Germany
  • memorials
  • cementeries
  • memorial sites
  • Nazis
  • Nazi


The Stadtfriedhof Tübingen has three burial sites connected to wars. The Kriegerdenkmal 1870/71 and the Kriegerfriedhof 1914/18 contain and commemorate soldiers who died in Tübingen hospitals during the Franco-Prussian War and the First World War. The Gräberfeld X is a burial and memorial site for the mortal remains of victims of Nazi rule whose bodies were used in the university’s anatomical institute. Analyzing and interpreting these three local war memorial grave sites and putting them into the larger national context of remembrance shows how the German memory culture of wars has changed over time from warriors to victims.


The town of Tübingen, Baden-Württemberg, in southwestern Germany has one of the country’s oldest universities, the Eberhard Karls Universität, founded in 1477. A great number of its professors have been interred in the Stadtfriedhof, the city’s central cemetery, dating to the first half of the 19th century and located near many of university’s academic and medical buildings. Moreover, this graveyard is particularly known for the burial sites of famous Tübingers such as the German Romantic authors Ludwig Uhland and Friedrich Hölderlin, as well as Kurt-Georg Kiesinger, third chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany. However, there are also burial plots that commemorate the casualties of three wars that have shaped German history in the past 140 years. While the Kriegerdenkmal 1870/71 and the Kriegerfriedhof 1914/18 commemorate and hold the remains of soldiers who died in Tübingen hospitals during the Franco-Prussian War and the First World War, respectively, the Gräberfeld X is a burial and memorial site for the mortal remains of victims of Nazi rule whose bodies were used in the anatomical institute of the university’s medical faculty. What can these commemorative graves, whose only commonalities, it seems are their close vicinity in the same cemetery and the wreaths dedicated to the victims of war laid down each November on Volkstrauertrag (German Memorial Day), tell us about the memory of the aforementioned armed conflicts in Germany history? By analyzing and interpreting these three local war memorial grave sites and their architecture and putting them into the larger national context of remembrance, this article aims to show how the memory culture of Germany’s last three European and interconnected wars and the focus of commemoration has changed over time, from warriors to victims, and what this can tell us about the meaning attached to these conflicts.

Kriegerdenkmal 1870/71

The defeat of France by a Prussian-led coalition of German principalities in the War of 1870 resulted in the creation of the Reich, or German Empire, in 1871 – the first unified German nation. While its emperor was the Prussian king, the Reich itself was a federation made up of the various German principalities, among them the Kingdom of Württemberg. The latter’s university town of Tübingen on the Neckar had, during the war, housed wounded German soldiers from various contingents in its hospitals. A number of these soldiers died, and thereby constituted a problem: How to commemorate them (Hoffmann-Curtius 1986, 45)?

The Napoleonic Wars sixty years earlier had seen a change in how the war dead were remembered. After earlier armed conflicts, it had been princes or generals who received post-war monuments and equestrian statues to celebrate their leadership and battlefield heroism. With the mass armies and accompanying mass casualties of the armed conflicts in the early industrial age, the common soldier began to be the focus of remembering a war, especially the dead who had sacrificed their lives on the altar of the evolving notion of a “nation.” This particularly found expression in architecture: the names of fallen soldiers of a community were engraved in public plaques, often on church walls. By doing this, a community commemorated the loss of its sons and thereby showed its gratitude for their sacrifice for posterity (Rieth 1967, 11–12; Vogt 1993, 16ff.).

On the other side of the Atlantic, it was the American Civil War of 1861 to 1865 with its approximately 620,000 casualties that spawned an outpouring of monuments to the memory of its casualties. Often in the form of a statue of a common soldier, these memorials, erected on battlefields and town commons, commemorated the heroism of the rank and file and the part that they had played, at least in the eyes of Northerners, in saving the Union, or nation, as well as remembering the ultimate sacrifice of the fallen. Therefore, battlefield heroism and death, as well as the concept of the nation, were entwined in the North’s memorial culture after the war. National cemeteries were built on important battlefields to inter and commemorate those who fell far from their homes. (Piehler 2010, 224–227).

The situation in Tübingen after 1871 was both different and similar to that in America. The war between the Union and the Confederacy was a civil war, while the Franco-Prussian War was not. 1 Both wars, however, were nation-building conflicts: the outcome of the American Civil War was that the United States would, after the defeat of the slave-holding South, be based on the North’s principles of industrialized free labor, while the War of 1870 resulted in the unification of Germany under Prussian domination. Although the German princes had fought alongside each other against France, the Reich’s political map was still characterized by the regional nature of various principalities, from duchies to kingdoms, and an accompanying sense of Heimat that was very much rooted in local identities. The victory over France rekindled nationalist sentiments that had been smoldering since the wars of liberation against Napoleon and during the absolutist restoration period that had followed, ultimately leading to the proclamation of the Prussian king as German emperor in the mirror hall of Versailles in January 1871.

Tübingen’s role as a university town with continuously expanding medical faculties and its spatial proximity not far from the battlefields of France had made it a Lazarettstadt, a military hospital city that received wounded soldiers from different principalities’ military contingents. Fourteen of them died and were to be laid to rest in situ. This posed an issue: How, in what form, were these soldiers to be remembered? Shortly after the end of the war, in 1871, this question was addressed. It was decided to commemorate the dead with a monument in the cemetery where they were interred – the Stadtfriedhof. A debate ensued about the architectural form of the monument, and from among a number of designs one was finally chosen (Hoffmann- Curtius 1986, 47f.).

The result was a stone obelisk, adorned with old swords and helmets, laurel wreaths, and an Eiserners Kreuz (Iron Cross), with the names, ranks, and regiments of the deceased soldiers engraved on the sides, and the words

1870–72 /2

Unlike monuments erected for the commemoration of regiments that were tied to a specific city, such as that of the Naussauisches Infanterie-Regiment Nr. 87 garrisoned in Mainz until 1918, and thereby deeply rooted within a certain locale, the Kriegerdenkmal on the Stadtfriedhof Tübingen3 addressed the memory of soldiers who did not hail from the town were they are buried. This was because of the nature of the Franco-Prussian War and the set-up of the German armies, together with Tübingen’s role as a Lazarettstadt.

From an architectural perspective, the newly-found nationalism of the Reich after the War of 1870 expressed itself in the Iron Cross on the Kriegerdenkmal obelisk. The Iron Cross was a military decoration for common soldiers to acknowledge their bravery that had been instituted by Prussian King Frederick William III in 1813 during the wars of liberation. 4 While the Christian cross would have been the usual and religious choice as the symbol of decorating graves, selecting the Iron Cross, a symbol of Prussia, points to the need to subsume the fallen from different German states under a sign that symbolized the new nationhood of the Reich. This also replaced traditional religious notions with the symbolism of a nation by overarching the heritage of single principalities and constituting a new and higher order (Vogt 1993, 35ff).

Moreover, as this was a monument to commemorate dead soldiers in a cemetery and not a leading general or prince in a more central locale such as a public square, and as these soldiers’ sacrifice in the fight for the newfound nation was a thing to be remembered, their names were engraved on the obelisk for posterity – for future generations to be reminded of what these soldiers and their deaths (or, to go by the inscription, being wounded first in the fight for the fatherland) had accomplished for the new nation symbolized by the Iron Cross. Still, their regional identity and heritage was deemed important, as was the mention of their regiments, which were closely tied to regional identity. But they rest “IN HEIMISCHER ERDE,” which again emphasizes the shared fatherland they had fought for, despite their regional backgrounds. They are buried at home away from home.

In addition to pointing out the regional and regimental affiliation of the dead soldiers, a distinction is made between their ranks. The name of a fallen lieutenant is not found on the obelisk, but received a separate grave slab. 5 The social gap between the officer class and the rank and file, was becoming increasingly permeable, especially for members of the upper middle-class after the Napoleonic Wars, 6 and therefore also the German social hierarchy of the time; here it finds an embodiment both architecturally and spatially.

Furthermore, the architectural design of the obelisk signifies the fashion of the time. Implementing swords reminiscent of old Greek edged weapons and a helmet from the same time are examples of the Neoclassicism that swept the western world at the time (Hoffmann-Curtius 1986, 48). The previous century had seen a renewed interest in antiquity, its architecture and literature (Watson 2010). By using Ancient Greek armaments, reference was made to heroic legends, such as the Iliad, thereby also denoting the dead soldiers buried and commemorated in Tübingen as heroes of the successful recent war for unification.

Looking at monuments for the participants of the Franco-Prussian War in other regions of Germany, we detect similarities to the Kriegerdenkmal. 7 In the square in front of the train station of Bad Dürkheim, a wine-growing town in Rhineland-Palatinate, then part of the Bavarian Rheinprovinz, a large ashlar of sandstone erected in 1911 commemorates the town’s participants in the War of 1870. Their names are arranged in order of importance (alongside soldiers who served in Bavarian regiments are some civilians, including women, who contributed to the war effort) and therefore according to social status. All around the ashlar are Ancient Greek helmets and laurels. In contrast to the Kriegerdenkmal on the Stadtfriedhof, the statue of a lion holding a shield adorns the Bad Dürkheim monument. The use of allegorical representations of animals on war memorials was common at the time (Rieht 1967, 12); most likely, the lion stands for the coat of arms of Bavaria, while the shield might represent the proximity of the Palatinate, or Rheinprovinz, to France and Bavarian troops acting as defenders in the first days of the war. Another War of 1870 memorial is in the neighboring village to the south, Wachenheim, this one adorned by an eagle. What the Bad Dürkheim memorial lacks, though, is the Iron Cross. This is perhaps due to Bavaria’s reluctance to join the new Reich and the strong feeling of Bavarian patriotism, creating an aversion to the centralized power of Prussia throughout the Kaiserreich. Of course, it should not be forgotten that these two monuments commemorate local participants of the war against France, while the Kriegerdenkmal remembers non-Tübingeners, which might attest to the lack of national symbolism.

Kriegerfriedhof 1914/18

The War of 1870 and the French cry for revenge after a humiliating defeat and a loss of territory (Elsace-Lorraine) were among the factors, such as Germany’s military stockpiling and saber-rattling, that contributed to the outbreak of another war between Germany and France, a conflict that started locally, with a mortal injury to the Austrian archduke in Sarajevo, and became global with the involvement of European imperialist powers’ colonies and the 1917 entry of the United States. The Great War saw the clash of mass armies in industrialized modern warfare and unprecedented numbers of casualties, about two million military in Germany alone. Tübingen, which had become a garrison town in the late 19th century, extending its medical faculties, and Germany on the whole, had to deal with the vast number of war dead and the political and ideological aftermath of the Kaiserreich’s defeat and the effects of the Treaty of Versailles. In this context, the Kriegerfriedhof 1914/18 on the Stadtfriedhof Tübingen can be seen as a culmination point of issues concerning local and national war remembrance.

The debates on a monument for Tübingen’s veterans of the Franco-Prussian War, and thus on commemorating an earlier conflict, heated up once again in the early 1910s, but were overtaken by the events of the time (Hornbogen 1995, 155). With the influx of wounded to Tübingen’s medical facilities, the Württembergian city once again faced the task of both interring and remembering the war’s dead, but now on a scale that by far superseded the War of 1870. In addition to the great number of casualties, the end of the war, Germany’s capitulation, and the Treaty of Versailles played important roles in giving significance to the war and its dead.

In 1921, the Kriegerfriedhof 1914/18 was inaugurated. Its name shares the “Krieger” of Kriegerdenkmal. Choosing to use not Soldat (soldier) but Krieger (warrior) is already an interpretation. Krieger conjures up images of Germanic or medieval warriors, both legendary and real, already familiar to German schoolchildren at the time, with an added connection to heroes like Siegfried from the Nibelungen epic or medieval Helden such as Kaiser Barbarossa or Emperor Frederick I. 8 These figures were appropriated to create an overarching national German history and identity, as well as role-models in the highly militarized culture of the Kaiserreich, with its emphasis on soldiering, loyalty, obedience, and sacrifice. This is emphasized by the inscription on the large central stone wall of the Kriegerfriedhof, DEN HELDEN DES WELTKRIEGS – “to the heroes of the world war.”

And just as Siegfried was murdered from behind by the unfaithful Hagen von Tronje in the medieval epic, the Dolchstoßlegende emerged after World War I. Because the Reich had not been, for the most part, a battlefield9; because the real brunt of a war economy with food shortages only had real effects on the civilian population in 1917–18; because German troops were successful on the eastern front, forcing Russia to sign a separate peace contract; because the reversals of the German spring offensives of 1918 and the subsequent retreat to defensive lines nearer to Germany itself were played down by the Oberste Heeresleitung’s propaganda; because the armistice, planned by the military but signed by the new democratic government of November 1918, seemed to many Germans sudden and unexpected; and because the revolution of 1918 to 1919 was, in part, accompanied by Bolshevik-inspired Arbeiter – und Soldatenräte, the myth that the German armies, allegedly unbesiegt im Felde (undefeated on the field of battle), had been stabbed in the back by the revolutionaries and the new Social Democrat government took hold in Germany, especially in conservative and right-wing circles. The Treaty of Versailles with its implications of territorial losses on the outskirts of the Reich and of its overseas colonies, the scaling down of the German armed forces, and especially the article that stipulated that Germany alone was responsible for the outbreak of the Great War added insult to injury; it was, in German eyes from the extreme left to the extreme right, a Schandvertrag, a shameful treaty that insulted Germany’s honor (Krumeich 2001, 585ff).

Therefore, Germany had to grapple with a number of questions. Why was the war that seemed heading toward a victory suddenly lost? Who was responsible? And what did almost two million German soldiers die for? Some of these issues were addressed in architecture, most prominently war memorials, of which the Kriegerfriedhof in the Stadtfriedhof Tübingen is one example.

The warrior cemetery was inaugurated on October 30, 1921 in the presence of participants of a number of groups that shaped the commemoration of the Great War during the Weimar Republic, most prominently the Kriegervereine. These veterans' organizations had emerged after the War of 1870; its members wanted their contemporaries and future generations to appreciate what soldiers had accomplished during the war. They did this by funding and erecting monuments, through reunions that took place in the public, and lobbying through the media. At the inauguration of the Kriegerfriedhof, the Kriegervereine were present, along with other military veteran organizations and student fraternities, standing at attention, holding flags, singing martial tunes, commemorating dead comrades, and giving speeches. In one speech, a motif that runs through the remembrance of the First World War’s casualties in Weimar Germany is that their sacrifice for the fatherland should not have been in vain (Hornborgen 1995, 157). The underlying sentiment was to take revenge for the lost war, and especially the Treaty of Versailles.

Architecturally, the most important motif was the Feldgrauer. Just before the Great War, the contingents of the different principalities that made up the imperial German army had adopted a field-gray uniform, a drab color that was suited to the trench warfare of the First World War. In 1916, the German imperial army introduced the Stahlhelm, the steel helmet with its distinctive design reminiscent of certain Germanic medieval helmets. The Feldgrauer figure that was representative of all German soldiers (Jeismann and Westheider 1988, 9) therefore derived his name from this uniform, with the addition of the iconographic silhouette of the steel helmet.

In the Kriegerfriedhof, a Feldgrauer’s head is engraved on a centrally placed stone memorial reminiscent of an ancient tomb. His face stares determined into a distant future. This is a metaphor expressing that Germany had not really been defeated – or that it was, at least, going to set things straight, to revise the Treaty of Versailles, in a future conflict (Hoffmann-Curtius 1986, 58). Similarities can be found in other World War I memorials all over the Germany. In Düsseldorf, the Ehrenmal für das Niederrheinische Füsilier-Regiment Nr. 39 memorial shows columns of armed Feldgraue marching straight from the tomb into a new battle, while in Worms four Feldgraue representing the Infanterie Regiment Prinz Carl (4. Großherzoglich Hessisches) Nr. 118 stand at attention. In the Palatinate town of Herxheim am Berg, three stone field-gray-clad soldiers march forward, their rifles at the shoulder. In the oldest church of Lindau on Lake Constance, the Peterskirche, a marble Feldgrauer lies on his deathbed – still fully clothed with helmet, overcoat, boots, belt, clutching a rifle in his hand, ready to spring up and do his duty again at a moment’s notice.10 The war memorial of Hardenburg, a district of Bad Dürkheim, depicts a Feldgrauer on the ground, at first glance looking beat, holding a broken short sword in his hand – but he is not yet completely defeated, as he is still propped up on his arm. The small Palatinate village of Forst’s World War I memorial, though, is not as aggressive or revisionist. Here, Feldgraue without helmets rise from their deathbed and pray to Jesus Christ. Similarly, religious undertones can be found in the First World War memorial in the Swabian town of Burladingen, where an angel takes a Feldgrauer in its arms. 11

But as in the example of the Stadtfriedhof’s Kriegerdenkmal 1870/71 and its contemporary memorials in other German towns, the Kriegerfriedhof lacks the rootedness in the city where it is situated. Its connection, however, is to an important part of Tübingen – its medical facilities. As during the War of 1870, soldiers from all over Germany were treated here, and, in some cases, died here. Their sheer numbers also necessitated that the Kriegerfriedhof be much larger than the Kriegerdenkmal. While the latter is located in a small area with only an obelisk, some steps leading to it, and a low wall all around, the Kriegerfriedhof is an actual cemetery. About 261 soldiers – among them some allied soldiers – are interred in the warrior cemetery (Hornbogen 1995, 156). Instead of putting all their names on a single architectural structure, as with the Kriegerdenkmal obelisk, each soldier got his own marker. The rank and file received small marble stones with their name and their year of death. These markers are arranged in subsequent lines according to the years 1914 to 1919. The large number of markers and their arrangement are representative of the mass casualties of World War I, and evocative of the lines of soldiers going over the top that were mowed down by one of the latest instruments of modern warfare, the machine gun.

As with the Kriegerdenkmal, the rank and file in the Kriegerfriedhof are separated from officers and non-commissioned officers. The latter received actual crosses bearing their names, ranks, units, and complete date of death, while the common soldiers’ markers only bore their names. Additionally, there is a path between the long rows of small stone markers and the smaller number of crosses, which are nonetheless equally arranged by years and in rows. The spatial separation of the graves symbolizes the separation of the (non-commissioned) officer and common soldier’s classes, a continuity from real life, where officers had more privileges even in death, as in the Kriegerdenkmal, thereby showing the class-based system of the Reich.

The cult of the Feldgrauer, together with its implications of martially repealing the Treaty of Versailles, continued into the Third Reich. After 1933, the university quickly expelled Jewish professors and ideologues like philosopher Theodor Haering (Hantke 1991, 179ff). After the re-introduction of general conscription in 1935, new military garrisons for the Wehrmacht were built, among them the Hindenburg Kaserne. Its entry was adorned with a statue of a Feldgrauer (Vogel 1991, 45). In addition, a monument celebrating composer Friedrich Silcher was erected in the Platanenallee on the Neckar. Below the statue of Silcher himself, it depicts, on the one hand, a pair of lovers, Silcher’s Volkslieder celebrating the Heimat. On the other hand, two Feldegraue are part of the monument. One of them is marching forward, while the other has been struck by a bullet and falls at the feet of his comrade. This is a reference to “Der gute Kamerad,” a sad poem by Tübingen Romantic author Friedrich Uhland about a soldier’s loss of a comrade in battle, written during the Napoleonic Wars. Twenty years later, Silcher composed a tune for this poem, and “Der gute Kamerade” became (and remains) a staple of German military songs, especially when commemorating dead soldiers during funeral ceremonies. Unveiled just before the invasion of Poland in the summer of 1939, the Silcher Denkmal with its Feldgrauer iconography not only pointed to the past and to the sacrifices of World War I, but also to the future, where more German soldiers were to lose their lives on the battlefield (Loistl 1991, 171ff). Unlike the Great War, however, the commemoration of World War II and Nazi rule dead would take a different turn in the post-war years.

Gräberfeld X

On May 8, 1945, Nazi Germany surrendered unconditionally to the Allies. Millions of people, soldiers and civilians alike, had died during the Second World War in Europe. In contrast to the end of World War I, though, Germany was completely occupied and a process of demilitarization, denazification, and democratization was set in motion by the (western) Allies to prevent Germany from ever starting a war again. In Nuremberg, high-ranking Nazi officials faced a war crimes trial for instigating the war and causing the deaths of innocent civilians. The liberation of concentration camps, which Allied soldiers often forced German civilians from nearby towns to visit, and the release of films documenting Nazi atrocities showed the world and the German public the results of Adolf Hitler’s reign. Several other war criminal trials were conducted over the next years. Many Germans, however, tried to forget the twelveyear Tausendjähriges Reich and began rebuilding what the war had destroyed in their respective occupation zones. Nonetheless, some did not want to forget.

An organization of those who were once politically persecuted, the Vereinigung der Verfolgten des Naziregimes (VVN), opened the discussion on the Gräberfeld X13in the Tübingen Stadtfriedhof in 1950. They demanded that victims of the Nazi state that had been interred in the Gräberfeld should be commemorated. During the late 1930s and the war years, the anatomical institute of the university’s medical faculty had received a large number of bodies for dissection; many of these people had been executed because they had opposed the Third Reich, or just because of their alleged racial inferiority. Among them were German passive resisters who had doubted the successful outcome of the war, as well as forced laborers from German-occupied countries who had been intimate with German women and thereby violated the 1935 Nürnberger Rassegesetze, all offenses punished by death under Nazi law. After their execution – whether official ones in prisons or unofficial ones in labor camps, all in Württemberg – their corpses were used for study purposes at the anatomical institute, and some specimens might have been been used as late as 1990 when the medical faculty had some questionable specimens removed from its collections and interred in the Gräberfeld X (Hayes 2013, 50–52; Schönhagen 1987, 7–10).

These were victims of Nazi rule with its racist and anti-opposition ideology. With Germany having been liberated from this rule and the war criminals being punished, those who were persecuted and had survived their ordeal wanted the memory of their dead fellows to be preserved, not least to keep future generations from letting something like the Third Reich happen again. The Tübingen city council decided to erect three stone crosses with the inscription “1939–1945,” an architectural form common for remembering the (military) dead of World War II and symbolizing Christ’s crucifixion and reconciliation. Through this general depiction, though, different types of casualties were subsumed into a larger community of the victims14 of World War II, regardless of whether they belonged to the armed forces of the aggressor nation (Germany), civilian victims of air raids, for example, or to ethnic or political groups persecuted by the Nazis (Hayes 2013, 40–42; Schönhagen 1987, 11). This is also shown through the ubiquity of these three crosses in war cemeteries all over Germany. They can be found, for example, in the World War II victims’ memorial in the Tübingen Bergfriedhof commemorating most of all those Tübingers who had died serving the German armed forces during the war (Hayes 2011, 133–144; Hayes 2013, 40–41).

In the early 1960s, new demands arose. Especially in light of the fact that the Gräberfeld X was run-down, unkempt, and overgrown, the city decided to clear it and, because of the continual demands from various groups, opted to add a plaque to specify more who was buried here. After heated debates, the following inscription was chosen:


But despite being more specific than the three crosses with “1939–1945” on them, this wording is still very vague, and it does not really specify who exactly is buried in the Gräberfeld X, or why they were killed (Schönhagen 1987, 14–15). The difficulty of finding an appropriate way of honoring the victims of Nazi rule buried in the Gräberfeld X represents the difficulty West Germany had with its Nazi past during these years. While some wanted to forget or felt that it was enough to commemorate all victims the combined, regardless of why they were killed, others saw importance in adequately and frankly remembering different victim groups. In turn, this struggle of defining national remembrance shows on the local level of Tübingen, where groups with different opinions clashed. The 1962 plaque was a compromise between those who wanted to remember and those who felt at least some obligation to do so, but were not willing to be more specific and who, moreover, wanted to be rid of the past – a Schlussstrich. Getting more concrete would have meant dealing with what had actually happened in their immediate vicinity, that is, in the city of Tübingen, and the surrounding region of Württemberg. In turn, this would have shown that the crimes of the Nazi regime did not only happen in a distant occupied territory, but right at home as well (Hayes 2013, 42–43; Schönhagen 1987, 14). Thereby, the disconnectedness of Nazi crimes and the Heimat that pervaded the early post-war attitude of not having witnessed or even knowing the Third Reich’s crimes in the fatherland was perpetuated, something that, in hindsight, is hard to believe, as forced laborers, euthanasia clinics, and concentration camp death marches occurred right before the Germans’ eyes16; but in the postwar years, forgetting the past was the rule, with a few exceptions.

Therefore, it took another twenty years before the Gräberfeld X became a focus for the Tübingen public once again. As in the 1960s, the Gräberfeld had overgrown, and was in need of re-structuring. A published photograph of a bulldozer left by a gardener on top of some graves resulted in public outcry from many sides, as this was seen as dishonoring the victims of the Nazi regime. The Gräberfeld X was back in the spotlight. Shortly thereafter, bronze name plates were set next to a path that led to the three crosses and the 1962 stone plaque. On Volkstrauertrag 1985, the Tübingen Oberbürgermeister Carlo Schmid held a speech at the Gräberfeld X for the first time, connecting what happened on the Tübingers’ doorstep, and putting this in the larger context of the Nazi policy of extermination.17 He also announced that the city government of Tübingen would commission a study of the backgrounds of those interred there (Hayes 2013, 47–50). While the political group of the 1950s had known some of the people’s fates, it was historian Benigna Schönhagen’s 1987 study that tried to establish how many victims of Nazi rule were actually buried in the Gräberfeld X,18 as well as some of the individuals’ stories, thereby exposing the interconnectedness of Tübingen and the Third Reich – of local and national history.

This new type of remembrance can be seen in the larger context of remembering the casualties of World War II in Germany. It took almost forty years until special emphasis was added to the general remembrance of all victims, commemorating those who perished as a result of Nazi policies, until what is today called Vergangenheitsbewältigung became widespread (Hayes 2011, 132–133). Some have attributed this to the temporal distance from the war years and the aging or dying out of witnesses, victims, and perpetrators, and therefore also their disappearance from the public. While there had been war crimes trials up until the 1960s, such as the Auschwitz trials, the crimes of the Third Reich were mostly attributed to a small group of high profile perpetrators, leading Nazi figures like head of the SS Heinrich Himmler, or lower-ranking but influential people like Adolph Eichmann. It was only over time that both historians in academia and amateurs in local historical societies began unraveling the mechanics of the Nazi regime and the participation of many population groups, thereby providing a more nuanced picture of the Täter, or perpetrators, how much the “average” German knew or was him – or herself involved in, for example, profiting from Arisierung, or being involved in Nazi organizations such as the Hitlerjugend. Moreover, the student revolt of the 68er and their questioning of what the Vatergeneration had done in the war – if their fathers had “only” served the fatherland or had, in the course of the war, participated in crimes – added to a more critical perspective on a past that was not so distant, both in space and time. Concentration and labor camps had been spread all over Germany, forced laborers had worked for farmers and corporations, and the depiction of the Wehrmacht as a clean army removed from the Weltanschauungskrieg (as opposed to the ideological Waffen-SS) began to be overturned as well.19

As such, this critical reception and interpretation of the Nazi past also deviates from how earlier wars were remembered in Germany. While the War of 1870 was a victory and the First World War a conflict whose outcome was disputed, World War II had been a total defeat that was seldom glorified.20 This led to neither the creation of an idealized past where the military had helped build Germany, as with the Franco-Prussian War, nor to the sense of an important foundation for the strength of the country, as with World War I and the instrumentalization of its memory by the Nazis (leading to the next world war, and even more disastrous results). The Second World War and the Nazi years came to be seen, over time, as a dark chapter of German history that should not be repeated. Instead of glorifying the fallen heroes – soldiers – the critical reception of the past that continues in Germany to this day does places no emphasis on remembering the military casualties of World War II, but the victims of the Nazi regime, for which the German armed forces was an instrument of power. The heroization of a martial past instrumentalized for nationalism is less the focus than the remembrance of the victims of a criminal regime and a historical imperative never to repeat the Third Reich or to achieve political aims through war.

In the Gräberfeld X, this type of remembrance is visible in a variety of ways. For one, like the soldiers’ graves, the identified names of victims are represented in a number of bronze plaques set on both sides of a trail leading to the main architectural monuments to keep their memory alive. While the three stone crosses are still there, another plaque was installed, founded by the university and thereby acknowledging the part that the medical faculty played (Hayes 2013, 50–54). It finds more concrete words for the people buried in the Gräberfeld:

Verschleppt Geknechtet Geschunden /
Ofer der Willkür oder verblendeten Rechts /
fanden Menschen Ruhe erst hier /
Von ihrem Leib noch /
forderte Nutzen eine Wissenschaft /
die Rechte und Würde des Menschen nicht achtete /
Mahnung sei dieser Stein den Lebenden /
Die Eberhard-Karls-Universität Tübingen /

Soon though after its inauguration in 1990, the plaque was violated by people who painted swastikas over it, and a new version was installed (Hayes 2013, 53). Before entering the Gräberfeld, which is surrounded by a hedge, just as the Kriegerfriedhof 1914/18 is, a signboard gives detailed information about the Gräberfeld and its history of commemoration – unlike the two soldiers’ cemeteries, which are devoid of any inscriptions indicating to their historical contexts.

While all three burial sites receive wreaths on Volkstrauertag and some graves at the World War I cemetery are adorned with flowers, there are often events in Gräberfeld X, especially on days like May 8, the day of the German capitulation in 1945, where anti-Nazi groups and historical societies meet, sometimes with family members of some of the deceased present. Some dedicated individuals try to keep the memory alive of those interred in Gräberfeld X by researching individuals’ stories and establishing contact with their families, often from Eastern Europe, to provide information about their relatives’ fates (Hayes 2013, 55–58). In general, there are various individuals and societies in Tübingen, such as the Geschichtswerkstatt and the Verein Lern – & Dokumentationszentrum zum Nationalsozialismus e.V. Tübingen, which research the past and cultivate its memory, and especially its lessons, and present them to the public through lectures and publications.

Conclusion and Outlook

The Kriegerdenkmal 1870/71, Kriegerfriedhof 1914/18, and Gräberfeld X on the Tübingen Stadtfriedhof are, at a first glance, no more than three burial sites connected to the past three European wars through their German participants and their spatial proximity. Looking more closely, however, we see they are also intertwined because of their connection to Tübingen medical institutions and their place in the context of commemoration of the War of 1870, World War I, and World War II in Germany. The burial sites are part of the cemetery in Tübingen, but most of those interred are not Tübingers. Regarding the Kriegerdenkmal 1870/71, finding a way to commemorate the dead soldiers of this war from different German principalities was also a task of moving beyond the regionalism of German states to the concept of a nation state. It were not any longer just kings and generals that were remembered, but the sacrifices of the common soldiers on the altar of the nation received a place in memory as well. This development strengthened with the Kriegerfriedhof 1914/18. Those who died in Tübingen hospitals were seen as part of the sacrifice of the Feldgrauer in general, and their commemoration as part of interpreting the Great War as a conflict that German soldiers had not lost; its results, mainly the Treaty of Versailles, were revised so that the sacrifice of the war heroes was not in vain. The total defeat in World War II and the Gräberfeld X show how the focus of commemorating war dead shifted from soldiers (seen as warriors) to noncombatants, especially those who were victims of Nazi rule, to illustrate the criminality of said regime. This development needed many decades and re-interpretations to take hold in German public memory. As such, these local burial sites also mirror the changing national memory and debates on how wars and their casualties are remembered in Germany.

While it took a long time before the commemoration of those interred in the Gräberfeld X became a focus of public memory, just as on the national scale, its way of remembering the victims of Nazi Germany has also become the dominant form, just as the historical public consciousness in the Federal Republic of Germany focuses on the Third Reich, its crimes, and its victims. In light of this, the commemoration of earlier wars steps into the background, and the Kriegerdenkmal 1870/71 is also spatially removed in the cemetery, overgrown with moss, just as this conflict has almost vanished from public memory. Still, it is impossible to disassociate the War of 1870, the Great War, and World War II due to their historical relationship, as well as their function as markers of how the memory of wars has changed in Germany in the past 140 years.


Benedict von Bremen. Born in 1984 in Marsberg, Germany. From 2005 to 2011 he studied at Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen, majoring in Modern History and American Studies. His M. A. thesis was One of the Horrors of War Strayed from His Era into Yours: Ambrose Bierce and Civil War Memory. Since October 2011 he has been a research fellow at the American Studies Department, Tübingen University. He is a founding member of the Verein für ein Lern – & Dokumentationszentrum zum Nationalsozialismus e.V. Tübingen in November 2010. Since June 2012 he has collaborated on “NS-Täterbuch Tübingen.”


1 France hoped in 1870 that the southern German principalities such as the kingdoms of Württemberg and Bavaria, which had, for the most part, been aligned with Austria and defeated in the War of 1866, would take France’s side and turn against Prussia and its allies in the Norddeutscher Bund. On the contrary, a nationalistic war fever at the prospect of victory against an old enemy swept through the southern German principalities allied with Prussia.

2 “Fourteen German warriors who were severely wounded in the fight for the fatherland and cared for in this city until they died are buried here, in the soil of the homeland, 1870–72.”

3 Tübingen only became a garrison town in the 1890s (Starzmann 2009).

4 The Iron Cross was then founded again during later Prussian and German wars (Vogt 1993, 18–20).

5 Unfortunately, this slab is now overgrown with moss. At least to the best of the author’s memory, the fading inscription speaks of a lieutenant buried there.

6 Resulting from the need for more officers to lead the growing mass armies of the industrial age, as well as an opportunity for upper middle-class men to rise in the social hierarchy where the rank of officer was strongly tied to the nobility (Rumschöttel 1973, 41ff).

7 The ideas for a central monument commemorating the Tübingen veterans of the War of 1870 did not materialize; a plaque was only hung in a Tübingen church (Hoffmann- Curtius 1986, 52ff).

8 The symbolism of the Kriegerdenkmal 1870/71, as mentioned earlier, was rather Hellenist-inspired.

9 The Russian offensive into East Prussia was stalled by Field Marshal von Hindenburg’s army in September 1914 and only a few southwestern German towns were targets of air raids.

10 In German folklore, Kaiser Rotbart (or Barbarossa) sleeps in a mountain, to wake up one day to save Germany in its darkest hour.

11 World War I memorials in other European countries give the war a different meaning. Many French war monuments depict the poilu as a citizen soldier returning to his family, without the martial undertones of German Feldgrauer depictions (Jeismann and Westheider 1988, 9f). A Great War memorial in the Belgian town of Dinant puts the memory of Belgium being invaded and the fight for its liberation in the foreground (here, German soldiers committed war crimes after allegedly being shot at by franctireurs in 1914, leading to mass shootings of civilians that were taken up, among other similar incidents, by Entente propaganda as the “Rape of Belgium”).

12 Cf. the attachment of 1939–1945 plaques on almost every monument pictured.

13 The Stadtfriedhof is divided into various smaller burial plots, ordered A to Z. Cf. The Kriegerdenkmal 1870/71 is situated in Gräberfeld N while the Kriegerfriedhof 1914/18 is the Gräberfeld S.

14 For an interesting distinction between “sacrifice” and “victim,” see: Hayes 2011, 132.

15 “Here rest several hundred people of various nationalities who found a violent death in camps and institutions of our country.”

16 For example, the author’s maternal grandmother told him in the early 1990s, when he was still a child, how she had witnessed the nighttime evacuation of her hometown’s “insane asylum.” But fearing being sent to a “Konzertlager” (euphemism for concentration camp), many Germans kept quiet.

17 Wreaths had been laid down at the Gräberfeld on Volkstrauertag since the 1960s, but without any special mention of who was buried there or why (Hayes 2013, 44).

18 Before the Nazi years, the bodies of people whose fate was not connected to the Third Reich, but which were nonetheless used in the anatomical institute, had been buried in the Gräberfeld as well; it was more or less the disposal grounds of the anatomical institute. It is still not quite clear how many Nazi victims are buried there–the estimates range from 400 to 700 (Hayes 2013, 39; Schönhagen 1987, 8, 23).

19 See, for example, the heated discussions about the Wehrmachtsausstellung in the 1990s.

20 For changes in how the World War II era was dealt with in Tübingen, cf. Ulmer 2011.

21 “Deported, enslaved, ill-treated, victims of arbitrariness or misunderstood laws, it is only here that these humans could find rest. A science which did not respect their rights and dignity still wanted to use their bodies. This stone shall be an admonition to the living. The Eberhard-Karls-Universität Tübingen, 1990.”

List of References

Hantke, Manfred (1991) “Der Philosoph als ‘Mitläufer’ – Theodor Haering: ‘Es kam ein Führer! Der Führer kam!’,” in Benigna Schönhagen (ed.) Vorbei und Vergessen: Nationalsozialismus in Tübingen (Tübingen: Kulturamt), pp.179–185.

Hayes, Oonah (2011) “‘Den Toten zur Ehr, uns zur Mahnung’: Die Opfer-Darstellung in der Entwicklung zweier Tübinger Denkmäler während der Nachkriegszeit,” in Hans-Otto Binder et al. (eds) Vom brauen Hemd zur weißen Weste? Vom Umgang mit der Vergangenheit in Tübingen nach 1945 (Tübingen: Fachbereich Kultur), pp. 131–157.

Hayes, Oonah (2013) “Gedenken anstoßen? Warum am Gräberfeld X (der Opfer) gedacht wird,” in Ludger M. Hermanns and Albrecht Hirschmüller (eds.) Vom Sammeln, Bedenken und Deuten in Geschichte, Kunst und Psychoanalyse: Gehard Fichtner zu Ehren (Stuttgart: frommann-holzboog), pp. 37–61.

Hoffmann-Curtius, Kathrin (1986) “Denkmäler für Krieg und Sieg,” in Wolfgang Hesse et al. (eds) Mit Gott für Kaiser, König und Vaterland: Krieg und Kriegsbild Tübingen 1870/71 (Tübingen: Kulturamt), pp. 45–59.

Hornbogen, Helmut (1995) Der Tübinger Stadtfriedhof: Wege durch den Garten der Erinnerung (Tübingen: Schwäbisches Tagblatt).

Jeismann, Michael and Rolf Westheider (1988) “Bürger und Soldaten: Deutsche und französische Kriegerdenkmäler zum Ersten Weltkrieg,” GESCHICHTSWERKSTATT 16, 6–15.

Krumeich, Gerd (2001) “Die Dolchstoß-Legende,” in Etienne François et al. (eds) Deutsche Erinnerungsorte Vol. 1 (München: C. H. Beck), pp. 585–599.

Loistl, Alexander (1991) “Die Silcher-Pflege in Tübingen zwischen 1933 und 1945,” in Benigna Schönhagen (ed.) Vorbei und Vergessen: Nationalsozialismus in Tübingen (Tübingen: Kulturamt), pp. 171–178.

Piehler, G. Kurt (2010) “The American Memory of War,” in Georg Schild (ed.) The American Experience of War (Paderborn et al.: Ferdinand Schöningh), pp. 217–234.

Rieth, Adolf (1967) Denkmal ohne Pathos (Tübingen: Ernst Wasmuth).

Rumschöttel, Hermann (1973) Das bayerische Offizierskorps 1866–1914 (Berlin: Duncker & Humblot).

Schönhagen, Benigna (1987) Das Gräberfeld X: Eine Dokumentation über NS-Opfer auf dem Tübinger Stadtfriedhof (Tübingen: Kulturamt).

Schönhagen, Benigna (2007), “Das Gräberfeld X in Tübingen,” in Konrad Pflug et al. (eds.) Orte des Gedenkens und Erinnerns in Baden-Württemberg (Stuttgart: Landeszentrale für politische Bildung), pp. 376–82.

Starzmann, Holger (2009) “‘Garnison des Geistes”: Die Anfänge der Militarisierung einer Universität,” in Matthias Möller (ed.) Still gestanden? Die Geschichte einer alten Kaserne (Tübingen: Förderverein Kulturdenkmal Schellingstraße 6), pp. 11–22.

Ulmer, Martin (2011) “Verdrängte Verbrechen und gefallene Helden: Wie sich Tübingen in den 1950er und 60er Jahren an den Nationalsozialismus erinnerte,” in Hans-Otto Binder et al. (eds) Vom brauen Hemd zur weißen Weste? Vom Umgang mit der Vergangenheit in Tübingen nach 1945 (Tübingen: Fachbereich Kultur), pp. 47–75.

Vogel, Thomas (1991) “Kunst und Künstler in Tübingen 1933–1945,” in Benigna Schönhagen (ed.) Vorbei und Vergessen: Nationalsozialismus in Tübingen (Tübingen: Kulturamt), pp. 45–53.

Vogt, Arnold (1993) Den Lebenden zur Mahnung: Denkmäler und Gedenkstätten: Zur Traditionspflege und historischen Identität vom 19. Jahrhundert bis zur Gegenwart (Hanover: Lutherisches Verlagshaus).

Watson, Peter (2010) The German Genius: Europe’s Third Renaissance, the Second Scientific Revolution, and the Twentieth Century (London et al.: Simon & Schuster).

Geschichtswerkstatt Tübingen e.V., available online at: http://www.geschichtswerkstatt-tuebingen. de/, accessed 31.05.2013.

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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.

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Photo of the publication Turning Points in the History of War: Criteria for the Meaning of Violence in the Great War of 1914–1918
Christian Wevelsiep

Turning Points in the History of War: Criteria for the Meaning of Violence in the Great War of 1914–1918

20 August 2014
  • War
  • Great War
  • First World War
  • ideology
  • historiography


The focus of this paper is to discuss the criteria for the meaning of violence in the context of the history of war. To be able to classify the instances of violence during the First World War, the following paper will attempt to present the relationship between different levels of war, and thus to determine the criteria for the meaning of violence. The Great War of 1914–1918 was characterized by the transformation of how war was waged, as well as an unlimited awareness of violence (1./2.). Here we have in mind the most comprehensive of all images of violence: the totalitarian image of man. This begs the question of how we can generate an acceptable relationship between the mechanism of violence and violence awareness and thus bring about the renunciation of violence. This pivotal question can only be answered in the wider context of the history of violence. To understand the failure of reason in the battlefields of the Great War we need fundamental anthropological reflections (3./4.), which encompasses the essential significance of the site (5.).


It is generally recognized that history does not boil down to reconstruction of actual life and experience. It also constitutes a process of interpreting which occurs in the minds of the subjects who create it. When looking at historical figures, historians demand that each person takes full responsibility for their own story. In the context of the history of violence and war such a perspective first requires the formulation of rough definitions. A solemn speech about the solid foundation of war, about the father of all things (Ger. Vater aller Dinge) or just about history as a set of rational rules and regulations, expires in the trenches of war. A glimpse at the inter-existential dimension is a look at the everyday reality of war, including the moments of mass killing. “The annihilation of a man as an individual forces us to perceive people as a mass. This is a totalitarian moment. Lenin recognized it, as did Mussolini, Hitler, and others. They perceived war as a powerful fatality in which everything sweeps away, as an uncontrollable torrent and a total power, which ends in nihilism.” (Metz 2010, 191)

John Keegan, an eminent war theorist, also focuses on such an existential perspective, when he embarks on a journey to find The Face of Battle (Keegan 1978). To his mind, the classical military history records create a picture of war which leaves many questions unanswered. They delve into genre scenes and spectacle and create an atmosphere in which bravery, heroism, defeat, and attacks are described from a ruthless point of view. A traditional military historian can find words to describe great military moves and maneuvers, but not the individual deaths and individual lives of soldiers. Keegan, however, is intensely interested in the inconspicuous individuals and events behind the great wars. He sees the efforts to create a historical narrative as entwined with the commitment to comprehend the fundamental position and the existential condition of an individual in a battle. The difference between victory and defeat, which is the main way in which historians, commanders, and chroniclers approach the battle, fades away when we take a closer look at the reality. A soldier has no well-defined picture of a battle in his mind. Enormous danger is a more urgent concern, and therefore his fundamental position is different from the commander’s. If in this way we grant an individual the right to veto, we treat everything less as a revolution in the historiography then, to put it mildly, a glance at the core situation, the bare existence and the image of war.

As we well know, the First World War meant the collapse of civil society. The reasons for this are varied, but they include the negation of what civil society essentially represented: the idea of a free individual who takes responsibility for his actions. Given the mass executions, the mud of the trenches, and the mechanized nature of war, this idea came to an abrupt end. Verdun and the Somme have shaped the face of battle. They represent a turning point in the history of violence as instances of theretofore unseen forms of battle of matériel and massive battles in the death zones of trenches. In the century of violence, war became an independent entity. It became ubiquitous anonymity and omnipresent death; the very essence of war was exposed. Ernst Jünger (1982) formulated a famous and apt description of this turning point: it was not soldiers, but laborers who kept the battle running. They were characterized by their willingness to accept a subordinate role in the anonymous, mechanized, and technological operations, rather than adopting the warrior tradition. The workers who lost their lives in the hail of grenades and machine guns usually could not see their opponents; the enemies remained mostly invisible and beyond reach.


Do we have to present the face of battle in all its hideousness, as evidenced here, and in many other historical examples? No; we are aware of the horrors of war, the suffering of soldiers and civilians, the fury of violence, and we do not want to increase our knowledge of it. Nevertheless, we must attempt to remember and to grasp the meaning of the horrors of war; a meaning which is difficult for us to decipher and which is overshadowed by constant doubt concerning our existence. For Theodor Lessing, for example, history in the face of war was an arduous process of making meaning of meaninglessness. Deeply affected by the First World War, he opposed the religious delusion by which history reflects reason and significance, progress and justice (Lessing 1983, 12). He doubted both the idealist and the materialist delusions in history. Hence, he tried not to present history with all its glorifying embellishments, but as an attempt to make meaning out of something which is inherently meaningless. Lessing’s writing was controversial, but the way in which he posed questions was convincing. His aim was not only to demolish the solid foundations of war, but also to explicitly inquire into the criteria for potential meaning – criteria for meaning in the context of the history of war. This fundamental question is still valid as a question. How can sociology and historiography contribute to the understanding of the notions of peace and war in our day? It seems that this question may be answered off the cuff: one should forbid war, avert violence, and protect rights. This may serve as a starting point for the following reflections. To be able to classify the instances of violence and the totalitarian logic of the First World War, the following paper will attempt to present the relationship between different levels of war, and thus to determine criteria for the meaning of violence. The Great War of 1914–1918 was characterized by (1.) the transformation of war which, as we have mentioned, became totalitarian. It also showed (2.) an unlimited awareness of violence, which was not restricted to the mechanism of violence. The distance which was shaped during mass executions was subject to the abstraction of new proportions and it also pointed to the most comprehensive of all violence abstractions: the totalitarian image of a man. How can we can generate an acceptable relationship between the mechanism of violence and violence awareness and thus bring about the renunciation of violence? This pivotal question can only be answered in the wider context of the history of violence. To understand the failure of reason in the battlefields of the Great War we need a fundamental anthropological reflection (3./4.), which encompasses the essential significance of the site (5.). In this context, the role of historiography is far from insignificant.

1. Military capability: The transformation of war

The historical notion of violence can be discussed from various points of view. On the one hand, in the mechanized form of battle we have evidence of the radical, technically-oriented alienation of man: as many as 2.96 million bullets of a total weight of 21,000 tons were prepared to attack the British troops at the Somme. The use of chlorine gas made a new form of nervous impairment of the enemy possible. The massive annihilations of soldiers in June 1916 marked a tragic climax in the history of war. All these factors point to a radicalized, unrestricted, and industrialized form of violence. Hordes of people waiting in the trenches in order to trudge through destroyed devastated area and barbed wire towards certain death: at this point such an image recalls a form of totalitarian destruction which was to become a reality in the war yet to come (Metz 2010, 192; Keegan 1978, 304). Nevertheless, insight into the terrible events of the war also requires the wider perspective of the historian. We can therefore describe the history of the First World War as a process which was characterized by the transformation of war, in terms of a political, as well as material and technological change. After the relatively peaceful period of one hundred years before the First World War, when the five major European powers followed the policy of balance, the German Wars of Unification again raised the question of power. With the emergence of the German Empire a new power also emerged. The developing economic and military power resulted in a new form of imbalance (hereinafter Kennedy 1996; Neitzel 2008; Craig 1989). International relations fell into a trap which they managed to avoid throughout the comparatively peaceful nineteenth century.

Sobering, as these reflections may seem, the nearly ten millions casualties were nothing new when we consider the total population of Europe. The novelty was not in the number of the casualties. The global dimension was not striking either, as it had already come into play during the Seven Years’ War. The novelty was rather in the method, in the way decisions concerning human lives were made, and in the technological dimension of elimination. In the First World War armed countries clashed in a battle between man and machine. Thus we can identify the new military capability as the first “criterion for meaning” in violence analysis. The mechanization of war brought lethal innovations: poison gas, tanks, submarines, but also machine guns, which were invented a long time before, but were now being used on a massive scale. Compared to the war of 1870, over 58 per cent of the soldiers died of artillery fire. Hundreds of thousands of opponents lost their lives as a result of machine gun fire, which, in a symbolic way, marks a turning point in the history of violence. However, let me go back to discuss a distinct military capability of the great powers. When we ask how this “great seminal catastrophe” could occur in this form in the twentieth century, we must not turn a blind eye to the relationship between the production forces and the effective military capabilities. The main factors which promoted, extended, and shaped the war are well known. These were: an early stalemate, Italy’s rather ineffectual entry into the war, apparent exhaustion, and the Russian inability to wage war, as well as America’s crucial decision to join the war. The final collapse of the Central Powers must be perceived as closely correlated with the economic and industrial resources available to the Allies. We assess the actual capability in terms of absolute superiority of the productive forces rather than the quality of leadership and the generals’ aptitude. By way of example, Kennedy (1989, 389 ff.) analyzes the Great War from the point of view of the relationship between economic changes and the military conflict. He perceives the Austro-German coalition at the beginning of the war as a military force with the superior military capability as its front troops operated efficiently and were supported by an increasing number of recruits. Russia and France, on the other hand, had difficulty in coordinating a military strategy. We are able to answer why the Allies did not manage to gain significance three years after the beginning of the war when we take a closer look at the notion of military capability. The Coalition was strong in the areas which could hardly contribute to a quick and decisive victory. For instance, the closing of the German overseas trade caused major damage, but was not as significant as British representatives expected. German export industry focused on military production and the Central Powers were self-sufficient in food supply as long as the transport system could be properly maintained. The Allies outnumbered their enemies, but this did not contribute to their rapid victory, which was partly due to the type of war itself. Both parties used forces which were deployed over hundreds of kilometers. Major operations which were methodically and strategically prepared well in advance and aimed at a decisive blow were in fact split into hundreds of smaller operations on the battlefield. The events on the Western Front clearly show that the fronts on both sides could not achieve a real breakthrough and thus expand short-term territorial gains. Each side was able to make up for its losses through reservists, grenade supply, barbed wire, and artillery, and to minimize the advantage of the assailant. The major image inscribed in the memory of the war is that of prevented offensives and destructive crossfire. The role of the individual in the war is well understood: a growing number of new waves of recruits were mobilized at various sites to compensate for the loss incurred on the battlefields.

Hence, in order to assess the properties of the violence in the First World War, an analysis of the battlefields is insufficient. There is no doubt that the Great War electrified national economies and led to a significant increase in armor volume. Before 1914 armor generated less than four percent of the national income. Since the total war led to the increase of this number up to more than 30 per cent, it was inevitable that the overall production volume of the defense industry grew by leaps and bounds. The wartime governments grew to be in charge of the industry, workforce, and finances. The long-lasting complaints about the chronic shortage of ammunition on both sides ultimately led to the cooperation of politics with business and employment, the aim of which was to provide the necessary supplies. “Given the powers of the modern bureaucratic state to float loans and raise taxes, there were no longer the fiscal impediments to sustaining a lengthy war that had crippled eighteenth-century states. Inevitably, then, after an early period of readjustment to these new conditions, armaments production soared in all countries.” (Kennedy 1989, 389)

2. The mechanism of violence, ideology and war

It appears that the main distinction used to analyze the Great War is therefore the organization of the state system – the separation between the countries’ domestic and foreign affairs. In order to understand the role of separation of politics and economy in all matters directly relating to the war, one needs some additional background information (hereinafter Münkler 2006, 51 ff.). The so-called “Westphalian sovereignty,” which had shaped international relations since 1648, must not be overlooked here. People waged wars for a long time to achieve economic goals, but war itself was less an economic than a political goal. The Westphalian sovereignty was an attempt to place the state in the center of the war on a permanent basis, also with a view to separate religious or economic influences from political ones. The war between the cabinets and the war between the nations are the two classical types of war. For the next 150 years, when war was a matter of cabinets, it constituted a political tool, “which had never been this way before or afterwards” (Münkler 2006, p. 52). In this period the general public was completely excluded from the war events, at least they were not systematically used for defense purposes. The war was a matter of the governments which had manageable and limited purposes. The war was also to a large extent “tamed” so that the civil population in the war zone was as little involved in the action as possible. Opposing forces changed their positions, tried to cut off the enemies from the supplies or to confront them in a decisive battle. The population waited in the background and was responsible for financing the war and yet the costs incurred due to armed conflicts could often be extremely burdensome. (Kant’s plea for republican forms of government addresses this issue). Overall, it can be argued that the war of this period did not acquire an existential dimension. To some degree it remained calculable and, significantly, it was consistent with the justified renunciation of the use of force when the balance of forces was observed.

We recognize a significant turning point in the history of war when both mechanical calculability and moral factors gained significance in the course of battle. When the population, ready to take action and make sacrifices, was put in the balance in the course of revolutions, social power relations were renewed. As regards the form of battle, the era of strategic maneuvers had ended. In the re-defined ideological battles it was important whether “in due time and in the right place one had superior forces at one’s disposal and used them with absolute determination to win here and now” (ibid., 55). War was based on the requirements of the concentration of forces in a specific time and space. This meant a battle set-up which depended on the physical and moral exhaustion. In the early twentieth century this state of affairs was marked by specific military forces and forms of the organization of violence, especially the ability to use fossil fuels for the mobilization and deployment of forces, thereby affecting the speed of the troops’ advancement in the area and going beyond the logistical limits of the war. Civil infrastructure became a central element of modern military capability, leading to a long-lasting merge of civil economy and military establishment. The unreasonable alliance between the state and war became visible (Krippendorff 1985). Its ideological aspect, however, should not be neglected. The “levèe en masse” and the people who constituted the nation contributed to the fact that politics was no longer limited by the national borders. The violence mechanism that we observe in the age of extremes (Hobsbawm) goes back to the moral factor, in a sense that the nationalist fervor of the people became the resources of military capability. The turning point that we can observe here is complex and contradictory. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries there was the idea that a republican society, unlike an aristocratic one, would avoid and tame war, since it corresponded to the common sense of the citizens concerned, and it could now decide on questions of life and death. This idea was inextricably linked to the notion of political freedom, but it did not obtain the desired confirmation during the revolutionary wars. The war of modern times was a civilization war which was waged as an ideological and moral battle by those with the “right” attitude. The revolution engaged civil society again in the war. Out of the ideologization of war there emerged a new form of military force which, in turn, severely affected the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In this broader sense, the military capability and the violence mechanism encompass an expanded notion of violence awareness. The new army was a mass army characterized by unlimited recruitment possibilities. As a result, it could afford much heavier losses, provided that war was perceived as an existential notion (Metz 2010, 80 ff.). The total war of the nineteenth century became a totality, insofar as it introduced the possibility of exhausting human resources on the battlefield.

This form of a mass, total warfare was formed in the nineteenth century on the condition that the psychological mobilization of the masses was a consequence of revolutionary nationalism. Such a mobilization was then extended by means of technological and infrastructural resources. Factors such as crowd, technology and ideology formed the face of total war and, as a result, created the experience of physical and mental exhaustion which, in turn, resulted in the horrors of war. It is common knowledge that the economic performance of the countries involved in the war decreased throughout the war, and that the moral exhaustion of the entire population was also visible. The long war was also a battle against the enemy’s flow of resources and supplies: England took advantage of its superior navy to build a long blockade against the Central Powers. Germany to some extent relied on submarine warfare in order to cut off the enemy from essential supplies by sinking merchant ships. Toward the end of the war one could see the signs of the future air warfare, when the infrastructure of the enemy was destroyed by bomber fleets (Münkler 2006, 57). Is it possible to summarize the “meaning” of the war, in terms of the organization and transformation of violence, in the way presented above? Ultimately, we are talking about a war whose aim was to let the enemy bleed to death at the risk of one’s own heavy losses. The only conceivable way to gain victory would be by means of mass slaughter in the form of subsequent attacks at the death zones – which were not militarily successful but certainly stemmed from the “reasonable” calculations. This is clearly visible in the German attack at Verdun, which cost 700,000 casualties in the period of ten months; an event where the war turned into “a blood pump, attached to a human material used for military purposes” (Metz 2010, 93). As early as this instance of senseless battle and rational military leadership we observe a turning point in the history of war, for which there are no compelling definitions.

3. Political existentialism: The failure of reason

Having discussed the criteria of violence organization, we can look at the First World War as an attempt to penetrate into the heart of the enemy country in a battle. After 1866 and 1870 it was certain that such a war was feasible. August 1914 marked the beginning of a war in which a seemingly unbearable tension culminated and was defused. To many people it seemed a liberation from existential emptiness. The ecstatic celebration of the August events was apparently followed by apathetic killing and anonymous deaths in the trenches. The longing for the existential human illumination and purification during the war were followed by dirt, stench, and death. When the following sections inquire into the causes which led to the failure of reason, and when we further inquire into the possibility of remembering the horrors of war, it is to be understood in a specific way. It is not simply about drawing “lessons” from history, but rather about gathering criteria for meaning from the history of war, criteria which appear to be fundamentally political notions.

Quite reasonably, the political explanations for the outbreak of war turn attention to the threat resulting from the Franco-Russian Alliance (1894), which Great Britain joined in 1904. The idea of preventive war was virulent, not least due to the fact that the progressive development of infrastructure made it technologically possible to use mass transport. Beyond this, however, we must ask why the failure of reason occurred, and to what extent politics and diplomacy prioritized the logic of military confrontation. We must ask how the limits of diplomacy could be reconciled with the unleashing of violence. Also, we must not forget that there were definite attempts to let the leap in the dark (Bethmann-Hollweg) follow solutions involving the limited renunciation of the use of force. When in November 1914 there was no hope left for a quick military success, Falkenhayn asked Bethmann-Hollweg to negotiate a separate peace with Russia, then with France, in order to be able to confront England, the opponent, on an equal footing (Neitzel 2003, 136). This initiative was based on the notion of adhering to the policy of escaping from the war as soon as all the military resources had been used. The political leadership could not take a firm stand on this matter, as there was disagreement early on in defining Germany as the main war opponent. Although some models of freedom through victory were devised based on Germany’s central geographical position, they still lacked a clear goal orientation. There was a policy that prioritized geo-strategic interests over reason. While the negotiation of a separate peace with Russia was postulated, at the same time Germany was trying to maintain influence in South-East Europe and the Middle East. Although the Foreign Office initially rejected the idea of freedom through renunciation, there were still Danish mediation attempts to explore the theoretical possibility of a separate peace with the Tsar. These “peace negotiations,” as a result of which Danish State Council Hans Niels Andersen travelled to Saint Petersburg in 1915, did not go beyond exploratory talks. The successes on the Eastern Front boosted hopes for the “status quo ante” peace. There was hope to build bridges for Russia on which it could walk with its head held high. Although the Russian army suffered heavy losses, this did not have an impact on its determination to wage war. Russia adhered to the treaty of 1915 and avoided the exclusion from the War Coalition. In retrospect, one could definitely say that the path toward peace was obstructed by many parties. The Tsar and his political advisers were unable to define the load limits of the country. The Central Powers, on the other hand, probably due the understanding of their limited military capability, offered a push for peace but rejected the serious general Peace Congress vehemently (ibid., 137).

In this context it is worth asking why the only serious and genuine proposal of Pope Benedict X suggesting a solution to the exhausted Europeans was rejected, or why the policy of balance and a temporary limited peace never had a real chance of victory. Why could moral clarity be created only through a one-sided victory, by the “peace of defeat” (Metz 2010, 96)? At the beginning of the war there was euphoria which there was hope of preserving for domestic policy and which also, to some extent, led to absurd expectations concerning the aim of the war. There appeared, for instance, memoranda of Pan-Germanism which called for far-reaching annexations and assumed an imperious and hegemonic role of Germany in Europe. The war and its supposed first “successes” awakened desires, fantasies of power, and a lust to establish the German Reich as global power which, together with the United States, Great Britain, and Russia, would form the core of world powers (hereinafter Neitzel 2003, 132 ff.). The tentative and ambivalent attempts to walk the path of non-violence in the face of imminent defeat were therefore problematized. In early September 1914 Bethmann-Hollweg, for example, established guidelines for a potential preliminary peace. According to the Chancellor, the main purpose of the peace dictated by Germany should have been to secure its own country from the eastern and western side for good, i.e., if possible, France was to be weakened so that it could not regain its status as a superpower and Russia was to be pushed away from the German border. Based on these symptomatic points we can see the core demands of the German policy concerning the aim of the war, extensive territorial claims and grandiose plans which, from the beginning, rejected the idea of returning to the status quo ante. The focus on a clear victory through peace was indeed strong and visible in all warring parties. The adviser of the U. S. president had to realize in 1914–1915 that there was no readiness in Berlin, London, and Paris to agree to a temporary renunciation of violence. In terms of the areas of influence and territorial borders, the warring parties, politicians, and military officers focused on improving the status quo. It seemed impossible at any time that a lasting peace could be established without moral clarity, and that the negotiated solutions could be taken into account, considering the military force of the enemy. This was clearly reflected in the German foreign policy since the spring of 1917. When, after an unsuccessful mediation attempt, President Wilson made an appeal to negotiate peace without victory on the basis of the nations’ right to self-determination, the German Reich communicated the peace conditions in order to show trust, but at the same time, engaged in the submarine warfare again with equal commitment. This political move led to the demolition of political relations, the entrance of the USA into the war in April 1917, and to the escalation of the long-term war which, with hindsight, was not an objective inevitability. More specifically, in order to understand why the path to a tentative renunciation of violence remained blocked, one has to consider the perception of reality of the German leadership, as well as the increasing powerlessness of politics against the independent military forces. Politics at this time could no longer be regarded as “a possible chance for peace” (ibid., 157). Until 1918 people were led by the conviction that one could achieve peace through force. This may be illustrated in the peace treaties of Brest-Litowsk and Bucharest, which sort of reflected the aim to extend power at the expense of others and, even more, the degree of the denial of reality which was determined by the strategies used by military forces until the final shedding of blood. The forces which did not strive for settlement and the post-war order, but attempted to reach what appeared enforceable by means of their own military capability were key.

The fundamental notion of the turning points and the aspects of violence can be fragmented into various intertwined issues. From a historical point of view, it is crucial to realize that the extreme severity and relentlessness of the war was rooted in the unconditional desire to gain power. Is it sufficient for the purpose of this paper to point out the alleged lust of the decision-making elites, the circulating ideas of Social Darwinism, the excessive desire to gain prestige, or the overwhelming nationalism? Or is there be some other criteria for meaning that could be included in the summation? Nevertheless, the failure of reason remains enigmatic: nine million soldiers were killed before the end of the war, probably around the same number of civilians lost their lives as a result of hunger and disease. Is it estimated that, in Germany, around 800,000 people died of hunger due to the British naval blockade – all this apparently could not change the internal logic of politics. The War of the Nations headed for the “peace of defeat,” and for four years a fixation on one-sided victory precluded the conclusion of separate tentative peace, which was still conceivable in the wars of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. What remains worth mentioning is the a priori enmity which apparently constituted the approval of the senseless suffering. Even millions of deaths could not break the iron will of the governments. In a fight without a real winner, those who had greater military capability and power at their disposal determined the victory morale. As such, the meaning criterion of violence is not only technological, but also ideological. The willingness to wage war can ultimately be explained by the absoluteness of evil embodied in the enemy. Real redemption of the world through war could only be achieved by defeating evil, an obviously blind mechanism, which continued even after the horrors of Verdun. In this respect it is necessary to pose fundamental anthropological questions from the quagmire of political and state regulations and to disclose the criteria for the meaning of violence and non-violence in the context of historical experience.

In other words, how to explain the discrepancy between the civilizational accomplishments of the war between the nations and the historical evolution toward universal condemnation of the concept of war? The unrestricted nature of both world wars raises a legitimate question of why there were wars even after the consolidation of the modern statehood. Let us keep the devastating effects of war in mind. Then the question needs to be posed: How did it happen that an idea of war remained so firmly anchored as a signifier of meaning: as a means to an end, as apparently legitimate continuation of politics, as a guiding principle which nations adhere to? To understand this, it does not suffice to steer clear of the axiom of war as a political means (see Clausewitz), since this is anachronistic. Quite on the contrary, it requires insight into the political existentialism of a given time. A glimpse at the philosophical concepts of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries reveals an additional moral aspect. Fichte, for example, based his reflections in the Address to the German Nation (Ger. Reden an die deutsche Nation, 1808) on the civilizational existential crisis in Prussia. He aimed at the concept of the true war of his times, which was no longer a dynastic war of a sovereign, but a legitimate war that had to be a total, so that the people could be formed into a national unity. We can see how discrepant – or how similar – the nineteenth century was in relation to the beginning of the twentieth century, in the conviction that the war was no longer interpreted as an isolated political or military action, but rather that it embraced all of life. In the people’s war “people fight for their own definition of a purpose, not for the conceived interest of a person who is born and dies in separation from them, and is certainly not one of them. But the real purpose is infinite, one can approach it but not reach it” (Fichte 1813, as quoted by Stadler 2009, 94). It is not easy for us today to comprehend the depth of political existentialism where the terms death, victory, country, and eternity are used in the same context without hesitation. In the history of war, however, it indicates the focus on the moral dimension necessary to understand total war: Fichte discusses the notion of war as a moral effort of the whole nation in its struggle to survive as a free community. If we are talking here about the philosophical struggle to overcome the anti-Napoleonic wars, then we pose a question which goes beyond the narrow historical context, i.e. how a group of people can form a nation.

During a war, a continuous collective battle, people become a nation. This marks a threshold of the national and moral awakening of the nineteenth century, which is important to the understanding of a modern total war of the nations. The ambivalence becomes evident: if we no longer perceive war as a means to an end, or as a calculation used to achieve our clearly defined objectives, but rather as a non-material means of self-constitution, then a totalized meaning dimension becomes tangible. It is no longer simply a matter of rational interests but the existential relationship within large groups. It is necessary to overcome one’s own humiliation and powerlessness, to increase power, glory, and one’s own honor and, hence, to assert one’s own national identity in the fight against what is foreign. The aspect of hostility becomes existential. The aim of a group of people fighting for their existence is to defend their own existence and to preserve one’s own being (Schmitt 1932; ibid. 1963). One’s own being becomes a “fundamentum incomcussum” (Waldenfels 1997, 46), an opinion and decision-making body that defines a case of emergency. One’s own being does not require an external entity to satisfy its own interests in itself, it is a categorical entity which disposes of the external being. These philosophical reflections express the depth of the existential hostility which we noticed in the lasting failure of reason during the long war. We can comprehend the political situation of the early twentieth century only when we consider the criteria for the meaning of violence over an extended period of time. The development extending from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries was marked by the sign of a promising replacement, the essence of which is reflected in the conversion of eschatology into utopia. One set hope for salvation not in transcendence, but in worldliness. The focus was on the question of who or what would occupy the vacant position of metaphysics, who or what ought to serve as the highest and safest reality and, therefore, the final legitimate point of historical reality. It is known that there appeared at least two new worldly realities. The demiurges of “humanity” and “history” changed the legitimacy of the old policy and would manifest its historical-anthropological categoriality: the drastic destruction of a given reality, mediated by religious, political, or ideological stipulations is a contradiction to pure and autonomous self-disposal. The tragic climax lies in the fact that, in principle, a man cannot lead an ex nihilo life. This terrible freedom pertains to a type of historicity that may be based only on something which is predetermined existentially. The general meaning criteria may stem only from this “perplexity.” This leads to a theory of history which results from the immediate functionality for a pragmatic and cooperative action but which aims at a more radical obligation: war as an act of political self-constitution.

4. On the role of historiography

Corpses with arms ripped off, parts of skulls, blood and carcass could be found everywhere. In this way a Bavarian soldier described the battlefield of Sedan on the day after the fight. The image of the bursting grenades, which literally tore victims into pieces, was “horrible.” The Battle of Sedan lasted only one day, but it surpassed anything “that anyone has ever seen” (Lorenzen 2006, 143). The Prussian-German army stored their entire artillery under a central command and aimed their fire not only at the enemy’s artillery posts, but also at the enemy soldiers. The trenches which characterized the First World War did not yet exist. However, Sedan anticipated some elements of the following world wars: the totality of the war in which all human values are lost. What, then, is the role of history if it does not include an element of superficial morality or a politically manageable “meaning”? In order to answer this question we also need to take a wider perspective and inquire into the criteria for the meaning of reason and non-violence as reflected in the human ability to create meaning. One of such creation of meaning is visible in the still-relevant idea of war removal which was pointed out at the beginning of the twentieth century as a possibility. The First World War brought an end to the bourgeois era in Europe (Mommsen 2004); despite growing discrepancies, it was a period of economic prosperity and thus growing wealth. Slowly, democratic structures emerged in the European structure, but this process found no reflection in constitutional norms. All these factors – the idea of peace, increasing prosperity, vague democratization – could not, of course, prevent the acrimonious struggle of the European powers. There emerges a pivotal question which has been discussed in history studies to this today, i.e. that the narrative of non-violence could not gain acceptance, even though it was theoretically possible. It is important to emphasize one thing here: the explication of the meaning of political violence should include different aspects, i.e. political criteria for the meaning of the key functions of government, the sociological and technological dimension of the specific military capability of the rival powers, but also some fundamental anthropological criteria. Only in combining these aspects can we approach a profound sense of the understanding of violence.

Was the war inevitable? In 1899 and 1907 the Hague Peace Conferences were organized, with a view to creating an international legal framework for the prevention of war. Their effects were short-lived. Bourgeois pacifism, which now acted in public independent of church and religion, as well as of the state and its logic, remained abrupt. The international peace societies in London in 1843, in Paris in 1889, and later in Germany and Austria, agreed on nothing other than the idea of the global peace. Their operations were far-sighted and visionary. The International Mediation Institute, the formation of an international court of justice and the establishment of a league of nations were the requirements which became reality as late as at the end of the following century. International successes such as Lay Down Your Arms (Ger. Die Waffen nieder 1891) by B. v. Suttner or the establishment of the Army Medical Services were possible at that time. Inspired by the battle of Solferino in the Franco-Sardinian war against Austria, Henry Dunant wrote A Memory of Solferino and sent it to the leading political and military figures. Under the impression of 40,000 casualties and the injured, he stimulated the formation of voluntary aid organizations. A conference in Geneva took place as early as the year of the report’s publication. During the conference such proposals were discussed. The “Geneva Conference” created the framework which was later followed by European countries forming the first landmark agreement of international law. In other words, humanitarian ideas and the possibility of the renunciation of violence and peace as a bourgeois principle of reason were more than just lofty ideas.

All the possibilities of the renunciation violence beg the question of how the European, and especially German elites could engage in the nationalist transformation of politics and the world war, which surpassed the radicalism of previous conflicts. The vast majority of European societies were in a transitional phase, characterized by sensitivity and fragility. The key functions of the government were in the hands of a few elites, all this taking place in spite of voting rights, which were becoming widespread. It was simple to appeal to nationalist sentiments during political upheavals. Nationalist movements gained momentum. Under the influence of the zeitgeist, they developed into imperialist ideologies, which culminated in the demanding attitude of world empires. Only those with great military capabilities were capable of surviving. Only those who had to face the war for a long period of time could survive in the rings of power. These ideas, as we know, survived throughout the extreme twentieth century. The development of mass armies, the pillarisation of powers systems, the development of warfare technologies, the arms race, but also the general consent to the emerging war – all this contributes to explaining this ideological viewpoint. The “leap in the dark” was “inevitable,” as it was politically desirable, but also because it reflected a general mentality of the time (Mommsen 2004, 21–35). European societies of the late nineteenth century were walking a “slippery slope” (ibid., 23) and they were in the atmosphere of thrall until the events of August 1914. In Germany these days were perceived as an “incomparable shared social experience” (Fest 1973, 99). This traditionally deeply divided nation, which suffered for a long time due to its internal conflicts, overcame this discrepancy by means of commitment to the war conflict. Even if this was true for only part of the population, the virtually religious character, expressed in national excitement about the future and war-related hopefulness, was evident. The general consciousness perceived the war as a welcome opportunity to escape from the misery of normality, to succumb to the process of rebellion and to submit to the hegemonic objectives. There were days of solemn deceptions that were ended in September 1918 by the hastily appointed political leadership.

Finally, we will attempt to draw conclusions and describe the turning point of the war. If we do so, we are left with an irritating reflection. It was not reasonable to assume that the masses of republican citizens would join the war. According to Kant, history was no longer about the actions of the minority, but was supposed to reflect the actions of all the people. It was a transition from unconsciousness to consciousness of purposeful action that inspired the political progress of modernity, a form of history, “in which people had only themselves as a goal” (Metz 2010, 189). This “new” meaning was formed as a collective sense, as basic concepts of humanity, nation and proletariat. But, as we know, this future fell apart during the First World War. Which criteria for meaning can we finally gather from this tragic turning point in history?

5. The significance of the site

In 1914 death was looking for a new venue. With its tens of thousands of graves, Verdun is perceived symbolically as a “graveyard of Europe” (Schlögel 2008, 435). This is an inconsistent picture, since it encompasses both orderly arrangement of cemeteries as well as the radical devaluation of human life. It is important to ask how one can now shape the memory of the Great War. The meaning of history is based on the collective perception which is reflected in the notions of the “culture of memory” and “sites of commemoration.” Since the establishment of historiography as a “pure” science, it has been considered essential to separate myth from reality and to narrate the story as it was. One of the most basic views here is that, despite thorough examination and unbiased assessment, history is continuously shaped and reinterpreted, and therefore it is susceptible to political interpretation. This, of course, particularly applies to the history of war: the well-known events of a war, the turning points and battlefields, are more than just space for what is accidental and possible. They are more than nodes of individual memories; they turn into events in the culture of remembrance, in which the battle for sovereignty in interpreting events is ignited and memory takes cultural and political shape. There are a plethora of examples, e.g. Magdeburg (1631), Leipzig (1813) and Sedan (1870), which need not be discussed in great detail here. Nevertheless, the criticism of the form of memory culture, in which “only” the interests of a political formation or calculations are manifested, should be discussed thoroughly in some respects.

Is it possible to preserve the essential moment of a site before it becomes a political instrument? This is an interesting twist in modern historiography. As opposed to the classical way of presenting events in a chronological order, as a temporal sequence, it points to the spatiality of all human beings’ stories. The idea to perceive each historical process as spatial, in which history is expressed by means of an endless effort to control space, is of the utmost importance for the present considerations. It means less political instrumentalization than existential and political reflection. The location-oriented approach may oppose long-lasting deconstruction, the fragmentation of objects, as far as it maintains the mental reproduction of coexistence and allows the retelling of the history of the twentieth century with all its horrors, discontinuities, and fractures. To perceive a site as a historical moment is nothing less than to establish a reference to a single totality of historical formations and to focus more on spatial aspects of political matters.

Let us take a look at one such historical site: the Somme, July 1916. Between Noye and the Somme there is a strip of land which grows the most traditional product of the region – sugar beet. Plowing becomes arduous when, on closer inspection, there appear strange objects, i.e. remnants of the war. Mortars, howitzer grenades, aerial torpedoes and smoke shells have been found on this site up to the present day. The Somme was not the densest battlefield of the Western Front. When compared to other gruesome statistics concerning the use of grenades and the duration of shelling, the Somme did not rank first on the list, but still, for various reasons, the majority of blind shells have been found at the Somme. The region was an extensive attack front, where as many as twenty divisions could meet and use their resources. Here, endless suffering was mixed with impressive short-term triumphs. On 16 September 1916 Great Britain first entered the ruins of the village of Flers in their tanks. 1918 was marked by the success of the first major armored breakthrough in modern military history, whereas earlier the most critical offensive of Hindenburg was brought to a halt. John Keegan presents an image of endless battles, characterized by violent confrontations and miserable terrain: “Between Ypres and Armenteirs, water is found everywhere close beneath the surface and much of the line had to be constructed of sandbag barricades instead of trenches. Almost everywhere, too, the Germans occupied what commanding heights there were: near Ypres, the Passchendaele and Messines ridges; in the coalfields, most of the slag-heaps and, until they were destroyed, the pithead towers. Compelled to struggle for possession of the higher, drier ground, the British had driven their lines in many places almost to within conversational distance of the Germans” (Keegan 1978, 245).

In this place, as in many others, we experience everyday death, but we also recognize the criteria such as proximity and distance. Despite heavy losses incurred by the British troops Flanders became their homeland. Behind the lines the troops often left the trenches and looked around in the villages for a feeling of closeness, a roof to sleep under, a bed of straw, some beer, or even a place to play football. The farmers of the region learned how to make a profit during the war. They opened canteens and cafés, which offered a welcome change. The British troops “conquered” not only geographical areas, but also some attractive places nearby. One can see this from the peculiar way in which some places were named, e.g. “Armenteers” (Armentières), “Wiper”, (Ypern) and “Plugstreet Wood” (Ploegsteert). These terms do not relate to the great battles, but to inconspicuous events occurring in the background of the war. This point of view opens the possibility of commemorating the war in a special way: essential to the orientation of the human world is the inescapable spatial character of experience, the irrevocability, the slope leading to death, the finality of the existential and historical events (Rentsch 1999). Historical acquisition also includes the aspect of vulnerability, powerlessness, and other criteria, such as responsibility and guilt. The relationships which orient us in the human world do not fall to pieces, then to create a form of memory, but rather we recognize the primary forms of meaning. We recognize basic historical facts in the finite totality of the existentially structured orientation space. We can neglect the finite totality of the existential space, conceal it, and keep it from ourselves. However, in this way historical time will never become an objectively defined world history, from which one can distance oneself. There is a basic difference between the unique ability to create meaning for the primary world, the experience that we gain in the world of inter-existentially constituted practice, and the type of experience which is scientifically plausible. Historical experience ends when the existentially political vision of the primary world begins. At that point, all attempts to learn superficial “lessons” from history fail, for the technology available to the community culture during the war does not leave the autonomy of the primary world unscathed (ibid., 110 ff.). The military and technological possibilities penetrate deep into the experience of the common world and thus violate the principles of a singular totality. Therefore, insight into the comprehensive totality of the common life is essential to create historical memory. If ethical principles are to show themselves in the face of war, they must demand nothing less than a fundamental relationship between fragility and the claim for non-violence. In our shared world we can experience practices in which there is always risk of failure; practices characterized by uncertainty and vulnerability, which constitute meaning. The meaning which can be created in this context is secured by a negative. It reflects our groundlessness and elusiveness. We can objectify neither a single totality of life as a whole nor individual outstanding events in the history. We are not able to functionalize historical events in a sense that we perceive them as examples of a greater design. In other words, we can imagine the human experience as neither individually nor politically and instrumentally goal-oriented. The shape of the meaningful life emerges only in fragmentariness, and in the experience of poverty and paucity.


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

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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.

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Photo of the publication The Year 1989 – A European Repository of Memory
Burkhard Olschowsky

The Year 1989 – A European Repository of Memory

20 August 2014
  • 1989
  • Solidarity
  • European Network Remembrance and Solidarity
  • Memory
  • Europe
  • XX century
  • History

The year 1989 – a Central European ‘Autumn of Nations’ – fundamentally changed the continent of Europe. In our perception, however, the events which took place in the autumn of that year are more like the end of an epoch than the beginning of a new era.

On July 6, 1989 Mikhail Gorbachev gave a speech in Strasbourg to the Council of Europe during which he informed his audience that the Soviet Union would not oppose reforms in Eastern Europe. After such a public declaration from the heart of an empire that it would not, and could not, cling to the peripheral regions of its sphere of influence – an announcement which was greeted with great acclaim all over the world – it was only a matter of time until the proconsuls of the Russian empire in Warsaw, Budapest, East Berlin, Prague und Bucharest fell.

But it remained open as to how and where they would fall. What was also unclear was whether Jaruzelski, Honecker, Jakeš, Ceauşescu and Kádár would make use of those means of coercion which they so amply possessed. Just how serious the consequences of such a violent scenario might be was made quite clear to Central Europeans on June 4, 1989, the day when China’s communist rulers ordered the shooting of hundreds of peaceful protestors demonstrating in Tiananmen Square. This occurred on precisely the same day as the first semi-free elections were held in Poland. Not least because of the chilling example set by Tiananmen Square, the men and women opposing the communist regimes in Europe in 1989 deliberately avoided the use of violence. During the decades of their rule, the communist regimes had, by threat and force, squandered all their standing. But despite all the weapons these regimes had at their disposal, they unintentionally taught their citizens how ineffectual the use of violence was.

In 1989 the communist state parties in Central Europe still commanded the necessary weaponry and instruments of power, but they lacked a strong leadership. Only a leadership which did not shrink from spilling blood could have deployed those means the regimes still had of enforcing their will. In 1989 the leaders of the communist parties in the “Eastern Bloc” were no longer sure of their party base, of their cause and, above all, of themselves, and they had nothing with which to counter the revolutionary revolt of the populations in their countries. An antipathy to violence was the only thing many revolutionaries of 1989 had in common commocomm. The revolutionaries were an unusually diverse group. It was not uncommon for reformists to include reform communists, social democrats, liberal intellectuals, nationalists, supporters of a free market economy, church activists, trade unionists, pacifists, a few traditional Trotskyites and many others besides. This diversity was part of their strength and was poison for the one-party state.[1]

The ideological similarities between the countries in the Soviet sphere of influence meant that a threat to or collapse of the communist leadership in one country inevitably weakened the legitimacy of the rest. One characteristic of revolutions appears to be that they erode the legitimacy of the ruling power through cumulative examples. What was new in 1989 was the speed of events. The mass media contributed to the acceleration and the irreversible nature of events. The Hungarians and Czechs, in particular, were able to watch the gradual unfolding of their own revolutions in the news every evening on television. As East Germans sat back to enjoy their daily evening dose of West German television, they were no longer motivated by a wish to emigrate; instead the feeling crept over them that they themselves were the actors of events, whether fuelled by the pictures of the exhumation and reburial of Imre Nágy on June 16, 1989, of the Monday demonstrations in Leipzig on October 9, 1989, or by the pictures of students demonstrating in Prague on November 17, 1989.

This exalted feeling, the experience of recovering their own dignity, which the Poles had known in 1980 and had enthusiastically celebrated, now became comprehensible to and reproducible for Czechs, Slovakians, Hungarians, and in a special fashion for East Germans. Within days, the communist regimes had lost something they had previously carefully guarded by repeated sanctions: their monopoly on the flow of information. The fear of standing alone which, particularly in the GDR and in Czechoslovakia, made any involvement in oppositional activities an uncertain and nerve-racking undertaking had disappeared for good.

However in Poland the changes which took place in 1989 have not become a repository of memory which elicits heartfelt joy and deep emotions. In the “Round Table Talks” held between representatives of the majority of oppositional groups and the ruling elite the question was no longer whether the latter would cede or share power, but – in view of the disastrous economic situation – about the manner how this would occur. Practicality and negotiating skills were therefore more in demand than revolutionary fervour.

The “Round Table Talks”, considered a Polish invention, were watched with great interest by oppositional groups in the GDR who considered it an example well worth emulating – a fact which has been largely blanked out in Poland. The “Round Table Talks” in Poland were and are controversial. Representatives of radical oppositional groups have criticised that the Round Table signified an unacceptable arrangement with the enemy. This criticism is repeated regularly and has been reiterated with even greater vehemence over the past few years.

Any description of the year 1989 would be incomplete without a look at the reunification of Germany and the impact on ingrained international perceptions and habits. That year of revolutions strongly challenged those habits and perceptions, a challenge which was far from welcome to many European governments. What had happened? Prior to 1989 there was a general consensus in Western Europe that the German question would only arise when the political conditions were there, that is, when there was a European framework for a lasting peace. The reality looked very different.

France and Great Britain were alarmed by the rise of a supposedly unchecked nation with an 80 million-strong population. For the newly elected government of Mazowiecki, German reunification offered the opportunity to cautiously replace the old obligations of the Warsaw Pact with sovereign relationships and new partnerships forged with the West. The sympathy of the new Polish government for the democratically legitimised Federal Republic of Germany was severely tested by Helmut Kohl’s ten-point plan for reunification presented in December 1989 as it did not address the question of the Oder-Neisse border. The agreement of 1970 only held good for the old Federal Republic of Germany, not for a united Germany.

Gorbachev’s consent to a reunified Germany and its NATO membership was essentially based on the consideration that it would be necessary to give up the GDR and Central Europe in order to focus on rebuilding the Soviet Union and it would be important to obtain the help of the West for that. What remains is his courage and strategic achievement.

Up to now those epoch-making changes which took place in the “Autumn of Nations’ have not become a founding myth – neither for a reunified Germany nor for the 3rd Polish Republic, nor even for the newly expanded Europe. Jürgen Habermas once described the events of 1989 as “catch-up revolutions”, that is, attempts to catch up and secure those social and constitutional achievements which had long since been attained in the West. This institutional point-of-view fails to appreciate the often different memories, experiences and socialisations in Central and Western Europe, their emancipatory achievements – from the national uprising of 17 June 1953 to Solidarność in 1980/81 – as well as the innumerable testimonies by individual persons and small groups, all of them examples of self-assertion, of freedom of conscience wrested from the state, of hard-won human rights und civil liberties, and of social self-organisation outside the power structures of the single party state.

Even if politically the order of Yalta which divided Europe after the Second World War into a dictatorial East and a democratic West has now been swept away, the memorial cultures of Eastern and Western Europe continue alongside each other, often even in opposition to each other, as if the impositions of a life lived behind the Iron Curtain had carved themselves even deeper into the memory of Central Europeans than was considered possible in the capital cities of western Europe. According to Ralf Dahrendorf, German intellectuals view the year “1989” neither as a deep and decisive break – the way it is perceived by the rest of Europe – nor as a moment in which to rejoice at the triumph of an open society. In contrast to their view Dahrendorf considers “1989” to be not merely a global break, he also believes that “1989” could serve as a founding myth for a new Europe.[2]

The actions of the Central European men and women in 1989 deserve to be included in a European history of freedom where they can serve as an instrumental example of how a civil society can be achieved. The year “1989” should be anchored as a firm repository of memory in a European culture of memory alongside other events. “1989” stands for a revolutionary grass-roots movement for a democratic and constitutional state. It aimed at overcoming borders and demonstrated that, always and everywhere, the dignity and the freedom of individuals are worth asserting and defending. The year 1989 is a European repository of memory because it is what made Europe possible in its present form.

 translated from German by Helen Schoop


[1] Cf. Peter Bender, Deutschlands Wiederkehr. Eine ungeteilte Nachkriegsgeschichte 1945–1990, Stuttgart 2007, p. 229 f.

[2] Ralf Dahrendorf, Der Wiederbeginn der Geschichte. Vom Fall der Mauer zum Krieg im Irak. Reden und Aufsätze, München 2004, p. 213.


Burkhard Olschowsky PhD (born 1969 in Berlin)- studied history and history of Eastern Europe in Göttingen, Warsaw and Berlin. In 2002 received doctor’s degree in Humboldt University in Berlin. In 2003-2005 worked as contractual lecturer of contemporary history and politics in Humboldt University. In 2004-2005 worked in Federal Ministry of Transport, Building and Housing. Since May 2005 research worker in Federal Institute for Culture and History of Germans in Central and Eastern Europe. Since 2010 research worker in Secretariat of European Network Remembrance and Solidarity.


Photo of the publication The Two Sides of Regime Change – the Hungarian Experience
Bálint Ablonczy

The Two Sides of Regime Change – the Hungarian Experience

20 August 2014
  • 1989
  • transformation
  • communism
  • Hungary
  • End of Communism

I. Symbols of a transition

For me regime change, the change of the political system, started with a fair amount of crying. I started to shed tears not because of a mass event in the streets, the declaration of the republic or because of the first free elections. I was not even eight years old at the time and my father did not let my younger sister and me go swimming. We used to go to swimming lessons with Uncle Tibi, who wore a frightening beard on his face, but he had a rare gift for teaching us youngsters to swim. I started to cry together with my sister because we liked Uncle Tibi’s classes and we did not really understand the reasons why we had to stay at home. My father said something like we had to watch history in the making on television. It was 16th June 1989. This was the day when Imre Nagy, the prime minister of the 1956 Hungarian revolution, who had been sentenced to death in a showcase trial, was reburied along with his fellows in martyrdom. Since then I have watched the sequence of events several times, and my heart sank every time at the sight of the ceremony taking place on Heroes’ Square, one of the most famous places in Budapest. The crowd was dignified, the Gallery of Art, decked in black and white, was very solemn. Well-known actors were continually reading out the names of workers, students, soldiers, and intellectuals murdered during the repressions in the aftermath of the 1956 revolution.

To make the drama of the summer of 1989 perceivable for a child as well, even more complete: János Kádár died on 6th July, the very same day when the Supreme Court officially acquitted and rehabilitated Imre Nagy, whom János Kádár had sent to the gallows. The leader of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party, omnipotent for decades, had lived to see the reburial of his one-time rival. During the reburial ceremony he stood confused, deserted even by his own people, fighting with his demons. He lived to see the lie tumble as a house of cards which once served as the foundation of the whole system. According to this lie, 1956 was a counter‑revolution, our Soviet brothers actually stretched out their helping hands for which we had to be eternally grateful. Luckily, thanks to our leaders – the official explanation went on – since then we had managed to stand on our two feet and our lives had improved. Sooner or later a flat was allocated to everyone and having waited for many years we might even be lucky enough to be able to buy a Trabant or Wartburg manufactured in the Democratic Republic of Germany. Also, a summer holiday at Lake Balaton was more or less everyone’s right. We could even travel to the West – once in three years – and politics more or less left us in peace. As long as you did not criticise too loudly you could go on living your own life. That was a rough summary of the Kádárian deal.

This explanation of the world around us that defined the lives of generations was particularly dangerous because it was not entirely false. Compared to the other countries of the Bloc (but only to them!) things were not that bad in Hungary. The official propaganda did not hesitate to refer to the allegedly lazy Poles, who had critical shortages of goods during the state of emergency, to the rigid Czechoslovakian system, or to the ever darker conditions in Romania.

The Hungarian system was rightly called goulash communism, only the ingredients were rotten. The meat stunk, the vegetables were withered and the potatoes were stale. The dictatorship was founded on fundamental lies: 1956 was not a counter-revolution but a revolution, the Soviets were not helping but occupying, and contrary to all the slogans we were not allowed to live free lives, to travel freely, to start a business freely, to pray freely – all the things that for any citizen of the allegedly decadent West were commonplace. But this was not the only reason why the Hungarian goulash was going off: the Kádárist economic system, falsely presented as pleasant, was also a lie. “You pretend that you are paying us we also pretend that we are working” went the cynical saying of the Hungarian workers about the socialist “economy,” in which basically everyone was lying to everyone. Workers were lying about their work, company directors were lying about the productivity of their companies, and the state was lying just about everything. Statistics at the time of the regime change was aware of about a million of unemployed people “within the gates” whose work was essentially not needed, but they could not be laid off as in the existent socialist system unemployment was not allowed to exist. During the time of regime change there was a moment rarely mentioned, but one that still defined the subsequent years and even decades of Hungary. It was when the prime minister of the last communist government, Miklós Németh, admitted that by the end of 1989 the gross foreign debt of the state had reached 20 billion dollars. He was also forced to confess that the administration was publishing false figures about the debt as early as the middle of the 80s, fearing that they might scare away foreign investors.

So, the ideological and economic foundations of the communist system were false. The description phrased by the political scientist, István Bibó, himself a democrat who was imprisoned for participation in the events of 1956, perfectly fitted the regime. He maintained that one can occasionally lie in politics, but no system can be founded on lies forever. We might add that if one still attempts to do so, one has to pay dearly for a long time for such deception.

This is true even if we already know that without the geopolitical constellation the collapse of the dictatorship would not have taken place in Hungary nor elsewhere in the region. The Soviet Union simply collapsed under the weight of its own internal problems, its economy – except for the military industry – failed to function in almost all areas. It still might have had the strength to intervene in Central Europe, but it no longer had the will to do so. The most dangerous opposition in world history – because it threatened the deployment of nuclear weapons – ended in the Visegrád countries without a bullet being fired. In the period that followed, similarly to other countries of the region, Hungary first joined NATO and later the European Union. The most aching failure of regime change in Hungary was that despite the success of the process on a historical scale, according to every study not only do many people feel nostalgic for the “jolliest barrack,” but also a stunningly high number of citizens are dissatisfied with the performance of the post-Soviet administrations and the general support for the institutions of the democratic system of government is remarkably low. This situation is further worsened by the struggle among the elite that erupted in 1989–1990, manifesting itself in cultural-symbolic matters, and which stunned the observer by its fierce and, at the same time, hopeless nature. It looked as if Hungary in many aspects could not cope with “freedom regained” and its politicians and smaller and larger communities were unable to find common ground even on the most fundamental issues. What is the function of government in the economy? When and how should it intervene? What happened during the process of privatization? What is to happen with the education and the health systems? And in general, what happened to us in the 20th century? In what ways should we remember and think about the Trianon peace resolutions, about World War II, about the Holocaust, about 1956, or about regime change? There are so many controversial issues in which we seem to be even farther from a common ground than we were at the start of the process in 1989–1990.

Without trying to bore the reader with Hungarian internal political developments, it is my contention that the governance of Fidesz (who was given an unprecedented electoral mandate in 2010 since the change of the political system by having gained two thirds of the votes in the parliamentary elections) could be described as an attempt to solve this complex heap of Hungarian problems. The leaders of Fidesz (active student leaders during the period of transition) can be characterized by their occasionally distasteful (ab)use of power, an almost exclusive preference for voluntarism as opposed to compromise, the use of simplifications in their rhetoric wherever possible, and their tendency for arguments of the kind of the “fight of good against evil.” They understood that by 2010 the system, created with regime change, simply used up its own reserves. This was signalled not only by the forward thrust of the far-right, which by riding the waves of hopelessness and despair gained 17 per cent of the votes. The political credibility of the system of regime change was also eaten away by corruption and incompetence, which essentially ruined the social liberal government in power between 2002 and 2010. Ideological capital ran out completely because of the almost civil war-like opposition of the right and the left following the leaking of the “lie speech” given by the Prime Minister, Ferenc Gyurcsány, in 2006. By that time the opposing sides could not even agree on the meaning of words and their strength was enough only to render those in power untrustworthy, but not to have a decisive victory over them. This only aggravated and intensified a very dangerous feeling, the complete lack of trust on the part of a significant segment of the Hungarian population in all sorts of institutions, specifically in the governments in power.

This kind of attitude was present already before the time of the regime change, and it was not by accident that the first freely elected prime minister, József Antall, addressed the citizens of the country when introducing the government program of 1990 by saying, “I call for the Hungarian nation from this place to get rid of the lack of trust that has been engrained in our psyche for decades, and even centuries, to regard the institutions of the country as their own, as institutions that work in their interests, in their protection and in their service.” It is not a coincidence that one of the new buildings of the European Union in Brussels bears the name of this very same prime minister who passed away in 1993. Despite all attempts to prove to the contrary, he was a man of immaculate democratic credentials, and a statesman of European calibre who understood what could poison the public and social relations, as well as the economy of the country that just recently regained its independence.

2. The lack of peaceful disagreement

In Hungary, lack of trust has roots going back farther than communism, but the four decades of dictatorship amplified this phenomenon tremendously. According to the leaders of Fidesz, who regained victory in 2010, which greatly contributed to the prevalence of this lack of trust was that during its first term the freely elected parliament was not able to complete regime change with a symbolic act of jurisdiction, the adoption of a new constitution. They believed that by such a symbolic act it would have been possible to say that “these institutions are already yours, they were set up by the authorization of the Hungarian people, therefore they will work in the service of the Hungarian people.” This lack of completion was also symbolised by the fact that in Hungary communist leaders were not held responsible in the aftermath of 1989. It is also of symbolic importance that it was not until 2013 that the district attorney charged a former minister of the interior, Béla Biszku, of war crimes and other criminal activities for the key role he played in the repressions that followed 1956. After the crushing of the revolution, the accused was a member with voting and decision-making rights of the innermost party leadership, the Provisional Executive Committee, which was the central governing and decision-making body of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party and was established in early November 1956. This committee set up a special police force with the aim that in the aftermath of the revolution and war of independence it could function as an organ both securing the peace and assisting in repression, as well as acting against the civilian population. The units of this police force working under the Provisional Executive Committee, with Biszku among its ranks, opened fire with the aim of deterrence against the unarmed civilian population in several major cities and towns in Hungary, killing children and women alike. The fact that Biszku was left unharmed and unaccountable for so long also became a symbol of the unsettled nature of the past, which many ascribe to the accounts of the 1989 constitutional system.

If we want to understand why some considered the issue of the new constitution so central, we have to know that the new democratic constitution, which was accepted at the round table talks of the opposition and ratified by the last parliament of the Party State, was originally also considered temporary by the participants of the 1989 “negotiation revolution.” This was evident by the wording in the preamble to the constitution “to facilitate the peaceful transition into a rule of law that is to establish a multi-party system, parliamentary democracy, and a social market economy.” By 2010 this became a strange anachronism, not only because the first free elections had already taken place in the spring of 1990, but also because by then all the former socialist countries – with the exception of Hungary – had adopted their new constitutions. The fact that the new institutional system still remained operational for two decades is largely due to the Constitutional Court. In 2010, however, the adoption of a new constitution suddenly came within reach, which had been attempted since 1990 by all governing forces in one way or another, proving the need for correction. Voting for a new constitution between 1994 and 1998 – although the necessary parliamentary majority did exist – could never take place due to the disputes between the governing socialists and the liberals. Later, however, the plans could not materialize because of the ever deepening lack of trust among the participants of the Hungarian political scene.

According to the debatable, although strongly supported right–wing evaluation of the situation, the ambivalent nature of the regime change stemmed from the fact that in Hungary the change of the system, the transition from dictatorship to democracy, and the adoption of the new constitution did not go hand in hand. We need to know all this to be able to understand why Fidesz, obtaining on its own the majority necessary for the creation of a constitution, insisted so much in 2010–2011 on drawing up and adopting a new constitution even though the opposition parties, initially cooperating in the work of the parliamentary committee, finally withdrew from the process. Moreover, in their rhetoric they clearly equated the adoption of the constitution and, later the constitution itself, with the current political interests of the government and promised to modify it as soon as the opportunity presented itself. It is not difficult to see that the whole constitutional process, carried out by the governing party and lacking not only consensus but also parliamentary compromise, as well as the attitude of the opposition who viewed even their intentions with suspicion and “welcomed” the outcome with fierce criticism, further strengthened the ideological conflicts already present in Hungarian society, and intensified the lack of trust in institutions as well as in the constitution. Of course, it cannot be excluded that with the passage of time Hungary will also follow the model of the French Fifth Republic. The public system, hallmarked by the 1958 constitution and tailored to Charles de Gaulle, was fiercely attacked by the left and initially criticised by François Mitterand himself, who wrote a book about it entitled “Le coup d’état permanent.” However, upon coming to power in 1981, Mitterand took advantage, perhaps even more than his president-predecessor, of its framework, which provided almost unprecedented power in Western democracies for a head of government in a “republican monarchy.” It is possible that such a scenario may evolve in Hungary because, despite the contradictory government and opposition rhetoric, the new constitution is 80 per cent similar to the old one. This is to say that even the current governmental majority, which proclaimed a complete new beginning, did not distance itself from the main directions of the governmental system and the division of power. Its amendments were, primarily, ideological in nature, or can be traced back to the practice of the Constitutional Court during the past two decades: It could also be considered as an attempt to level out the unevenness of the previous constitution. Still, in case of a political turn to the left, chances are very slim for reasonableness, which can only partially be explained by the politics of power of the right. We are probably talking about something much deeper here. As the English conservative philosopher, Roger Scruton, who often visits Hungary, recently perspicaciously noted: “People here somehow seem to be incapable of peaceful disagreement.” What a precise formulation!

Keeping a distance and reflecting upon ourselves and our environment is probably more important and necessary in Hungarian public life than anywhere else. Public life is ruled on a daily basis by decade-long grievances, unforgivable personal animosities, unfortunate half-sentences uttered 15 years ago that are used as reference points, as well as taboos and excommunications that make rational debates impossible. Whereas if we allowed for the contrasting of interests, the emergence of a multitude of opinions, heated debates or – God forbid – even a negative campaign that would by no means spell the end of democracy or a national tragedy. Hungarian public life, despite all rumours to the contrary, is no more evil than the French, German – or let us be more modest – the Slovak, Polish or the Romanian one. My biggest cause for concern is that empathy disappeared from decisive segments of the Hungarian public in relation to different opinions, perspectives, and even narratives. We seem to have an inability to place ourselves into other people’s frames of mind, to understand the motives of the ones standing against us, and to accept the validity of experiences that are fundamentally different from ours. Although our politicians have undoubtedly played their parts in the development of the current situation, only the smaller part of the responsibility can be ascribed to them. Although it may feel good for many to divide the nation into a corrupt and irresponsible political elite that is busy digging trenches and stirring up hatred on the one hand, and unfortunate, deceived voters and citizens yearning for peace on the other, I believe it is a highly misleading attitude. The Hungarian political elite are neither better nor worse than the country they come from. If you like, our representatives and party leaders are reflections of our society. They are like Hungarian football, Hungarian gastronomy or the Hungarian traffic culture. Yes, our politicians throw mud, they are petty and egotistical but do we, citizens, workers of the press, push them in the direction of a different kind of attitude? Despite the continual bashing of politics and the state, in Hungary everyone expects everything from the state: the director making films that nobody cares about as well as the pensioner criticising the local store operated by the local government. Internal conflicts among intellectuals evolve into battles of big politics because the party logo functions as an excellent way of distinguishing between friend and foe, and with a bit of luck, it may also secure us favours, membership on a board of trustees, or may bring us business orders for our enterprise.

This sort of behaviour makes it impossible to conduct constructive debates about the directions of the economy or of foreign policy, as well as about the evaluation of our past. This almost constant phenomenon since the regime change destroys not only the morale of the country, but its competitiveness as well. In Hungary, the majority of those with strong political preferences perceive taking account of or understanding anything that differs from the line – or the perceived line – of their favourite party as a betrayal. This attitude is obvious if one watches the call-in programmes of any television channel, and listens to the arguments of the callers that are ripe with hatred. Hungarian public life and the Hungarian public per se tend to think in a weird winner–loser frame of mind. According to this perception, acknowledging or accepting any comment phrased “on the other side,” however legitimate it may be, weakens the camp of one’s own and its chances at elections. One may accept this way of thinking from a politician, but much less from rational people considering themselves intellectuals.

3. The economic transition and its social implications

One of the longest lasting impacts of regime change from an economic point of view is that while the relatively low, but at least equal, standard of living of Kádárism disappeared, considerable differences of wealth emerged in Hungarian society which came to tolerate them with increasing difficulty. In the first few years following the regime change of 1989–1990, one million jobs disappeared and a stunningly large number of people (typically miners and workers of former state factories representing heavy industries that produced hazardous, but still not competitive products) fled to various kinds of social programs. According to astonishing data, while the number of unemployed in 1990 hardly exceeded 20,000, in 1993 it was almost 700,000. Although this number dropped during the following years, one may imagine the tensions created in Hungarian society by the thirty-fold increase in unemployment.

Moreover, for a segment of the middle class to stay afloat and not hit rock bottom came to be an everyday experience. However, with the passage of time, this became a frustrating experience for an increasingly wider section of the society. It was not only their own lives that took an unwelcome turn, they also had to realise that despite all their efforts, their children were also unlikely to fare any better.

This situation inevitably led to major frustration and was coupled by another kind of dissatisfaction that had political consequences. Similarly to other former socialist countries, Hungary also had to face a clear contradiction in 1989–1990. As described by the co-authors Tamás Kolosi and Ákos Róna Tas, the logic of the political regime change necessitated an extensive change of elite. However, because of the change of the economic system, the importance of market automatisms increased, which, in turn, favoured the previous elite in their retention of power. The political right which formed the first government of the regime change had to face a strange dilemma in 1990: to the extent that they insisted on the change of the elite, to the same extent they hampered the economic regime change as well as the expansion of market conditions, and vice versa. The stronger the power of privatization and market automatisms became, the more likely the economic elite of the previous system was to be successful amidst the new conditions as well.

Only a strong middle class could have been able to come to terms with this contradiction and the tensions stemming from it. A middle class, however, evolved only partially due to the reasons described above. The process of transition of positions by the previous elite led to the phenomenon called “clotted structures” by sociologist Gyula Tellér. This scenario took place not only in the economy but also elsewhere starting from government offices, to trade unions, and security services. Although it was impossible not to recognise the aspiration for positions in the criticism on the part of the political right, in general, this sort of power-transition still deteriorated the chances for the establishment of democratic pluralism, as well as a real parliamentary rotation system. The social historian, Tibor Valuch, stated that in approximately half a decade following regime change and amid increasingly market-type conditions, the role of education, professional skills and expertise, especially convertible knowledge, came to be more highly appreciated. The value of symbolic capital such as relationships, creativity, entrepreneurship and adaptability significantly increased during the social position-transfer. Despite all strategies to the contrary, the increase in disparity of income and wealth was constant and of an accelerating rate ever since the beginning of the 90s. A highly numerous stratum of entrepreneurs, large and small, developed rapidly. In 1997 in every 10 Hungarian households there was one entrepreneur. The number of individual and corporate business people exceeded one million, however, every third one was a member of an enterprise that did not carry out any real activities. This means that there was no direct correlation between the entrepreneurial spirit, self-care, risk-taking and competition that was so much desired and the seemingly large number of entrepreneurs. These processes, taking place in the labour force and the economy, struck the Roma segment of Hungarian society much harder than the general population. Although their partial modernization and integration did take place during socialism, it mostly happened by way of sweeping the problems under the carpet. The Roma workers of low educational background were absorbed by the Hungarian industry as simple labourers, but no further efforts were made at their real integration and education. It was even considered a taboo to discuss their situation. According to studies, during the period following regime change, approximately 70 per cent of Roma heads of households were poor, and this figure in essence has not changed ever since.

When analysing the process of disillusionment we must mention the following: parallel with the economic changes, in effect – using the jargon of journalism – the big story was gone. The dream, although not worked out in all its details but shared universally, dissipated. But what was it all about? Hungary from the beginning of the 90s posed in the role of the “top student.” Building on its previous relative openness it actually carried out everything that foreign advisors recommended or that was useful for foreign enterprises. Among these were many things necessary for the setting up of a market economy, just like a significant part of foreign businesses also contributed to the creation of the new economic system by bringing useful technological expertise and capital to the country. Other companies, however, without even concealing it, were only interested in buying a market in Hungary and acquired the companies, offered at very reduced prices, but otherwise requiring only minimal investment to make them competitive (for example in the food industry, which was profitable even during the dictatorship) only to phase them out in order to make way for their own products and services. With time this economic policy concentrating only on liberalization, deregulation, and privatization – that is exclusively on things that attract capital – caused major social disillusionment and frustration and was less and less capable of mobilizing imagination and setting up new goals.

Not to mention that there was something disturbing in the compliments for being a good student that the first post-regime change governments received from international financial organizations or Western governments. This sort of mentality considered it just natural that the nature of the relationship could be perceived exclusively in the dissymmetrical system of relations between “teachers” (developed countries and international organizations) and “students” (Hungary and the other countries of Central Europe). The representatives of this attitude, initially quite gracious, with time watched with a certain degree of impatience that the “students” were not progressing fast enough with their “homework” and were still not living – and even more annoying – still not thinking the way it was accepted in the West. This sort of attitude simply did not take account of the burdened legacy of communism or of the even deeper historical, economic, and social determining factors. In Hungary, in the first decade after regime change – except for a few marginal and feeble attempts – it was not even conceivable that there might be a different narrative other than the fast process doing away with the state and that in certain cases there is a clear need for a more decisive representation of our national interests. Neither left nor right posed basic questions: the right out of gratitude for winning over oppressive communism and the left for fear of losing its “reformist” legitimacy in the eyes of the West, as well as losing and the social capital that it acquired still as a State party and in its immediate aftermath during the 80s.

As stated by the political scientist of the left, Balázs Böcskei, owing to its deficits of origin, the post-party left governing the country between 1994–1998 and 2002–2010 (pre-party: CMEA, post-party: European Economic Community) wished so much to be compatible with Europe that because of its aspirations to adopt to European patterns it was unable to offer contemporary, let alone left-wing answers for current social conflicts. They managed society (or at least they tried) but did not analyze it. This situation could best be described by the term cognitive dissonance: the country was not perceived in the framework of a world order but instead it was suggested that it was enough to follow European patterns and the country would prosper automatically. This approach does not take note of the fact that European politics itself is also the scene of power games therefore it can be characterized by a lack of balance, uncertainty and a geographical market-based division of labour. Roger Scruton’s criticism of Europe is also received by the technocratic practice of force and inertia: “If a problem pops up we solve it by way of a regulation. However, the solution of one problem leads to another one but that one – just because it belongs to a different part of the machinery or because it is engrained in the future – it is overlooked by the machinery of jurisdiction. What makes things worse, nothing can be reversed that has already been approved by the plan. Under such circumstances, with determining factors of foreign and domestic politics there was not even a chance to discuss, let alone, reach a consensus between right and left in issues of fundamental importance. These issues include: Can the state really be only a bad proprietor? What consequences can the swift liberalization of strategic fields such as the energy sector have? Why is it a taboo to bring up the issue of confining the economic power dominance that stifles the layers of small enterprises and “family capitalism”? This economic power dominance could be controlled by setting up institutions that keep a functioning free market capitalism in check and – where needed – establishing balance between the state and the market, which has been functioning well in most Western countries since the end of World War II or even earlier.

Hungarian society was in a sense chasing a mirage, a fata morgana, the well–known fixture of the Hungarian puszta. When the dream – so widely shared around the time of regime change in Hungary concerning a quick catch-up with the West (by this Hungarians meant catching up with the standard of living of the Austrians with whom they used to live together in a common empire and who also functioned as an eternal reference point for Hungarians) – dissipated, people switched to hope that the accession to the European Union would bring about this brave new world. Then on 2 May 2004 Canaan still did not come and politicians did not do much to help a more realistic evaluation of the situation. It is enough to mention only one renowned item of the billboard campaign of the government about European accession which portrayed one of the privileges of EU membership by suggesting that the one-time Hungarian citizen could also open a coffee house in Vienna. In reality, though, this ideal is much farther from the actual reality of Hungarians than the Hungarian capital is from the Austrian one. After joining the European Union we started to hope that having warmed up a little bit and learned the rules, we would finally be able to catch up with the so much desired object of our dreams – the West. The remnants of this illusion were smashed to pieces by the crisis that started at the end of 2008 and since then we are not even sure what the “Western model” is all about. Is it something epitomized by Germany, France, England, or Scandinavia? Unfortunately, the years of daydreaming were spent in the worst possible way. Just to top off our woes, blinded by the glow of shop windows that we yearned for, we were busy not with the values that the European Union was founded and grew big on (the establishment of clear relations, accumulation of wealth by way of hard work, selfdiscipline, moderation, investments and planning) but above all we wanted to join the happy ranks of consumers. Since we stretched ourselves more than our blankets would have allowed us to do we were forced to apply for loans. From the beginning of the year 2000, the Hungarian state was taking out loans to finance investments and their operations, local governments were applying for credit, aimed at developments, and citizens also became indebted because of their pursuit of products of consumer society. It all amounted to absurd political irresponsibility. This led to a situation when the socialist-liberal government, handing out portions of the budget in the hope of winning the elections of 2006, worked up the budget deficit to 9.2 per cent, a world record at the time. The end result came to be a lethal cocktail: large state debt and budget deficit, indebtedness of both local governments and citizens, which are outstanding even in a European comparison, coupled with weak growth. So by now it is understandable why Hungary was the first country to resort to the IMF for help in the fall of 2008, and why Budapest is known in the news primarily for the tools it tries to use in fighting state debt, budget deficit, and indebtedness.

During the five years since the outbreak of the economic crisis, the social– economic heap of problems came back to haunt us with overwhelming force. We have been carrying all the problems described above ever since the time of regime change although they were somewhat masked by the “top student” success stories of the 90s and the early 2000s. The economic hardships were amplified by the near pathological nature of the conflicts of Hungarian public life that was further worsened by the fundamentally differing assessments of the Hungarian past of the 20th century, a century bringing tragedies one after the other. (For some time, the right has been defining itself against the economic and intellectual mainstream as the preserver of values seemingly abandoned by the West, such as nation, work, family, faith, merit, effort, and enterprise.)

It would undoubtedly be beneficial for the economic performance of the country as well if this state of warlike preparedness subdued so that at the time of the 25th anniversary of regime change at least in a few key issues we would not need to conduct polemics in Hungary.


Bálint Ablonczy. Born in 1981. He graduated as a historian at ELTE Faculty of Humanities in Budapest. As a scholarship-holder he studied in France at University of Marne la Vallée, and also took a degree in modern history at Matthias Corvinus Collegium in Budapest. He has been writing a diary since the age of 18. He has been working for the influential weekly Heti Válasz since 2005, and he is also a regular participant in TV and radio programmes analysing the current Hungarian political scene. Balint Ablonczy is also the executive editor of the bi-monthly cultural review Kommentár. Currently, he is the domestic affairs editor of Heti Válasz. In 2010, he was awarded the Junior Prima prize in the media category.


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


Photo of the publication The Polish Pro-Independence Diaspora in the West in the Face of the Political Breakthrough of 1989
Paweł Gotowiecki

The Polish Pro-Independence Diaspora in the West in the Face of the Political Breakthrough of 1989

20 August 2014
  • kultúra
  • 1989
  • Poland
  • Lech Wałęsa
  • Ryszard Kaczorowski
  • independence émigrés


This article aims to analyze perception of political transformation in Poland in the years 1988–1990 by Polish independence émigrés in the West. It presents assumptions which guided the émigrés and indicates the objectives of their political activities. The different points of view of the reality in Poland between the independence émigrés and the national democratic opposition are explained. The article demonstrates the dilemmas of the émigré leaders arising from the peaceful transition and gradual democratization of Poland, instead of the expected break with the legacy of communism. The closing paragraphs attempt to clarify the meaning of Polish President-in-exile Ryszard Kaczorowski’s symbolic transfer of authority to Lech Wałęsa, democratically elected in presidential elections in Poland.

The workers’ strikes of August 1980 and the establishment of the NSZZ Solidarność [Independent Self-Governing Trade Union “Solidarity”] have found their well-deserved place among the most meaningful events in the post-war history of Poland and the entire Eastern Bloc. It was not the first time in the twentieth century that the whole world turned its eyes toward Gdańsk and Warsaw. Interest among political leaders and the societies of the West accompanied Solidarity throughout this multimillion-member trade union and social movement’s nine-year journey: from the August strikes in Wybrzeże (the Coastal Region), through Martial Law, to the non-violent system transformation of 1989.

The events in Poland were also followed by Polish political immigration to the West. Poles living in London or America, although deprived of direct contact with their country for a long time, still considered Polish issues a frame of reference in their public activities. Having spent decades in exile, the emigrants had to face the changes taking place in their homeland and confront them with their own hopes and their ideological and political mission.

In order to depict this confrontation, we ought to clarify, first of all, who the post-war pro-independence Polish émigré community was, and what their goals and values were.

The Indomitable Poles of London

As an outcome of World War II and the arbitrary political decisions made at the Yalta Conference, Poland fell within the Soviet sphere of influence. The shifting of the country’s borders (Poland lost its eastern borderlands, including Vilnius [Wilno] and Lviv [Lwów], to the Soviet Union, and was compensated, at Germany’s expense, with the “Regained Territories”), governed by communists installed by and subservient to the Soviets, was difficult for most of society to accept. The postwar reality was unacceptable for most of the civilian refugees and the soldiers of the Polish Armed Forces in the West, who found themselves in Western Europe at the close of World War II. Their opposition to the Sovietization of Poland caused them to stay abroad and wait for changes in the international political situation. This laid the foundations of the postwar Polish diaspora in the 1940s, which was decidedly anti-communist and pro-independence.

At the time, London was the center of the Polish diaspora’s political life. Since 1940, the Polish Government and the President in exile had been based there, by invitation of the British authorities. Since the Constitution of Poland, in force on 1 September, 1939 (the “April Constitution”), allowed the government of Poland to act abroad, the legal continuity of the Polish state was preserved throughout the whole of the war with Germany, fought by Polish armed forces outside Poland. Despite the Yalta agreement and the fact that the United States and United Kingdom withdrew their recognition in July 1945 and established diplomatic relations with the government in Warsaw, most Polish emigrants, including the Polish Armed Forces in the West, still under arms, recognized the authority and command of the London president and government. This fact considerably shaped the profile of the Polish pro-independence émigré community, which took the form of a state in exile. It survived for nearly half a century as such, with a president, government, and a quasi-parliament. The “state in exile,” while rather symbolic, had to be anchored in a doctrine accepted by the émigré community as a whole. The foundation of this doctrine was, first of all, legalism and the conviction of its special importance for the émigrés’ main goals and tasks. The notion of legalism, according to the émigré theorist, should be understood as “an uninterrupted continuity of a legitimate legal order of the state when another, competing, and present legal order of another state comes to exist” (Gawenda 1959, 120). What constituted this competing and present legal order for émigré legalists in the post-war period was the internationally recognized People’s Republic of Poland. The foregoing guarantee was to be ensured by the office of President of the Republic of Poland and his Cabinet, who had the sole right and obligation to represent and act on behalf of the Polish state and nation. As such, only the President and the government were empowered to decide on peace and war, or on the issue of the country’s borders, which was especially important for the Polish emigrants from the Eastern Borderlands. Consequently, this right, according to the pro-independence émigrés, was then denied to Stalin-imposed Warsaw Government, which “Polish London” considered as subservient to the Kremlin usurpers.

Apart from defining the status of the Polish Government in Exile, legalism had two meanings for the Polish emigrants. The first pertained to the sphere of symbols and was crucial to the community which mainly founded its collective life on imponderables. In this sense, legalism was the basis for creating and cultivating a myth of the steadfast existence of the Polish State in Exile. This myth manifested itself in rituals, special celebrations of national holidays and the way the President of the Republic of Poland was worshipped (a word we use deliberately). The President was not only a political leader of the émigré community; he was the symbol of the perseverance and resistance of the Polish diaspora.

The third function, apart from the political and legal role and mythmaking, was the integration of legalism. The symbolic nature of the Polish state in exile involved the establishment of several competing political centers over a period of half a century. Despite this, the part of the émigré community which appealed to legalism, though internally at odds, remained the most significant. The presence of the president in exile in public life turned him into a symbol of the opposition against the Soviet dominion of Poland, and a natural political leader. This perception of the head of state prevented the Polish communities abroad from disintegrating entirely. Obviously, identifying the entire pro-independence émigré community with the legalistic center would be a blatant historical falsehood. After 1945, there were groups which, for various reasons, defied legalism, but by their nature remained political émigré communities. In 1980s the Stronnictwo Narodowe [National Party] kept its distance from the legalist centers, and the editorial team of the Parisian Kultura was fully autonomous in its actions, focusing mainly on affecting the Polish society in Poland, rather than the émigrés. In the present article, however, in analyzing the attitudes of the Polish pro-independence émigré groups, I will focus mainly on the legalist communities, recognizing the President in Exile as the Head of State.

It could be said that the principle of legalism and the form of existence adopted by this group, as a “state in exile,” organized the thinking of émigré elites. The end of the harshest phase of the Cold War, a prolonged stay in a foreign land, and the unforeseeable prospect of the émigrés’ political mission ever coming to an end were accompanied by two advancing processes. One of these was the Polish émigrés’ gradual assimilation into the countries where they had settled; the other was the unintentional narrowing of their viewpoint to intra-émigré matters. The political elites of the émigré circles had contented themselves with partisan pushing and shoving for decades, or with quite serious political games in the émigré “parliaments,” growing increasingly distant from the interests of Poles in Poland, and less and less aware of the intricacies of Polish politics back home. It should be explained here that this is by no means a condemnation. It comes from the very nature of exile: as they were anchored in the law, politics, and symbolism of the Second Republic of Poland (1918–1939), this was quite a natural point of reference for the political émigré elites. Apart from natural generation changes, the inner circle of the Polish communities abroad, for all the time they functioned as a political diaspora, was composed almost exclusively of people who had spent their adult years, or at least their adolescence, in prewar Poland. Subconsciously then, their perception of the contemporary state was shaped by the traditions of the Second Republic. Over the years the pro-independence émigrés’ tendency to mythologize the past did not wane or vanish; on the contrary, it grew stronger with time. The émigré society was growing old, the nostalgia for their country was growing stronger, and the urge to counteract the official communist propaganda falsifying the interwar image of Poland only intensified their idealization of the past (Lencznarowicz 2009, 400).

A lack of understanding of contemporary Poland, despite the best intentions and the desire to maintain ties with the country, manifested itself clearly on the rare occasions when the “old emigrants” made contact with people representing the new, postwar reality of Poland. Adam Michnik’s account of his meeting with Polish émigrés, when he visited London in 1970s as a young representative of the democratic opposition, is typical:

I was learning about a different Poland, one that was completely new to me. A Poland of the ‘Indomitable Poles of London.’ This Poland was alive only in [my interlocutor’s] mind, but still present as a real part of his life. A Poland of the manor houses of the Polish gentry, a Poland of the cavalry, of Piłsudski and Wieniawa, of lancers and the legend of the Polish Legions. A country of his childhood... My interlocutor was aware that Poland as he knew it no longer existed, and nothing could possibly bring it back to life. Therefore, he did not long for Warsaw, Poznań or Łódź; Wrocław and Szczecin were empty words for him; while Wilno and Nowogródek, Lwów and Stanisławów constituted an ineradicable part of his memory. He still stood before a prewar map of Poland (Michnik 1988, 78).

This reflection by one of the leaders of the emerging Polish democratic opposition conveys not only the thinking of some postwar emigrants, but also a cognitive dissonance experienced by a Pole from behind “the Iron Curtain.” This dissonance was caused by a meeting of two people who shared the same language, but actually belonged to two different worlds and two different realities – one “in Poland” and one as an emigrant. Of course, the evocation of the past did not obscure the present for all emigrants. In his article Adam Michnik refers to the Parisian Kultura as an example of a Polish magazine published abroad that focused on dialogue with contemporary Poland. On the whole, however, the paths of the “Vistula Poles” and those living on the Thames had diverged over time.

Problems in communication were not entirely due to psychological differences or to the conflicting identities of the Warsaw Poles and the London Poles. The pro-independence emigrants decided to stay in the “free world,” with a sense of a political mission. The postwar émigrés called themselves the “battling emigrants” (Terlecki 1946), who, having rejected the Yalta agreement, incarnated the idea of Polish opposition against the superpowers’ dictates. Thus, the ultimate goal of the political émigré community was not to encourage Polish domestic policy to head toward democratic reform and to free the country from Soviet dominance, but to overrule the Yalta decisions and to restore an independent Poland. An exile columnist wrote: “Ideologically and politically, the émigré community must remain faithful to the doctrine in its purest form. The doctrine for which they left country in 1939 to fight for freedom, territorial integrity, and the independence of Poland.” (Gűnther 1946).

The “Thaw” after Stalin’s death and the end of the Stalinist terror brought little change to the exile leaders’ perception of the country. It was still a maximalist approach. An undisputed émigré frontrunner, General Władysław Anders, said to the veterans in 1956: “We will never accept a compromise with the occupant. We shall stay true to our program of fighting for a unified and independent country, with Lwów and Wilno in the east and the Regained Territories in the west” (Orzeł Biały 1956). An interesting sketch by Jan Maciejewski and Krzysztof Mazur points out that “this sort of absolutism in the sphere of symbols, the praise of ideological purity and aversion to political ambiguity” was bringing the pro-independence exile community closer to an Icarus approach. This was in the extreme idealization of their political problem: the Polish exile Icarus flew closer to the ideal, melting his wings which kept him in contact with reality (Majewski 2002, 16–27).

The “indomitable Poles of London” had to match their viewpoint with those of the students who protested in 1968 (represented by Adam Michnik, quoted above), or those of workers who fought for their rights during various “Polish months.” For the latter, especially the generation born after World War II, the People’s Republic of Poland was their homeland, albeit one riddled with evil and injustice, governed by tyrants who suppressed student gatherings and gave orders to open fire on workers. Although there were groups and communities with pro-independence programs throughout the communist era, none of the irredentist movements – apart from the anti-communist armed resistance groups of 1940s – in postwar Poland was on a mass scale. Even the KPN [Confederation of Independent Poland], an organization of an openly pro-independent character established in the 1970s, was perceived by many democratic opposition leaders as extreme and fundamentalist. To say nothing of the government in exile, functioning abroad for dozens of years, which rejected the Polish reality on principle.

Solidarity and Martial Law

Most émigré leaders were well aware of the discrepancies between the programs of the pro-independence émigré communities and the emerging democratic opposition, which became plainly evident after Solidarity was established. Though they generally sympathized with the Polish workers who decided to rebel, the exile leaders surely realized that the road to independence would be very long. After years spent in foreign lands and a great many disappointments the emigrants were rather skeptical about the international situation, which they saw as a pivotal factor in the potential for profound system changes in Poland, and which, at the same time, they saw as deeply saturated (too deeply, in fact) with the spirit of détente. Some émigré leaders believed that the emergence of Solidarity had the potential to change international politics; on the other hand – mindful of the experiences of Hungary and Czechoslovakia in 1956 and 1968, respectively – they warned the union against escalating radicalism and provoking Soviet intervention (Friszke 1999, 435).

It should be emphasized that the emigrants, still true to their goals, remained exceptionally tactful with the Polish movement, refraining from imposing their point of view on Solidarity leaders. From 1980–1981 the political émigré community tried to perform a merely ancillary function, providing information, material aid, and political initiatives on the international scene, and did not attempt, with a few exceptions, to interfere with the Solidarity camp tactics or support particular Polish opposition groups. We should note that the scale of the workers’ protests and the scope of concessions they gained from the ruling communist party astonished the émigré communities, who were quite unprepared for a scenario of this sort.

Martial Law was imposed in Poland on 13 December, 1981, radically changing the emigrants’ perception of the changes occurring there. In spite of advance warning signals, General Jaruzelski’s coup d’état was a major surprise for the émigré groups, and, at the same time, pointed the way for further activities. Referring to the developments in Poland, Prime Minister-in-Exile Kazimierz Sabbat said: “The émigré community is now the only spokesman for the will and stance of the country in the free world. Again.” (Machcewicz 1999, 235).

After 13 December, 1981, most of the pro-independence emigrants’ activities focused on humanitarian aid, speaking at international forums for civic freedoms in Poland, and organizing the lives of new emigrants. The mainstream émigré community sympathized with underground resistance in Poland, tried to provide them with any aid they needed, and acted as their advocates in the countries of the free world. The mere existence of the underground Solidarity, often drawing from independence rhetoric and defying the political system in Poland, served to give meaning to their mission. Some significance should also be attached to advances toward the exile circles made by a few opposition leaders, e.g. Leszek Moczulski, the leader of KPN, who recognized the authority of the President in Exile in his official statement in London. The importance of this event, together with the awareness that there were clearly anti-communist forces in Poland, overshadowed other, often negative experiences of “old emigrants” with young and impetuous Solidarity fighters. The old émigré circles also merged to a very limited degree with the new ones that came to the fore under Martial Law (Friszke 1999, 458–459).

To summarize, it can be said that, in the 1980s, the perception of the émigré society resembled, to some degree, that of the late 1940s and early 1950s. With its military oppression, organized underground resistance, and repressive apparatus, the country still validated the existence of the Polish political émigré community and, to a great extent, defined its role. Internationalizing Polish affairs, on the other hand, in the form of restrictions imposed by Western countries after 13 December, confirmed the old émigré thesis that the fundamental priority was to change the politics of the West and abolish the Cold War order. It was no coincidence then, that one of the most important dates commemorated by émigré circles in the 1980s was the fortieth anniversary of the Yalta Conference (London celebrated “Yalta Week,” coorganized by Central and Eastern Europe emigrants). The pro-independence émigré community’s first and foremost task remained the overthrow of the Yalta agreement and its consequences (Tarka 2003, 259–260).

The Round Table

Initially, the émigré community did not attach much weight to either Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms or the attempts made by General Jaruzelski’s government to open a dialogue with the opposition; however, the swift events of the summer and the fall of 1988 did echo in “Polish London.” When, at the end of August of 1988, the government proposed a dialogue with the opposition and the initially vague idea of a “round table,” the expatriate community received it with skepticism. While not rejecting the idea of discussion with the communists on principle, they expressed two major reservations. First, the experience of the 1980–1981 period, combined with a conviction of inalterability of the regime, made them look upon the ruling party’s gestures with the greatest suspicion, and without faith in their good intentions. Expressing his profound mistrust, President-in- Exile Kazimierz Sabbat warned: “The communist party will not relinquish its power, its absolute power, as this would mean its self-destruction. The party will not adhere to any treaties. All arrangements are only a maneuver in a moment of weakness.” (Dziennik Ustaw RP 1989 No. 1 – Journal of Laws of the Republic of Poland /in-exile/). Secondly, a dialogue between the troubled ruling party and part of the democratic opposition risked the incorporation of this part of the democratic resistance into the apparatus of the current system, consequently delaying interminably the prospect of restoring genuine independence. This would have been a devastating blow to the ideas represented by the pro-independence expatriates. Nor should it be neglected that the London émigré community maintained a much warmer relationship with those opposition leaders, who – like the aforementioned Leszek Moczulski or Kornel Morawiecki of the Fighting Solidarity – belonged to a group that strongly opposed any negotiations with the communists. Quite naturally, their standpoints and tough stance toward the communists were closer to London’s outlook than the apparently conciliatory attitude of the group gathered around the Solidarity leader, Lech Wałęsa.

While no formal statements were made by the London expatriate officials openly criticizing Wałęsa and his camp (including the closest aides: Adam Michnik, Bronisław Geremek, or Tadeusz Mazowiecki), it was frequently emphasized that they did not represent the whole of the opposition. “Back home in our country not everybody is involved in the talks. Those who do are dubbed the ‘constructive opposition,’ ready to participate in the elections, which in fact will not be elections. But there is a growing group of activists in Poland, pro-independence assemblies, whose goal is that of the ‘indomitable’ Poles of London and other expatriate towns and cities: a truly independent and free Poland,” said President Sabbat on 1 April, 1989 (Dziennik Ustaw RP 1989 No. 2).

Considering the above, it would be fair to say that, in late 1988 and early 1989, the émigrés’ satisfaction with the increasingly visible decay of the regime was mixed with openly expressed doubts about the role of the Polish opposition in the process of the system transformation. “Polish London” read the idea of the Round Table and the acceptance of Solidarity members as power-sharing partners as a government bluff. It is worth mentioning that this skepticism about the negotiations between the regime and the opposition was shared by the legalist circle in London and Kultura in Paris, who were traditionally more flexible and prone to dialogue. On the other hand, among the few who supported the tactic of negotiating with the communist rule was a long-standing head of the Polish section of Radio Free Europe, Jan Nowak-Jeziorański (Friszke 1999, 465–467).

The Round Table talks, which included government officials, some opposition members, and observers representing the Catholic Church, were held between 6 February and 5 April 1989. The most important points to be negotiated were: the government’s consent to relegalize Solidarity, the organization of a semi-free parliamentary election in which non-partisan candidates (including Solidarity ones) could run for thirty-five per cent of seats in the Sejm (the lower chamber); a fully free election to a newly-created upper chamber of the parliament (the Senate), and the restitution of the office of the President of Poland.

The official stand of the legalist circle on this momentous event was drawn up during the meeting of members of the London government and the representatives of political parties in exile, called by President‑in- Exile Kazimierz Sabbat on 5 April, 1989. They did not discard the significance of the talks on principle, and some positive effects were mentioned, like the government concessions, but on the whole, a deep pessimism about the Round Table agreement dominated the statement. It was pointed out, not without cause, that the right of the opposition to run for seats in the parliament was counterbalanced by reinstating the office of President, who was to be endowed with nearly dictatorial powers. The majority of émigré leaders saw the agreement as a device to prop up the shaky system, rather than to provide for real system transformation (Friszke 1999, 469–470).

Admittedly, the leaders of the expatriate community did not call for a boycott of the election (though the Government in Exile did call upon the émigrés not to vote, which almost amounted to the same thing), but, characteristically, they stressed it was non-democratic and that there was risk of ballot rigging. The Government in Exile on the one hand admitted that the electoral success of Solidarity candidates would be in the nation’s interest, but on the other, they sympathized with the part of the Polish opposition who decided to boycott the election (Dziennik Ustaw RP 1989 No. 4).

The result of the parliamentary elections of 4 June, 1989 (the second round was held on 18 June) and the landslide victory of the Solidarity candidates, who took nearly one hundred per cent of the free seats in both chambers, is often considered a symbolic date in the history of Poland. The symbolic significance of the date is not connected with the end of communism as such, but as the most important event in the whole process of political transformation of 1988–1990. Obviously, this point of view was unacceptable for the pro-independence expatriates, and for the legalist group in particular. This group had never hoped that the government in exile would one day return to Warsaw to rule the country. The émigré community had been ready to accept a free decision made in Poland since the end of World War II. What the “Polish London” hoped for was the President of the Government to have the chance to go to the free country and present their insignia of the office to democratically elected authorities. Regulated, quasi-free elections, communist-controlled administration, military, and police forces bore no resemblance to democratic representation. Consequently, this façade of democracy (the “contractual” Sejm was perceived as such) blurred the line between communist regime and independent state. This sort of “soft transformation,” incorporating the opposition into the intact apparatus of oppression, was exactly what the émigrés feared most.

Anxiety about the future course of events predominated the presidential circle leaders’ addresses after the results were announced. The political elites focused on the elections as a sort of referendum. The results were to be seen as a mass disapproval of the current authority, expressed by the whole society. At the same time, the seats held in parliament by numerous significant representatives of the opposition could, as President Sabbat pointed out, result in the neutralization of Solidarity within the communist power apparatus. One ominous harbinger of this direction was the election of General Wojciech Jaruzelski as President, which was announced as a stage in the execution of the Round Table agreement (Dziennik Ustaw RP 1989 No. 4).

One of the most pessimistic evaluations of the situation in Poland was expressed by Prime-Minister-in-Exile Edward Szczepanik during the inaugural sitting of the seventh tenure of the National Council, held on 4 July, 1989 (Turkowski 2002, 83). Choosing this date for the opening of a new term of this semi-parliamentary body, whose members were in part elected, in part appointed by the representation of Polish émigré community, was a clear signal that the expatriates had not yet accomplished their mission and, in fact, were still far from it. In a resolution of 10 June, 1989 the National Council confirmed this point of view, stating that the primary goal of the émigré community, and now the opposition circles in Poland as well, should be to abolish the Yalta Agreement and to restore a fully independent Poland (Dziennik Ustaw RP 1989 No. 4).

On 19 July, 1989, the Sejm of the People’s Republic of Poland, with some opposition deputies voting in favor, elected as president Wojciech Jaruzelski, the First Secretary of the Polish United Workers’ Party. On the same day, the President in Exile, Kazimierz Sabbat, died in London of a sudden heart attack. The symbolism of these two events could not possibly be more vivid, as the tragedy of an individual and a generation. After Kazimierz Sabbat was officially pronounced dead, Ryszard Kaczorowski was sworn into office on the same day in the President’s headquarter at 43 Eaton Place. In spite of the changes underway in Poland, the expatriate society stayed as alert as half a century before (Górecki 2002, 238).

Mission Accomplished

While upholding its political stance, the pro-independence émigré community could not neglect the changes in Poland, especially as they started to diverge more and more from the pessimistic forecasts formulated during and immediately after the Round Table talks. The growing unrest in the communist camp, comprised of Tadeusz Mazowiecki’s coalition government, made the decay of the old system all too clear and discredited the theory that this was a trap set by the ruling party. When one of the opposition leaders assumed the position of Prime Minster, this was generally warmly welcomed in “Polish London.” Both the legalists and their opponents, the National Party, expressed their satisfaction. It might be said that the pessimistic attitude was giving way to expectations for more rapid political change in Poland (Cichocka 2012, 76).

The pro-independence diaspora spelled out their stance, expectations, and forecasts for further developments during the Third Worldwide Free Poles’ Congress, held in London on 15–16 September, 1989. Apart from the representatives of the pro-independence community, it was attended by delegates representing various organizations and political parties from Poland, including Solidarity, Solidarity of Individual Farmers, the NZS [Independent Students’ Union], and the Confederation of Independent Poland. The Congress referred to the situation in Poland and defined the position of the pro-independence emigration community against the backdrop of the current events in the country. In the final declaration it was emphasized that, despite the positive developments in Poland, the system remained communist and externally imposed. The émigré community appreciated the political achievements of Solidarity, stressing that further support would be conditioned by Solidarity’s commitment to the further “eradication of Sovietism” in Poland. This clause echoed previously expressed fears that the reforms that had started only a few months before would come to a halt. The Congress, having spelled out their approval for Mazowiecki’s team, stressed that they “in particular supported” the “independent opposition,” that is, the extra-parliamentary wing of the opposition camp, including the KPN [Confederation of Independent Poland] and “Fighting Solidarity” (Rynkiewicz 1996, 589–591).

During this congress, there was a discussion on the conditions by which the émigré authorities’ mission could be considered complete. With reference to this issue, Prime Minister Edward Szczepanik stressed that conditio sine qua non was free parliamentary elections in Poland. According to Szczepanik, these could be held when the USSR abandoned the Brezhnev doctrine and all the political forces in Poland were given equal chance to run for parliament. Interestingly enough, Szczepanik estimated it would take dissident underground groups a couple of years to emerge from hiding. Szczepanik’s final condition was the initiation of economic reform (Szczepanik 1995, 8–10).

Curiously, while presenting an electoral ultimatum, the issue of national independence, Szczepanik was relatively soft on the other diaspora flagship: Poland’s territorial integrity. The Prime Minister in Exile voiced his hopes that Krzysztof Skubiszewski, the Minister of Foreign Affairs in Mazowiecki’s government, would address the issue of reversing the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact and the Yalta Agreement, consequently restoring the 1921 Treaty of Riga and the Polish-Soviet borders it established. This statement was much milder than an earlier address in the National Council, in which the issue of reestablishing the 1921 eastern borders was among the most inflexible demands (Habielski 1999, 475–476).

In fact, however, these comments diverged dramatically from the foreign policy of Tadeusz Mazowiecki’s government. Minister Skubiszewski had no intention of raising the question of the eastern border, and in 1990 he stated explicitly that Poland would lay no territorial claims against any of its neighbor states. This official stance of the Polish minister caused some friction in London – the Government in Exile had never officially renounced the right to the Eastern Borderland, reserving this right for the parliament – but no immediate negative response was forthcoming (Tarka 2003, 265). It seemed as if the border issue, so important immediately after World War II, was now only theoretical, and treated halfheartedly by the political émigré community in London.

As a condition for ending the expatriate political mission, free parliamentary elections were also included in the National Council resolution of 2 December, 1989. Hopes were expressed that the newly-elected free Sejm and Senate would be a Constituent Assembly (Dziennik Ustaw 1989 No. 6). The émigré leaders realized, of course, that it would be unrealistic to expect a restoration of the constitution of 1935, though the exile structures had been based on this constitution since 1939. However, they hoped at least to ensure a kind of symbolic continuity of the state, to avoid a situation where the émigré authorities would return the insignia of the office to representatives of Polish officials functioning on the basis of the Stalinist constitution, albeit modified. On 29 December, 1989 the Sejm of the People’s Republic of Poland passed amendments to the constitution, changing the official name of the country to the Republic of Poland [Rzeczpospolita Polska]. February 1990 saw the restoration of the prewar coat of arms, a crowned white eagle. In the first months of 1990 the remnants of the previous system swiftly disappeared. The institution of local governments was restored, and the Security Service [Służba Bezpieczeństwa] disbanded. Even if the Round Table agreement seemed to function directly after General Jaruzelski was elected President, after a few months Poland’s thorough transformation was an undeniable fact.

The pro-independence émigré community welcomed the changes with deep satisfaction, and, it is worth emphasizing, with genuine realism, given that the changes did not always match their expectations. The non-violent transformation and smooth transition from the communist era to democratic reality precluded proclamations of non-continuity between the PRL and the Third RP, which meant that the emigrants’ legalism could only be recognized in symbolic way. This also meant resigning from territorial claims in the East, rejecting the April Constitution (though in April President-in-Exile Ryszard Kaczorowski was still calling for its restitution), and abandoning the idea of a one-time act, albeit symbolic, that would signify breaking with the tradition of the People’s Republic of Poland. Changes in the name of the country and modifying its coat of arms could not be recognized as acts of this nature, since the office of President was held by the General, who had stood behind Martial Law.

Nevertheless, the émigré community accepted this reality. Although the idea of restitutio ad integrum (i.e. declaring the entire legal heritage of PRL void) was still alive in late 1989 and early 1990, given the political environment of the time, this solution was pure fiction. Jerzy Jan Zalewski, a minister in several governments in exile, admitted that demanding restitutio ad integrum, which he himself advocated, was wishful thinking on the part of the epigones of the Second Republic of Poland. It seems that most pro-independence emigration leaders were aware that this extreme understanding of legalism could only come about if the communist rule was overthrown, but not when a non-violent transformation was underway (Zaleski 1995, 195).

migré society, there was little controversy in assessing the events in Poland. The only reasonable conclusion could be to end the fifty-year mission. It was irrelevant to continue the activities of the authorities in exile with the process of democratization underway in Poland, and the Brezhnev doctrine, which had restrained Polish independence, practically invalid. To continue the mission when Poland was regaining the attributes of an independent state would pose the risk of being completely incomprehensible to Polish citizens both in Poland and abroad. The only question was how to choose an appropriate moment to close the mission and make a symbolic return.

In March 1990, Prime-Minister-in-Exile Edward Szczepanik presented two possible scenarios for concluding the political mission in exile. The first, mentioned mainly pro forma to appeal to the émigré community, assumed the restitutio ad integrum option, reinstating the Constitution of 1935 and organizing parliamentary elections based on its provisions (incidentally, the April Constitution contained clauses which were far from democratic). The other scenario was free parliamentary elections, based on the existing election statute and other regulations, a new constitution passed by both chambers, electing a President, and the President in Exile handing over the insignia of office. The second scenario basically coincided with the general statements of the émigré community from the preceding months, and seemed more probable. In early 1990, however, the path to its implementation seemed rather long. General Jaruzelski was still in office, hopes for dissolving the “Contractual Sejm” appeared faint, and changing the constitution rather unlikely (Przekazanie insygniów 2000, 37–39).

One more important issue had to be addressed: official contacts with Polish authorities. Although the legalist circles maintained close contacts with various opposition communities (especially close with those who recognized the authority of the émigré political structures) in “Polish London” in the latter half of the 1980s, there was a forty-five-year tradition of disregarding and boycotting official representatives of the PRL. After the government led by Tadeusz Mazowiecki was established, the situation became equivocal. On the one hand, Mazowiecki enjoyed popularity among the émigré leaders; on the other, they could not help treating him as a representative of the communist state. This reserve in contacts with “Polish London” was visible on both ends. As such, during the first visit of the Polish Prime Minister to London from 26–27 February, 1990, an official meeting between the authorities in exile and Tadeusz Mazowiecki was not held. But the political situation in the first half of 1990 presented no formal obstacles to strengthening relations. All the more so, that the émigré community did not want to be a passive bystander to the events in Poland. On 11 May, 1990 Aleksander Hall, a member of Tadeusz Mazowiecki’s government paid a visit to President Kaczorowski. This marked the beginning of formal relations between the Polish officials and the pro-independence émigré community (Friszke 1999, 479–480).

In the summer of 1990 it turned out that the scenario to conclude the émigré mission, developed a few months earlier, failed to match up to reality. Under pressure from the right wing, General Jaruzelski decided to resign from office; this was confirmed by a resolution in the Sejm. Thus, the expected order of elections was reversed: instead of parliamentary elections and a change of the constitution, a free presidential election was to be held first. Moreover, the presidential election was to be universal for the first time in Polish history. This fact was important for the emigration legalists, as the National Assembly still consisted of the deputies and senators who, some twelve months earlier, had taken an oath of allegiance to the People’s Republic of Poland.

The Polish authorities in exile faced a historic decision about handing over the office of the President in Exile to the President of Poland to be elected in free, democratic elections, before they were held. The pivotal question was, as President Ryszard Kaczorowski rightly pointed out, whether a newly elected president would take the office from the successor to the prewar tradition of free Poland, or from the communist apparatchik, the man behind Martial Law of 1981. In spite of complaints from some émigré politicians, who lamented the fact that the government in exile would conclude its mission while Poland was still waiting for democratic parliamentary elections, hopes for the former option prevailed. On 12 October, 1990 President Kaczorowski announced his intention to hand over his office to the President of Poland, chosen in a universal and democratic election (Turkowski 2002, 91–93).

On 9 December, 1990, in the run-off, Lech Wałęsa, the Solidarity leader, was elected President of Poland. Having arranged the details for the transfer of the insignia of presidential power, Ryszard Kaczorowski arrived in Warsaw on 22 December, 1990, on board a government plane, received with all the honors due to a head of state. On the same day, at the Royal Castle in Warsaw, there was a ceremony where the presidential insignia were handed over to Lech Wałęsa (Górecki 2002, 250–254).

The day before, in a special address, Ryszard Kaczorowski explained:

Giving over the office of the President of the Republic of Poland to Lech Wałęsa tomorrow at the Royal Castle in Warsaw, and passing the insignia of this office, I entrust him with the whole, independent, free, democratic and just Poland, for which the soldiers of September 1939, soldiers of the Polish Armed Forces in the West and the brave Home Army, fought in the past. To them, above all, I pay my tribute today. I shall entrust President Lech Wałęsa with care over the pro-independence émigré community, which completed its mission by prudently preserving the idea of an Independent Poland. It did not manage to reach all of its political goals. The political parties created in the free country shall take over its mission. (Suchcitz 1997, 678).

In the Realm of Symbols

The ceremony held on 22 December, 1990 can be summarized in one sentence: the pro-independence émigré community completed its mission with its head held high. With his decision to accept the insignia of the office from Ryszard Kaczorowski, the President-elect confirmed that the Third Republic of Poland was the successor to prewar Poland. I believe, however, that his general statement should be supplemented by a deeper reflection on the actual meaning of the symbolic transfer of the office from the head of the state-in-exile to the President of the nation. I can say without hesitation that on that day, at the Royal Castle in Warsaw, two Polands met. One, for fifty years on foreign soil, took pride in their tattered flags, and the other one, whose founding myth originated in recent events, in the rebellion of young Polish workers. Two Polands, two generations, two historical experiences, far apart.

The celebration at the Royal Castle had no legal or constitutional significance. During the political transformation in Poland, no one had seriously questioned the legal continuity between the People’s Republic of Poland and the Third Republic of Poland. Regardless of the wishes of the émigrés, who would have been more than happy to erase the PRL period from the nation’s history textbooks, undermining this continuity was inconceivable. Obviously, this did not preclude the existence of another succession: between the Polish state-in-exile and the Third Republic. In this case, however, we are talking about two fundamentally different entities, out of which only one – the successor – met the criteria of statehood. According to international legal regulations, the Polish state-in-exile failed to meet these criteria. Its organs and institutions, anchored in prewar traditions, exclusively served the pro-independent émigré community. So the émigrés’ Poland with its President, parliament and government constituted a kind of alternative statehood for the reality in postwar Poland. Its statehood, however, was more of a symbolic nature, recognized only by those who consented to it.

Therefore, the transfer of the insignia of office was largely symbolic as well. At the same time, it should be mentioned that it was the émigré society who needed the symbolism of 1989 more than the citizens in Poland. The émigrés expected recognition for their fifty-year mission in an extremely hostile environment, with dim chances for success, but with the deep conviction that their path was morally and historically right. The victorious Solidarity less needed legitimization from the pro-independence émigré community. Some leaders of the political elites did not entirely treat them seriously.

This state of affairs should not, however, be attributed to the ill will of local politicians. It was more because of Poland’s unusual path from communism, which determined the place of the pro-independence diaspora in this process. In the atmosphere of “national reconciliation,” it was pushed into the background.

For the same reason, the Round Table became the symbol of the transformation (including the informal meetings of the communist dignitaries and Solidarity leaders in Magdalenka, whose celebratory pictures were later revealed), rather than the ceremony with Wałęsa and Kaczorowski. The émigrés could not ignore this fact, and it is unsurprising that they felt disappointment, which only became more profound in light of the two consecutive victories of the post-communist left: the parliamentary elections in 1993 and the presidential elections won by Aleksander Kwaśniewski in 1995.

On the whole, however, historical justice had been served to the pro-independence émigré community. It could be said that both the Round Table (accepted by at least some of the post-communist camp and the Solidarity elites as a model of “wise agreement over political differences”) and the heritage of Solidarity have become the founding myths of the Third Republic of Poland. This was still insufficient. The collective identity of Poles and the sense of historical continuity called for other references, legends, myths, and paradigms. The prewar period, the time of the Second World War, and early post-war years were explored in seeking them. The figure of Marshal Józef Pisudski, the martyrdom of the Polish officers in Katyń, the heroic story of the Warsaw Uprising, and the tragic fate of anticommunist “cursed soldiers” were all evoked.

The Institute of National Remembrance was established from this attitude and to promote national heritage; research on little-known aspects of Polish history (such as the anticommunist armed resistance) was also intiated. There were also attempts to consciously shape the politics of memory. Opened in 2004, the Warsaw Uprising Museum might serve as a good example of this tendency.

Mythologizing the Second Republic of Poland made the society start to notice the heritage of the pro-independence émigré community. The last president in exile, Ryszard Kaczorowski, became widely known; moreover, he was recognized as a symbol of the link between contemporary and historical Poland. His tragic death in the plane crash in 2010 near the Smolensk airport had all the hallmarks of a symbol: the last leader of the Polish diaspora flew together with the President Lech Kaczyński to Katyń to pay homage to officers of the Second RP, murdered on Stalin’s order in 1940. To some extent, it can be said that Kaczorowski’s death was the closing episode of the Polish pro-independence diaspora’s mission.

It seems that only now, twenty-five years after the political transformation, we can grasp the meaning of the pro-independence émigré community at that time. Handing over the insignia of the office to the President Lech Wałęsa built a historical continuity between the second and the third republics of Poland. Even if in the late 1980s and the early 1990s the need for this continuity was not clear to all, it is now considered to be a substantial contribution to the Polish historical identity.

Handing over the office to Lech Wałęsa, Ryszard Kaczorowski legitimized not only the Third Republic of Poland, but also the “Polish road to freedom.” This road, in the eyes of the stolid Polish émigrés, was far from perfect, marked with half measures and compromises. Yet, as the process of democratic transformation progressed, both sides symbolically recognized that it led to establishing a free, independent Poland – a country which draws upon both the history and achievements of Solidarity and of “the indomitable Poles of London,” filled with sacrifice and self-denial.


Paweł Gotowiecki. Born 1983, is a PhD, historian, journalist, and social activist. He graduated from the Jagiellonian University (2007) and received his Ph. D. from the Jan Kochanowski University (2012). He specializes in Polish history of the twentieth century, in particular the history of Polish independence emigration in the West after World War II. His books include For Poland with Vilnius and Lviv: The Association of the Polish North-Eastern Provinces 1942–1955 (Warsaw, 2012). He lectures at the University of Business and Enterprise in Ostrowiec Świętokrzyski, and serves as Chairman of the Ostrowiec Solidarity and Remembrance Historical Society.


List of References

Cichocka, Anna Zofia (2012) “‘Stara’ emigracja polityczna wobec przełomowych wydarzeń w historii ‘Solidarności’,” in Łukasz Kamiński and Grzegorz Waligóra (eds.) NSZZ”Solidarność” 1980–1989 6 (Warsaw: Instytut Pamięci Narodowej), p. 76.

Dziennik Ustaw RP (1989), No. 1, 2, 4, 6

Friszke, Andrzej (1999) Życie polityczne emigracji (Warsaw: Biblioteka “Więzi”), pp. 435, 458–459, 465–467, 475–476, 479–480.

Gawenda, Jerzy August (1959) Legalizm polski w świetle Prawa Publicznego (London: White Eagle Press Ltd.), p. 120.

Górecki, Dariusz (2002) Polskie naczelne władze państwowe na uchodźstwie w latach 1939–1990 (Warsaw: wydawnictwo Sejmowe), pp. 238, 250–254.

Gűnther, Władysław (1946) “O czystość doktryny,” Wiadomości, June 16.

Habielski, Rafał (1999, Życie społeczne i kulturalne emigracji (Warsaw: Biblioteka “Więzi”), pp. 475–476.

Lencznarowicz, Jan (2009) Jałta. W kręgu mitów założycielskich polskiej emigracji politycznej 1944–1956 (Krakow: Księgarnia Akademicka), p. 400.

Machcewicz, Paweł (1999) Emigracja w polityce międzynarodowej (Warsaw: Biblioteka Więzi), p. 235.

Maciejewski, Jan and Krzysztof Mazur (2013) “Tamiza Wpada do Wisły,”Pressje XXX–XXXI, pp. 16–27.

Michnik, Adam (1988) Polskie pytania (Wszechnica społeczno-polityczna), p. 78.

Orzeł Biały (1956), August 18.

“Przekazanie insygniów prezydenckich do kraju” (2000), in Zbigniew Błażyński and Ryszard Zakrzewski (eds.) Zakończenie działalności władz RP na uchodźstwie 1990 (London: Polskie Towarzystwo Naukowe na Obczyźnie), pp. 37–39.

Rynkiewicz, Artur (1996) “Światowe Zjazdy Wolnych Polaków” in Aleksander Szkuta (ed.) Kierownictwo obozu niepodległościowego na obczyźnie 1945–1990 (London: Polskie Towarzystwo Naukowe na Obczyźnie), pp. 589–591.

Suchcitz, Andrzej, Ludwik Maik and Wojciech Rojek (eds) (1997) Wybór dokumentów do dziejów polskiego uchodźstwa niepodległościowego 1939–1991 (London: Polskie Towarzystwo Naukowe na Obczyźnie), p. 678.

Szczepanik, Edward (1995) “Władze RP na uchodźstwie i kraj,” in Roman Lewicki (ed.) Pomoc krajowi przez niepodległościowe uchodźstwo 1945–1990 (London: Polskie Towarzystwo Naukowe na Obczyźnie), pp. 8–10.

Tarka, Krzysztof (2003) Emigracyjna dyplomacja. Polityka zagraniczna Rządu RP na uchodźstwie 1945–1990 (Warsaw: Oficyna Wydawnicza Rytm), pp. 269–260, 265.

Terlecki, Tymon (1946) “Emigracja walki,” Wiadomości, 12 April.

Turkowski, Romuald (2002) Parlamentaryzm polski na uchodźstwie 1973–1991 (Warsaw: Wydawnictwo Sejmowe), pp. 83, 91–93.

Zaleski, Jerzy Jan (1996) “W piątą rocznicę,” in Zbigniew Błażyński (ed.) Materiały do dziejów uchodźstwa niepodległościowego 1939–1990. Uzupełnienia do tomów I, II, V, VI (London: Polskie Towarzystwo Naukowe na Obczyźnie), p. 195.


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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Photo of the publication The Opposition Movement in Slovakia in the Period of Normalisation
Beata Katrebova-Blehova

The Opposition Movement in Slovakia in the Period of Normalisation

20 August 2014
  • 1989
  • Slovakia
  • Czechoslovakia
  • Bratislava/nahlas
  • Charter 77


In contrast to the Czechs, the Slovakian resistance towards communist dictatorship grew out of other motives, springing to life from different ideological premises and – not least – historical experiences quite different from those faced by the Czechs. These assumed a much more religious and national character and found expression in myriad ways, ranging from pilgrimages and petitions to the efflorescent Samizdat press and written declamations against the infringements of the communist church secretary. The spate of protests in Bratislava on 25 March, 1988 initiated by Slovaks abroad and organied by the laiety of the Catholic Church was the first public demonstration for the observance of citizen and human rights in the entire Eastern Bloc before 1989. The various attitudes of Slovaks towards their Czech counterparts was no doubt one of the reasons why the best known oppotition movement – Charter 77 – was not able to maintain itself in Slovakia. Alongside religiously motivated aspects of the resistance, the political energies of Slovaks likely drove environmental activities. Environmental protectionists expressed their main criticism against the pollution of the Slovak capital by means of a leaflet campaign which caused a great stir under the name Bratislava/nahlas, and was rightly characterized as a kind of “Slovak Charta.” The following study analyzes the concrete activities of the Slovak opposition movement which became stronger in the second half of the 1970’s and had a hand in the downfall of the communist regime in Czechoslovakia. The analysis proposes the study of the different forms of resistance that took place in each parts of the country merits individual attention in order to see how the political and social motivations of Czechs and Slovaks differed from one another.

The resistance against the dictatorial rule of the two communist parties: the statewide Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (KSČ)1 and the Communist Party of Slovakia (KSS)2 – a unit responsible for the Slovak territory – was driven in Slovakia by completely different motives. The underlying incentives included different attitudes towards ideological premises and, last but not least, a historical experience that was different from that of the Czechs. Despite many transformations that took place in the last decade exposing Slovaks to the oppressive and strange Bolshevik ideology with its impact on all areas of life, Slovak mentality, as opposed to Czech, proved to be rather conservative, based on traditional values and committed to the Roman Catholic or Lutheran faith. Therefore, the opposition movement in the 1970s and, above all, in the 1980s developed strong religious-driven grounds expressed in mass demonstrations during pilgrimages claiming the restoration of religious freedom. The revival of religion was confronted with harshly enforced atheist campaigns.

Apart from the religious aspects of Slovak resistance broadly described in a separate chapter, the struggle for the retrieval of political and civil freedom was equated with national liberation. Consequently, it was meant to solve the Slovak issue. The then centralized state was transformed into a federation in accordance with the Constitutional Act No. 143 of 27 October 1968. However, it brought no fulfilment of Slovak citizens’ national aspirations. Not only the ban on the Communist Party federalisation, which in view of specific political power relations would have constituted a necessary condition for state federalisation, but also a gradual return to party centralism as well as an unchanging centralistic economy structure were preventing the practical enforcement of the Act to a considerable extent. The power monopoly of the Party was then contradictory to national sovereignty. The political centre of Czechoslovakia remained at the same time the centre of the Czech Republic. As a result, Czechs identified the republic with the Czech state. On the contrary, Slovaks perceived the federation as a bizarre and hostile creation.3 Supreme power was still exercised by a more or less ten-member steering committee of the centrally ruled KSČ. Therefore, the newly established republic governments possessed a partly decentralised function since such areas as cultural policy were pursued only at republican level. Consequently, the federal Ministry of Culture no longer existed after 1968.4 On the other hand, the relevance of national councils diminished significantly after the adoption of the Constitutional Act No. 117/1969. Moreover, the federation lost its decentralising function also from an economic perspective due to the implementation of a binding five-year plan for the national economy.5

Charter 77 and Slovaks

The lack of two components in the civil rights movement – national and religious – may well have been one of the most important reasons that Charter 77 gained no significant support among Slovaks. The Italian publicist Leo Magnino, who advocated the sovereignty of Slovakia, wrote about the citizens’ initiative in the same year the document was published: “Charter 77, being an open revolt against the dictatorship, generated a wide response in the Western world. Not surprisingly, this act aroused a feeling of moral and civil solidarity among all free people. However, we do not find included in Charter 77 – apart from a fair intercession for freedom and respect for the human rights of individuals – any of the demands made by the Slovak nation, of which we know was likewise longing for freedom and state independence. Only little by little have we learned that the absolute majority of the Charter 77 signatories were Czechs, and what is more, communists who were once in power.”6

Slovak citizens naturally associated the guarantee of human rights with the principle of national self-determination. With this in mind, one of the most relevant expatriate Slovaks, a supporter of politically active exile organisations and, for many years, the editor at Radio Free Europe in Munich, Imrich Kružliak, wrote in the exile monthly magazine Horizon published in the Slovak language (and which he himself edited): “As far as the Slovak people are concerned, the fight for human rights has been always been connected with the fight for the rights of a nation. It also corresponds to the sense of our national philosophy, according to which not only does an individual deserve to benefit fully from the dimension of humanity, but also that a nation has to be provided with a human face. Today as well it is our task to combine the struggle for human rights with the struggle for a dignified self-realisation of the nation.”7

It appears that the chartist civil rights movement developed within the Czech community and was orientated only towards the needs of the Czech part of the republic until the very end. The initiative underlying its creation was conceived within Czech intellectual circles and without consulting Slovakian. Miroslav Kusý and Dominik Tatarka were the only Slovak representatives involved in its preparation. Others learned about the initiative either from state television or from foreign broadcasting stations such as the Voice of America or Radio Free Europe.8 Nevertheless, those Slovaks who signed it had to suffer a great deal. For the liberally oriented writer Dominik Tatarka, the author of Farská republika (The Parish Republic), a novel much acclaimed by the local communist founding fathers, it meant being banned from publication and isolated for the rest of his life, which had an enormously negative effect on him. Two Catholic priests, Marián Zajíček and Róbert Gombík, were granted government permission to exercise their priestly ministry while others were forced into exile. Accordingly, the number of those who dared to express their sympathies by signing the document possibly exposing themselves to persecution remained small, which definitely corresponded with the calculations of the state authorities.9

The example of two Catholic clergymen, young chaplains Marián Zajíček and Róbert Gombík, illustrates that the individual biographies of Charter signatories did not necessarily run along anti-communist lines. Gombík – a priest with government permission – had been a registered secret agent of the State Security Service since 1973. Even if the absolute credibility of the security service records cannot be assumed, a file registered in his name was maintained under the code name “Clergyman.”10 However, his loyalty to the communist regime began to waver with the implementation of Charter 77. According to the entries in his file, from that moment he was no longer willing to collaborate with the State Security.11 Eventually, together with his friend Zajíček, also a Catholic priest, he was denounced as”a threat to the national order“, and both were subject to a criminal prosecution that, however, was never concluded. After imprisonment, they were released again, which occurred most probably due to the tremendous reaction of Western media and the exile press. The most drastic measures resulting from the signing of Charter 77 involved revoking the permission to exercise the priestly ministry and the introduction of remuneration payments which resulted in existential hardship. As far as it was possible to follow the life of Gombík, he exhausted his spirit of resistance in the mid-1980s regaining government permission as he revived his contacts with dissidents.12

Also, the introduction of the official Catholic hierarchy to Charter 77 on the one hand, and the secret actions of individual church structures on the other hand, were not fully explained and still need to be thoroughly analysed. Doubtlessly, the declaration of Slovak bishops and ordinaries enforced by the regime and signed by the regime-dependent Association of Catholic Clergy Pacem in Terris and the St. Adalbert Association on 17 January 1977 can be deemed a shameful document.13

The rather cautious behaviour of some hierarchs as, for example, that of the bishop of Tyrnau Július Gábriš, who took an increasingly critical stand on the regime’s policy, mostly in the 1980s14, was not necessarily unjustified. For instance, Gábriš criticized the presence of former high rank party functionaries, such as Pavel Kohout among the signatories of the Charter since it could change the perception of the initiative to being a platform for the return of former prominent party officials.15 Certainly, it was a novelty in the civil rights movement in the Eastern Bloc countries that a group consisting mostly of non-Christian members demanded exactly the introduction of religious freedom. Nevertheless, the Church was entrusted by the foreign Catholic press with the task of supporting the Charter, as this long-lasting solidarity wave would bring unambiguous profits to the oppressed Church.16 Obviously, this kind of support on the part of Slovak bishops, who at that time found themselves under constant persecution, was impossible and the risk of embarrassment in front of their own congregation had to be accepted.17

The most famous Slovak signatory of Charter 77 active abroad, Miroslav Kusý, former professor of Marxism-Leninism and, for some time, the head of ideology department in the Central Committee of the KSS, whose polemical contributions on the internal situation of the country were broadcasted by the Radio Free Europe, tried to find an answer to the problem of minor support and admiration among Slovaks towards the so-called Czech parallel culture. The main reason for this could be two different paths of development that the Czech and Slovak nations had taken before 1968 and in the following years. Slovaks, who started to consider themselves as a modern nation for the first time (!) as a result of the industrialisation and urbanisation of the country in the 1960s, reflected the suppression by Novotný’s regime primarily as a nation and defended themselves against it. This overemphasis on the nationally-perceived obligation appeared also as far as the violation of civil and human rights was concerned. The effects achieved by Slovaks due to the establishment of a federation sated national demands for only a limited period of time. Therefore, the development in the post-invasion era was no longer as intense as in the Bohemian part of the country. No remarkable change of course took place. There were even some areas that brought a considerable profit (better professional advancement). “Based on this statement on the development after August 1968, another view emerges among Slovaks regarding the Czech parallel culture in general and with reference to Charter 77 in particular. They consider it to be a typically Czech matter and reaction to the typically Czech reality that we [Slovaks] are not characteristic of.”18 According to Kusý, at the beginning, Slovak ambitions to obtain their own statehood did not exist, because the problem of the constitutional position of Slovakia in relation to the Czech state was solved by the implementation of federal structure. In his opinion, it was only about economic, cultural and social equality. Consequently, the national issue was no longer in the foreground since Slovak people (even without their own country!) would feel equal to other European nations: “The Slovak citizen will consciously become more and more a citizen of Europe and of the world.”19 (However, Kusý with his wishful perception had to be wrong because the national element once again became an essential part of the political development after 1989 upon which a sketch of the establishment of an independent state emerged.)

Both the openness of Charter signatories to dialogue with the regime that had already violated human dignity with its materialistic footing, and the lack of distance to communism as an ideology were strongly criticized and mostly by Slovak émigrés in the West. Emil Vidra, the founder of an organization protecting human rights in Slovakia20, was extremely critical of Charter 77. The organization had been founded in 1968 during the Prague Spring. Paradoxically, none of the later Charter signatories – and reform communists at that time – attended the inaugural meeting, although each of them received a personal invitation.21 Vidra’s response to the accusations of Gustáv Husák was also refused by the editorial staff of the Literární listy magazine as many of its members at that time later became signatories of Charter 77. Vidra accused Charter 77 of not rejecting communism unequivocally. In his view, the Charter might have done harm to some representatives of communist power, but not to communism as a whole.22

The directions of Slovak exile policy, even if different from the evaluation of Charter 77 by Czech emigrants, were not entirely disapproving despite of the fact that, due to a considerable Czech influence, a large part of the global community considered precisely this dissident group to be representative of a nationwide Czechoslovak anti-communist opposition. Each center of Slovak political exile was aware that the objective to bring the communist system to a collapse should be reached jointly and together with the Czech people. In this respect, public defamatory statements on Charter 77 were rather avoided.23

Opposition based on faith: Ecclesia silientii

Secret churches in Czechoslovakia that were brought into being upon the initiative of both Pope Pius XII and Msgr. Gennaro Verolino, 24 the Vatican Chargé d´Affaires in Czechoslovakia after the WWII were gradually gaining in strength from 1949 as the first secret bishops were consecrated. The first secret consecrations had taken place in 1949. Kajetán Matoušek was ordained Suffragan Bishop of Prague on 17 September 1949 and František Tomášek was ordained Suffragan Bishop of Olmütz on 14 October 1949. Ecclesia silentii became reality in Slovakia with the secret consecration of Štefan Barnáš as the Auxiliary Bishop of Spiš on 5 November 1949.25 The subsequent consecrations involved Pavol Hnilica on 2 January 1951, Ján Chryzostom Korec on 24 August 1951, Dominik Kaľata on 9 September 1955 and Peter Dubovský on 18 May 1961. The principal duty of secret bishops was to ordain secret priests in order to secure the survival of the Church oppressed by the regime.26 Bishop Korec alone ordained 120 secret priests by 1989, the majority of whom belonged to a secret male order. In this way, the Church was strictly covered by a (secret) religious community27 and the secret Church was protected from the risk of being infiltrated by the State Security.28 However, as the State Security exposed secret consecrations, secret bishops had to emigrate (Hnilica, Kaľata, Dubovský) and others were sentenced to long-term imprisonment (Korec). After the great wave of rehabilitation in the 1970s, which was a short period of liberalisation during the Prague Spring, and after its suppression, underground activity started again in the 1970s.

In 1968, a mathematician and secret priest, Vladimír Jukl, together with a physician, Silvester Krčméry, started to organise small groups of university students in Bratislava. Both of them had gained sufficient experience in the youth apostolate, being former members of the Catholic lay organisation “Rodina” (The Family), which was established by Stjepan Tomislav-Podglajen (in Slovakia known as Stjepan Kolaković-Podglajen) – a Croatian missionary and lay apostolate promoter in the 1940s. Students were getting together with the aim of deepening their religious life. Their representatives summoned all higher education institutions in Bratislava several times a year to attend large meetings where future activities were coordinated. By 1989, a total of one hundred meetings of this kind had taken place with ten to fifteen participants gathering on a regular basis. After graduation most of them returned to their hometowns and helped with the establishment of a nationally widespread network of Catholic activists.29

An organisation of Christian families was founded in a similar way. On this basis, the activities of underground missionary work could be disseminated throughout the whole country.

In 1974, four laymen30 established the Fatima community. Being a lay community under the jurisdiction of the secret bishop Korec, its main duty was to “create, lead, expand and coordinate small Catholic communities of workers, young people and children”.31 It was given its Statutes, according to which the community was ready to give assistance to the Church whenever it required urgent help and whether it was related to the apostolate, or to the fulfilment of such duties for which the responsible organs had not yet been appointed by the Church.32 From 1975, their members33 organised meetings with local activists four times a year in many Slovak cities in order to exchange information, to plan joint activities and to distribute religious foreign literature and the latest publications by samizdat. The network that was built due to these activities included 150 towns and villages with a total number of 400 activists. The activities of the secret apostolate, whose members stayed in regular contact with the “official” Church, not least in order to discuss their plans with them, mostly with the Bishop of Tyrnau, Július Gábriš, and the Diocesan Administrators, Štefan Garaj and Ján Hirka, remained unnoticed by the public until 1983; however, to their own surprise, they benefitted enormously from it in the following years.34

A new self-awareness provided by the election of a Slavic Pope and, simultaneously, a feeling of no longer being isolated from the Church behind the “Iron Curtain” were conditions for a greater independence of the opposition after the Catholic Church was again subject to even more severe oppression in the 1970s and 1980s. Cardinal König stated in an interview that the community of believers began to fight stronger than before when they felt the violation of their citizen rights.35 They used to cite the Declaration of Human Rights signed by the Czechoslovak government in Helsinki in 1975, which from that moment on was included in the legal system. Employment bans for clergy used as a frequent anticlerical measure and targeted at priests characterized by taking successful pastoral care of their congregations.36 were no longer accepted with resignation. An increased number of cases was observed when the affected communities submitted a complaint about the actions of district and regional Church secretaries and wrote on their own to the head of state and parliament providing a complete number of complainants’ signatures. A letter of complaint from 1979 by a Catholic community from the Budweis Diocese addressed to President Husák asking for the abolishment of the employment ban for their priests was signed by 190 persons.37

Letters of complaint, after protests, represented a particularly widespread form of opposition, being a valuable historical source providing information about the state of the Church as well. Most famous are the letters written by Msgr. Viktor Trstenský,38 in which he protests against the suppression, persecution and abuse of the Church and the injustice against his own person. Only in the years 1975–1989, he wrote 65 letters. Twelve of them were addressed to President Husák, to the Chairman of Government, Peter Colotka, to the Minister of Culture, Miroslav Válek, to the television, press, and the Church hierarchy, etc.39 Moreover, cases were multiplying in which individuals were no longer afraid of submitting complaints to the official institutions. In this manner, parents protested when their children were refused to be enrolled in religious class, young priests – when they were forced to join the priestly movement “Pacem in Terris” that was loyal to the regime, and priests without posts – after being deprived of their permission to perform their priestly ministry.40

One of the most remarkable protests,41 almost without precedence in the whole Eastern Bloc, was organised in October 1980 in the seminary of Bratislava where 120 out of 147 seminarians united in a two-day hunger strike (20–21 October 1980) against the influence of the regime-dependent Association of Catholic Clergy “Pacem in Terris” (in the seminary). In a letter to Cardinal Tomášek and Slovak ordinaries theology students protested against the interference of the Association in the seminary’s issues. In addition, they called on all of the clergymen in the country to boycott the organisation.42 As eleven students were suspended for one year at the beginning of the summer semester 1981, 100 students decided to leave the seminary as well, sympathizing with their colleagues who had been punished. Although all but seven seminarists withdrew their claims upon the seminary management’s request and continued their studies, they kept protesting against the actions taken by the authorities. The wave of solidarity coming from abroad, for instance, from the seminaries of all Austrian dioceses, from 600 students and professors of the Faculty of Catholic Theology at the University of Munich and from the Jesuit University of Philosophy, with the famous theologian Karl Rahner, not only undermined the position of the Pacem in Terris Association, but also submitted various requests to the Czechoslovak president, Gustáv Husák, to cancel the suspension of the eleven students.43

The increased activity of Catholics in the 1980s could be noticed through the dissemination of samizdat periodicals, i.e. those magazines and information leaflets that were printed underground without the participation of the National Printing Office and without a special permission and being distributed via secret networks of students, Christian families and laymen. In 1973, a group of Catholic clergymen from Spiš decided to publish a philosophical‑theological underground magazine Orientácia (The Orientation), which, in 135 issues during its eleven-year existence, printed original texts written by renown Catholic intellectualists from Slovakia and translations of important works written by foreign theologians as well as other information related to the current situation of the Church.44 Since an issue consisted of barely 20 copies – they were reproduced on a typewriter – its reach within the Spiš region was limited. Nevertheless, it became a platform for artistic creation for Catholic intellectuals otherwise condemned to silence during the period of normalisation.45 This tradition was followed later in June 1982 by another Catholic samizdat magazine Náboženstvo a súčasnosť (The Religion and Modern Times). The magazine created by a group consisting of a mathematician, František Mikloško, a lawyer, Ján Čarnogurský and a mathematician and priest, Vladimír Jukl, could reach the whole of Slovakia with an issue of up to one thousand copies, thereby satisfying the needs of the already well developed “secret” underground Church for religious literature.46 From 1982, a great number of new titles appeared so that by the end of 1989 there were fourteen Christian samizdat magazines with a total circulation of 7,760 copies.47 Various magazines were printed illegally in the Czech Republic between 1988 and 1986. Some nine of them belonged to the Christian underground.48

The meaning of samizdat literature for the opposition and for the survival and continuous existence of an uncensored and free culture of writing cannot be underestimated. While the regime was issuing tons of atheistic literature – only the Church Secretariat of the Czechoslovak Ministry of Culture published a hundred copies of so-called reference books propagating atheistic ideology between 1975 and 198649 – the editing, publishing and distribution of each samizdat edition involved a high risk. Jozef Oprala, a Jesuit, priest and theologian responsible for the publication of the illegal magazine Una Sancta Catholica recalled: “Today we perceive those deeds as a kind of heroism that was necessary and, at the same time, provoked suffering. The existence of those courageous men [the publishers of samizdat magazines] was related to a great deal of patience and caution. One cannot describe exactly what was happening in the families where samizdat was developed. Small flats in panel buildings, tiny rooms or prudently furnished weekend cottages or cellars gave shelter to the publication process of samizdat. An unbelievable fairy tale and, at the same time, a testimony to the strength and courage of the Christian soul... It united us as the atheistic oppression enslaved our spirit and human beings were racked by the wheel of moral deformation [...] The Catholic samizdat in Slovakia is a noteworthy cultural, religious and deeply human phenomenon consisting of what should be admired by the world in the Slovak soul.”50

The pilgrimage to Velehrad that took place on 6–7 July 1985 to commemorate the 1100th anniversary of the death of St. Methodius, who had been pronounced patron saint of Europe alongside St. Cyril four years earlier, was a significant turning point in the relations of the Church with the totalitarian regime. One month before, on 2 June 1985, Pope John Paul II published the Encyclical Slavorum Apostoli, in which he emphasized the meaning of the two brothers’ achievements in the evangelisation in the Slavic countries.51 The years of self-sacrificing work of small religious communities in Velehrad were visible in the underground. A Slovak activist, Vladimír Jukl, recalled: “With the help of communities, we invited young people to come to Velehrad on Saturday, 6 July. We used all underground structures to spread this information. We mobilized everyone upon whom we had some influence: young people, families, priests, movements, orders... The information was also broadcasted by Anton Hlinka on Voice of America radio station. Slovakia began to move towards Velehrad.”52

Almost 150 000 people participated in the pilgrimage to Velehrad. The majority of them came from Moravia and Slovakia. Considering that a pilgrimage to Levoča took place on the same day, the number of pilgrims was exceptional. The leadership of the Party wanted to convert this unique event into a “Peace Festival”; however, without much success. As the Czech Minister of Culture, Milan Klusák, who could not bring himself to pronounce the word “saint”, preceding the names of the two patrons, turned to the believers with a call for peace. He was booed – possibly the first time that the “normalised” regime lost in an open confrontation with its own citizens.53 The pilgrimage was a manifestation of loyalty to the Pope, Cardinal Tomášek and the Church; a manifestation of the restored strength of Ecclesia Silentii and the members of its congregation who were no longer afraid.54 The pilgrimage came as a shock to the regime, from which it never recovered. The leadership of the Party had to admit that the Church had at its disposal an extremely effective information network, since the unparalleled mobilisation of the community of believers took place without the participation of the state media. It became clear to them again that they were universally hated and each anonymous gathering posed a risk to the regime.55 The Church opposed the regime as the true and only challenger, whom they had already buried and now had to be afraid of again. Consequently, one of the most important objectives of the communist church policy failed, i.e. to eliminate the Church as a real opponent together with its ambition to be a mass organisation.

The regime was put on trial by the religious population once more with a petition entitled: “The recommendations of Catholics on the resolution of the situation of believers in the ČSSR“.56 The petition’s text was prepared by a group of Moravian Catholics under the leadership of Augustín Navrátil. A one-time signature collection campaign began on 29 November 1987. An incredibly large increase in the number of signatures could not have been possible, had it not been for a personal letter from Cardinal Tomášek addressed to the congregation on 4 January 1988, in which he appealed to Christians to get rid of “their fears and lack of courage being unworthy of a Christian” and to sign the petition.57 It was an important decision because without the patronage of the Czech Primate in the initiative, it would not have achieved such an outstanding success and would have been labelled by the regime (as) a kind of “provocation by illegal and hostile structures”. The demands presented in the 31-paragraph petition included the separation of the Church and the state, the abolition of regulations discriminating against the Church, especially the Act No. 217/1949 on the economic hedging of the Church and the amendment to the Constitution concerning the claims included into the petition.58 During the first months, the petition was signed by around 300,000 members of the congregation. By the end of 1988, the number of signatures amounted to 501,590, including 291,284 Slovaks and 210,306 citizens from Bohemia and Moravia.59 In response to this, the regime imprisoned Navrátil, the initiator of the petition, in the psychiatric department of a military hospital. Nonetheless, the petition largely united believers with non-believers and Catholics with Protestants, so that it was perceived by Catholic activists as a kind of referendum against the existing system.60

In the second half of the 1980s, traditional pilgrimages in Slovakia reached as yet unknown proportions as to the number of pilgrims. From 1983, as the pilgrimage to Levoča alone attracted 150,000 participants, high numbers of pilgrims became visible. In the summer of 1987, their number increased, amounting to 250,000 people, probably on the occasion of the Marian Year, previously declared by the Pope. Considering that only during the Marian Year the total number of pilgrims reached an incredible 600,000, consisting mostly of young people, compared to the Communist Party of Slovakia with its 450,000 members at that time, it was an important sign of the invincible religiousness of Slovaks, as well as of their rejection of the atheistic ideology propagated by the state and became clear evidence of the disproportion between those in power and the oppressed.61

Candle Demonstration on 25 March 1988

The Candle Demonstration on 25 March, 1988, which was the first open protest carried out by Slovaks against the communist regime62, is a well known and recorded event in their historiography. 25 March was proclaimed the Remembrance Day of the Slovak Republic, thereby making it the focus of public attention. Interest among historians was aroused also by a wide range of historical sources. On 30 November, 1989, a commission was established by the Slovak National Council intended to investigate an excessively violent attack by the police on a peaceful gathering of believers in Bratislava.63 The commission was active until 20 March, 1990 and collected extensive documentation from the governmental institutions involved: the police, security service, prosecutor’s office, high ranking KSS officials as well as the participants concerned.64 The demonstration was widely reported abroad; about three months after the event, a collection of authentic documents appeared in Austria.They were smuggled across the border by Bishop Korec and his helpers, and then published abroad.65 By 1998, elaborate work, based on a variety of archival sources and oral history was published by Ján Šimulčík.66 Finally, we should mention that twenty years after these memorable events, an academic conference dedicated to the Candle Demonstration was organised. The results of the conference will be published in an anthology in the spring of 2014.

A direct incentive for the demonstration came from part of the Slovak political emigrant community in the West, to be precise from its leaders – the editors of Radio Free Europe and Voice of America, the priest Anton Hlinka and the chairman of the Slovak World Congress, Marián Šťastný. The idea was then picked up by the leaders of Catholic dissidents and transformed into a well-coordinated secret structure.67 The Candle Demonstration in Hviezdoslav Square on Friday, 25 March 1988, was the first street demonstration demanding the free appointment of bishops, full religious freedom and respect for civil rights.68 The announcement of such a demonstration was the logical result of the growing activity of the community of believers in the country, whose resistance gained not only a religious, but also a civic dimension. Through the third demand concerning observance of civil rights, the opposition movement decided to open itself to the non-believer part of the population on the one hand, thereby showing their solidarity, but on the other hand, Catholics showed that they were struggling not only for religious, but also for political freedom.69

The reaction of the regime constitutes an example of a government apparatus that, being deep in crisis, acting defensively and wanting to save face, reached for violent and repressive measures. The minister of Culture, Miroslav Válek, described this situation a few days after a brutal police action targeted at a few thousand peaceful demonstrators,70 who wanted to ask for freedom by singing, prayer and lighted candles in their hands. Válek watched the course of the demonstration and its bloody denouement from the window of the Carlton Hotel which was transformed into the operational headquarters of the security forces. He commented on what he saw on 20 April 1988 during the anniversary meeting of the Pacem in Terris Association: “During the last few days, the public was thrilled by a demonstration that took place in Bratislava. I openly admit that it was my duty to see the truth with my own eyes. And so I observed the whole demonstration. Unfortunately, the majority of you in this room trust foreign media than more our own. The demonstration was dispersed because it was illegal. But there were neither dogs nor rubber truncheons and tear gas. There was only water and cars [...]. However, there was also another option: to let the demonstration pass with the security forces successfully selling candles. But we know that the demonstration was only a part of a carefully planned campaign. Nothing has been written about the dogs, but about the impotence of the state, the disintegration of power structures and the victory of the believers over the state...”71

The Party leadership considered the Candle Demonstration a priori as an attempt to activate the opposition in a political direction. Therefore, the KSS politburo, that held a meeting on 15 March, was eminently interested in: 1) hindering the demonstration in general, 2) requesting the participants to leave the square, if, however, the demonstration takes place, and 3) dispersing them, if the two previous measures failed.72 During the meeting, a political commission was formed consisting of the Slovak Minister of Culture, Válek, Minister of the Interior, Lazar, other high rank party officials, the representatives of the security forces and the police. The commission worked out specific counter-measures against the demonstration. A day before, Oberst Mikula, Chief of Police of the city of Bratislava, asked the Federal Minister of the Interior, Vajnar, to “grant him authorisation to enforce extraordinary security measures from 10.00 a.m. to 12.00 p.m. on 25 March 1988”73 in order to prevent the demonstration. Large-scale and very extensive preparations illustrated that the regime wanted to make every effort in order to avoid potential confrontation with opponents at all costs. Preparations ranged from the mobilization of all available means of political power, through the introduction of certain measures in higher education institutions and student residences, where no lectures were held on 25 March, thereby forcing the students to leave on Thursday evening, as well as other measures concerning traffic and hospitals that were preparing to admit a large number of injured, to the detention of leading Catholic activists.

The demonstrators were violently dispersed, by 1,061 policemen, 20 cleaning vehicles, 17 police cars, 8 convoy vehicles, 2 water cannons, 2 buses, and 3 tanks.74 In the aftermath of the brutal course of action, 14 people were injured, and 99 were arrested and interrogated, including foreign journalists.75 The images from Bratislava evoked a wave of indignation and protests across the entire world. All prominent newspapers reported on the events for several days. Among other things, the media pointed out the lack of potential to reform the system under the rule of the new Secretary General, Miloš Jakeš,76 as well as the scale of religious repression and its relation to the ongoing Czechoslovak-Vatican negotiations concerning the appointment of bishops.77 The names of the main activists, Ján Čarnogurský and František Mikloško, became known to the world’s public. Media coverage and the resulting political protests additionally strengthened the critical attitude of the West towards the Czechoslovak state leadership, increasingly mired in international isolation.

The Candle Demonstration of 25 March 1988 was the culmination of underground Church activity and the activity of Slovak Catholic emigrés. It was simply a public peace demonstration that electrified the global political scene and attracted the gaze of the media, although it was violently suppressed by the regime. It was an incentive for further demonstrations of Czechs and Slovaks against the regime and gradually developed into an open confrontation between the street and authority. The demonstrations took place throughout 1989 and eventually put an end to the persecution of the Church. As the Velvet Revolution began, the 17 November 1989 became a special occasion of great joy for the Church as its members could finally catch a glimpse of freedom.


An important role in the increased activity of the civil opposition movement in Slovakia was assigned to the environmentalists whose critical views on the disastrous situation of the environment in the capital of Slovakia attracted public attention and caused disruption politically. The most relevant points of their criticism were summarized in the samizdat magazine Bratislava/nahlas (Bratislava Aloud) that was published in October 1987 with an issue of two thousand copies and announced to the general public on 25 October, 1987 on Voice of America. There, a group of around 80 persons, mostly members of the Slovak Association of Environmentalists,78 highlighted the air pollution in the city of Bratisalva, which proved to have the highest level of contamination in the whole of Czechoslovakia. Furthermore, attention was drawn to the enormous waste of water resources caused by damaged water piping, to the contamination of water, resulting primarily from the activity of the oil-processing industry, as well as to noise pollution. Another point concerned the catastrophic condition of Bratislava’s Old Town monuments that, in large part and probably deliberately, were destined to fall into decay, since the timely renovation either did not take place at all or was delayed.79

The publication aroused a wave of indignation among people spanning the major part of the Republic. A circulation of another 30,000 copies of Bratislava/nahlas was prepared. Even the state security forces were not able to confiscate them. The initiative of young environmentalists, who became the most active participants of the Velvet Revolution later on, was rightly hailed as the Slovak Charter 7780 since it gained the wider support of society and addressed the main needs of the capital’s inhabitants. The process of gradual rapprochement of the ever-growing opposition movement was present both in the Czech and Slovak parts of the country in the last two years before the collapse of the communist monopoly on power. However, by August 1989, when judicial proceedings were brought against the so-called Bratislavská päťka (Bratislava Five) – a group of the five most famous dissidents in Slovakia,81 and the trial was a catalyst for further bonding both within the opposition and between dissidents and the rest of the population. This criminal trial evoked a wave of indignation reflected by numerous protest resolutions. A letter to the president written by Slovak intellectuals, in which they pleaded for the suspension of the trial, was signed by historians, writers, journalists, still active or banned from their profession, alongside the representatives of the civil-liberal dissident groupings with Milan Šimečka Sr. as their leader, as well as by the secret Catholic clergy, including prominent names, such as Alexander Dubček and the secret bishop, Ján Korec.82 A similar protest letter to the president was sent by Slovak sociologists whose signatures provided an exemplary list of the future political and social, pro-western and pro-American, prominence of Slovakia, with Magda Vašáryová and Martin Bútora as the future Slovak Ambassador to the US and one of the founding fathers of foreign policy in the independent Slovak Republic of the 1990s, to mention but a few.83 “Therefore, we turn to you, dear Mr. President, so that you contribute to the recovery and moral restoration of our society and support further development of the idea of national reconciliation based on a political dialogue. This idea has become a hopeful starting point for overcoming the crisis also in other countries in the world. Some of them barely know anything about our democratic traditions. Therefore, we shall prove that these are precisely our national traditions, and not the legacy of Stalinism that will determine the future of our nation.“84


The real revolution, which began with the violent suppression of a student demonstration on 17 November 1989 at Národní Třída Avenue in Prague, originated from people’s (unsatisfied) expectations and was a thoroughly idealistic, social, political and, last but not least, religious phenomenon.85 Slovaks and Czechs detested the communist regime not because it was socialist, but because of its inhumane, bureaucratic and oppressive policies.86 Equally, no one wanted to return to the thieving capitalism implemented in the early 1990s. The fundamental concepts of humanity, religious freedom, social peace and even love and mutual respect were the core elements of the long-lasting ideology of the opposition. Lastly, if it had not been for the support of the Slovak political diaspora, not only the wide media coverage of every injustice committed by the governance apparatus on its own citizens, but also the successful outcome of the revolution and the establishment of an independent Slovak state three years later would not have been possible.


Beata Katrebova –Blehova. Born in Nitra, Slovakia in 1973 and has studied English and German studies at the Constantine the Philosopher University in Nitra, as well as political science, history, Russian language and law at the Univeristy of Vienna. She completed her dissertation titled The Fall of Communism in Czechoslovakia while working as a university tutor at the Institute for Political Science at the University of Vienna and from 2000–2005 as a lecturer for the Austrian East and Southern Europe Institute on the satellite campus Niederösterreich in St. Pölten. From 2004–2009 she served as university assistant for the Institute for East European History at the University of Vienna. Her research interests include: twentiethcentury Slovak and Czech history, the history of the Cold War and the history of Czechoslovak-Soviet relations. Since 2007 she has been a member of the editorial board of the newspaper Pamäť národa.



1 KSČ – the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. Paradoxically, the Party was responsible exclusively for the Czech state territory – after the transformation into a federative state in 1968, the existence of a separate Communist Party of the Czech Socialist Republic was not allowed.

2 KSS – the Communist Party of Slovakia.

3 Jan Rychlík, Češi a Slováci ve 20. Století. Česko-slovenské vztahy, 1945–1992 (Bratislava: VEGA, 1998), p. 276.

4 Cf. Beata Blehova, “Die Kulturpolitik in der Slowakei und der Beginn der Normalisierung,” in Peter Bachmaier, Beata Blehova, Der kulturelle Umbruch in Ostmitteleuropa (St. Pölten: Peter Lang, 2005), pp. 171–189.

5 Rychlik (1998), pp. 282–287.

6 Quotation after Leo Magnino, “Slowaken sind reif für Eigenstaatlichkeit,” in Slowakei 16 (Munich, 1977–1978), p. 97.

7 Imrich Kružliak, “Za ľudské práva,” nn Imrich Kružliak, V čakárni dejín. Obrazy slovenských osudov, (Bratislava, 1999), p. 272. Originally printed in Horizont, July/August 1978.

8 Peter Balun, “Akcia ‘Kniha’. Charta 77 na Slovensku,” In Pamäť národa 1 (2007), p. 84.

9 Until 1989, Charter 77 was signed by 37 Slovaks. See Vilém Prečan, Charta 77. 1977–1989. Od morální k demokratické revoluci. Dokumentace (Scheinfield-Schwarzenberg: Čs. Středisko nezávislé literatury/ Bratislava: Archa, 1990), pp. 487–514 (List of signataries.).

10 Balun (2007), p. 87.

11 Ibidem.

12 Ibidem, p. 94.

13 Pavol Čarnogurský writes that by creating the declaration and signing this shameful document the Slovak Church hit rock bottom. See Paľo Čarnogurský, Súboj s komunizmom (Bratislava: Kalligram, 2013), pp. 186–188.

14 Gábriš, to the great dissatisfaction of the party leadership, was becoming more and more critical and hostile towards the regime and advocated for the Association of Catholic Clergy Pacem in Terris after its activity was officially prohibited by Vatican in a papal decree Quidam episcopi. See Jozef Haľko, “Biskup Július Gábriš a Združenie katolíckych duchovných Pacem in Terris,” in Pamäť národa 3, vol. 3 (2007), pp. 30–45.

15 According to the personal testimony of the priest Zajíček. See Balun (2007), p. 86.

16 See “Die ‘Charta 77’: ein politisch-kirchliches Dilemma,” in Herder-Korrespondenz, vol. 31, no. 3, (Munich, 1977), pp. 116–119. This outstanding analysis was published under the initials R. S.

17 The declaration of Czech bishops of 14 January 1977 with František Tomášek on the top of the list had a substantially different wording; therefore, it appeared that they managed to oppose to the pre-fabricated statement of the ecclesiastical office. A dissociation from Charter 77 cannot be concluded on the basis of this document. See “Die ‘Charta 77’: ein politisch-kirchliches Dilemma,” reference as above, p. 119.

18 Miroslav Kusý, “Slovenský fenomén,” in Listy vol. 15, no. 5 (Rím, 1985), p. 35.

19 Kusý (1985), p. 36.

20 Slovenská organizácia na ochranu ľudských práv (SONOP). Emil Vidra belonged to the anti-communist resistance fighters whose services were not recognized by the Slovak society, although a commemorative plaque can be found in his historical house in Bratislava. After the 2nd World War, he became a member of the Labour Party (Strana práce). Following the invasion of 1968, he emigrated to Vienna, where he established contacts with Slovak exile organisations. (Personal report of Ján Bobák to the author.)

21 František Braxátor, Slovenský exil 1968, (Bratislava: Lúč, 1992), pp. 113–114.

22 Ibidem.

23 Ibidem, p. 114.

24 Gennaro Verolino travelled around the country before his deportation from Czechoslovakia on 24 March 1949 in order to authorize bishops to create a secret hierarchy. Hansjakob Stehle, Eastern politics of the Vatican, 1917–1979 (Athens, 1981), p. 273.

25 See Václav Vaško, Neumlčená. Kronika katolické církve v Československu po druhé světové válce, vol. 2 (Prague, 1990), p. 111.

26 For more information on secret consecrations see František Vnuk, “Tajné vysviacky pred 50. Rokmi,” in Kultúra 21 (2000), p. 10–11.

27 All 56 monasteries with six Catholic male oreder communities were violently attacked in the night of 13 to 14 April 1950 during the so called Akcia K (sk. Akcia kláštory, lit. Action Monasteries). The monks were concentrated in special centres and, consequently, forced into the civil life or pastorate. See, among others, František Vnuk, Popustené putá. Katolícka cirkev na Slovensku v období liberalizácie a nástupu normalizácie (1967–1971), (Martin: Matica Slovenská, 2001), pp. 134–135.

28 See Ján Chryzostom Korec, “Tajne vysvätení kňazi za komunizmu,” in Ján Šimulčík, Zápas o nádej. Z kroniky tajných kňazov 1969–1989 (Prešov: Michal Vaško, 2000), p. 9.

29 Cf. Šimulčík (2000), p. 43.

30 Jukl, Krčméry, Rudolf Fiby and Eugen Valovič.

31 It was described in the report of Fatima community concerning the conference of Slovak bishops in 1990. Here, quotation after Šimulčík (2000), p. 13.

32 Šimulčík (2000), p. 12.

33 By 1989, the community increased in number up to 24 members and 40 employees.

34 Šimulčík (2000), p. 82.

35 “‘Der Widerstand ist selbstverständlicher geworden.’ Ein Gespräch mit Franz Kardinal König,” in Herder Korrespondenz 37/7 (Freiburg, 1983), p. 307.

36 In the eyes of Church secretaries, priests were guilty of “illegal activity” when they dared to condemn in their preaching the anti-Christian smear campaigns spread in the mass media, to give their opinion about atheism, and to defend themselves against the distortion of Christian truths and moral principles. They were suspected by the state organs whenever they maintained contacts with their congregation members, especially young people while preparing them for sacraments, providing pre-marriage catechesis, and organising groups of ministrants and boy choirs or any kind of charity activities among the old and sick people. See “Die Lage der katholischen Kirche in der Slowakei,” in Slowakei 16, 1977/78 (Munich), p.81. In accordance with paragraph 178 of the Penal Code, for those “crimes” they could be convicted of”thwarting the state control over the Church“and given a prison sentence. Those elements of the offence were not explicitly named by the Penal Code, thus their identification was incumbent upon a free judgement of Church secretaries. Otto Luchterhand made a reference to this speaking about a”blurred lawlessness of the religious community“in Czechoslovakia. See Otto Luchterhand, “Organe des Staates zur Kontrolle der Kirchen. Die Religionsbehörden in kommunistischen Staaten,” in Herder Korrespondenz, 38/6 (Freiburg, 1984), p. 265.

37 Jozef Nechluwyl, “Zwischen Druck und Widerstand. Zur Lage der Kirche und der Christen in der ČSSR,” in Herder Korrespondenz vol. 33, no. 3 (Freiburg, 1979), p. 158.

38 Viktor Trstenský was born in 1908 in Trstená, ordained as a priest in 1931, arrested and sentenced to imprisonment in 1949, in 1951 convicted again for five years, released from prison in 1954, in 1958 convicted again for a fifteen-year imprisonment, granted an amnesty in 1960, in 1969 priest in Stará Ľubovňa. In 1974, after only five years, he was deprived of his permission to perform priestly ministry again and returned to be active as a priest no sooner than in 1989. For his merits, Pope John Paul II appointed him a papal Prelate in 1994. See Július Paštéka et al., Lexikón katolíckych kňazských osobností Slovenska (Bratislava: Lúč, 2000), p. 1412f.

39 Cf. Viktor Trstenský, Nemôžem mlčať, Contents (Bratislava, 1995), pp. 681–686.

40 Nechluwyl (1979), p. 158.

41 The Austrian radio station ORF described it as one of the most spectacular actions that ever occurred in a communist country. See Anton Hlinka, Sila slabých a slabosť silných (Bratislava, 1990), p. 134.

42 See “Skandal um Studentenausschluss in Bratislava,” in Slowakei. Kulturhistorische Revue, 17, 1979/80 (Munich), pp. 100–102. The article printed here was used by the Catholic News Agency (KNA).

43 Ibidem, p. 101f.

44 Rudolf Lesňák, Listy z podzemia. Súborná dokumentácia kresťanskej samizdatovej publicistiky na Slovensku v rokoch 1945–1989 (Bratislava: Lúč, 1998), p. 31.

45 Works by a poet, Janko Silan, a theologian, Pavol Strauss and an art historian, Ladislav Hanus, among others, were published for the first time in the Orientácia magazine. See Lesňák (1998), pp. 31–52.

46 Ján Šimulčík, Svetlo z podzemia. Z Kroniky katolíckeho samizdatu, 1969–1989 (Prešov: Michal Vaško, 1997), p.18.

47 Between 1969 and 1989, a total number of 23 Christian and 4 liberal periodicals were printed illegally in Slovakia. Šimulčík (1997), p. 24.

48 See Johanna Posset, Česká samizdatová periodika, 1968–1989 (Brno: Paseka, 1990), p. 180.

49 “Sekretariát pre šírenie ateizmu?,” in Svedectvo (samizdat), 2/1, 1988.

50 Lesňák (1998), p. 17.

51 See the Circular Letter Slavorum Apostoli by the Pope John Paul II addressed to bishops, priests, order communities and all the faithful in remembrance of the evangelising work of the Saints Cyril and Methodius 1100 years ago, 2nd June 1985, in Verlautbarungen des Apostolischen Stuhls, p. 65.

52 Vladimír Jukl, in Ján Šimulčík, Zápas o nádej. Z kroniky tajných kňazov 1969–1989 (Prešov: Michal Vaško, 2000), p. 60.

53 Kardinál Tomášek. Svědectví o dobrém katechetovi, bojácném biskupovi a statečném kardinálovi (Praha 1994), p. 110, ff.

54 For an elaborate description of the Velehrad pilgrimage see Václav Benda, “Jak dál po Velehrade?,” in Rozmluvy. Literární a filozofická revue, Nr. 6 (England: Purley, 1986), pp. 7–37.

55 Ibidem, p. 14.

56 Podnety katolíkov na riešenie situácie veriacich občanov v ČSSR. Also known as 31-Paragraph Petition (31 bodová petícia). The Slovak text printed in Jozef Žatkuliak ed., November 1989 a Slovensko. Chronológia a dokumenty 1985–1990 (Bratislava: Nadácia Milana Šimečku a Historický ústav SAV, 1999), pp. 185–187.

57 Cardinal’s letter printed in Ján Šimulčík, Čas svitania. Sviečková manifestácia – 25. Marec 1988 (Prešov: Michal Vaško, 1998), p. 25.

58 For the text of the Petition (in English) see George Weigel, The final Revolution. The Resistance Church and the Collapse of Communism (New York/Oxford, 1992), p. 239f.

59 This number was mentioned in a telegram of the Prague Archbishopric to the Commission of the Slovak National Council regarding the investigation of police attack on the congregation on 25 March 1988, Šimulčík (1998), p. 237.

60 In paragraph 29, a demand was made to modify several articles of the Constitution in the sense of the claims included into the petition. See Weigel (1992), p. 181.

61 Cf. Hlinka (1990), p. 184. See also Ján Šimulčík, Katolícka cirkev a nežná revolúcia (Prešov: Michal Vaško, 1999), p. 12.

62 Cf. Padraic Kenney, Karneval revoluce. Střední Evropa 1989 (Prague: BB/art, 2005), p. 54.

63 Komisia SNR na dohľad prešetrenia zásahu ZNB proti zhromaždeniu veriacich 25. marca 1988 v Bratislave.

64 A total number of 97 witnesses were interrogated. The documentation is archived in the Slovak National Archives. For more information about the commission’s work see Patrik Dubovský, “Sviečková manifestácia,” in Pamäť národa (Ústav pamäti národa), vol. 4, no. 1 (Bratislava, 2008), pp. 46–51.

65 The collection was published under a pseudonym that was used by Korec as a camouflage: R. V. Tatran, Bratislavský veľký piatok: Zbierka autentických dokumentov o zhromaždení veriacich 25. marca 1988, (no indication of place: no indication of publisher, 1988), p. 222. After November 1989, the book was two times reedited, firstly in 1994 and secondly in 2008 – on the 20th anniversary of the demonstration.

66 Šimulčík (1998), p. 275.

67 See Ako sa pripravoval 25. marec. In: Ján Čarnogurský, Videné od Dunaja. Výber z prejavov článkov a rozhovorov. (Bratislava: Kalligram, 1997), pp. 370–374.

68 The demonstration was announced by František Mikloško in a letter to the National Committee of the City of Bratislava on 10 March 1988. Printed in: Šimulčík (1999), p. 35.

69 Cf. Šimulčík (1999), p. 33.

70 The figures concerning the number of participants of the demonstration differ. Most probably, 3000–4000 people came to the Hviezdoslav Square by 5.15 p.m. Then, the square was cordoned off, forcing the other 8000–10 000 people to wait in the nearby streets and under the Bridge of the Slovak National Uprising. See Šimulčík (1999), p. 138.

71 The speech of the Minister of Culture was published in a Catholic informative leaflet by Samizdat. Here quoted after Šimulčík (1999), p. 158.

72 According to the statement of Ladislav Sádovský, the Head of the Department of Public Administration in the Central Committee of the KSS. See Šimulčík (1999), p. 49.

73 The letter was published in Šimulčík (1999), p. 46.

74 Šimulčík (1999), p. 139.

75 According to the report of the General Prosecutor’s Office of 31 January 1990. Šimulčík (1999), p. 137.

76 Der Kurier, 27.3.1988.

77 Die Presse, 28.3.1988.

78 Slovenský zväz ochrancov prírody a krajiny (SZOPK). See Mikuláš Huba, “Bratislava/ nahlas po dvadsiatich rokoch,” in Pamäť národa 4 (2007), p. 104.

79 Výňatky z publikácie Bratislava/nahlas In Jozef Žatkuliak ed., (1999), pp. 173–179.

80 Huba (2007), p. 106.

81 A lawyer, Ján Čarnogurský, a sociologist, Miroslav Kusý, a writer, Hana Ponická and a Catholic dissident, Anton Selecký.

82 A letter of Slovak opposition activists and intellectuals to the President on the suspension of the criminal trial against the members of the so-called “Bratislava’s Five” (30.8.1989). In Jozef Žatkuliak ed., (1999), p. 300, ff.

83 A letter of Slovak sociologists to the President (7.9.1989). In Jozef Žatkuliak ed., (1999), p. 302, ff.

84 Ibidem.

85 Cf. James Krapfl, Revolúcia s ľudskou tvárou. Politika, kultúra a spoločenstvo v Československu po 17. novembri 1989 (Bratislava: Kalligram, 2009), p. 23.

86 Ibidem.


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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Photo of the publication The Murder of Armenians – Armenocide – Genocide – Genocide Prevention [...]
Richard Albrecht

The Murder of Armenians – Armenocide – Genocide – Genocide Prevention [...]

20 August 2014
  • Great War
  • First World War
  • World War I
  • genocide
  • armenians
  • armenocide
  • Ottoman empire

The Murder of Armenians – Armenocide – Genocide – Genocide Prevention: Aspects of Political and Historical Comparative Genocide Studies



This article discusses the genocide of Christian Armenians in the late Ottoman times in World War I: the first historical “worldwide festival of death” (Thomas Mann), which has been denied in Turkey, the perpetrating country (Türkiye Cumhuriyetiz), until today. In his analysis of this first state-run “organized and planned genocide of the twentieth century” (Edgar Hilsenrath), the author, who is a social scientist, points out both the historical and conceptual context. Furthermore, he brings up the fundamental issues of remembrance, memory work, genocide, eliminationist racism, genocide policy, and genocide theory in the twentieth century.

Musa Dagh

In 1919, the Prague writer Franz Werfel (1890–1945) wrote the novella Not the Murderer (Nicht der Mörder, der Ermordete ist schuldig), released in 1920 by a publishing house specializing in Expressionist literature.2 The catchphrase the murdered is the guilty one from the title of the original German edition became almost a proverb in the Germany of 1920s. Even today, several generations later, it might appear as if Franz Werfel had developed his artistic vision to anticipate the “trial of Talaat Pascha”3 which took place a while later. A dozen years later it was again Franz Werfel who, in an artistic visionary overview, recognized and stressed the relationship between racism and genocide. After the handover, the takeover, and the exercise of power by National Socialists in Germany, starting on 30 January 1933, the author emphasized the necessity to “rescue the incomprehensible fate of the Armenian people from the depths of history” in the postscript to his novel The Forty Days of Musa Dagh (1933).4

In his statement the author draws our attention both to the central vanishing point of our memory (to “rescue” something, instead of leaving it in “the depths of history”) and to the specific “case” of “the Armenian people” and their “incomprehensible fate” during World War I, “far away in Turkey.”


Like “genocide” and “Holocaust,” the English word “Armenocide”5 is a coinage, made up from “Armenius cidere” and translated into German as Armenozid. It refers to the genocide of the Armenian religious, ethnic, and political minority in the Ottoman Empire during World War I. This was the first state-run genocide of the twentieth century. The word itself includes a reference both to the victims (Armenians) and to the murder (cidere). Unlike the much more well-known coinage “Holocaust” (holokaustos, lit.: “burned completely”), it does not indicate the form of the murder, even though it was more the Armenians who were burned alive during World War I, for instance in their churches, than the Jews, who were murdered on a massive scale in extermination camps, “factories of death,” in the occupied East during World War II.

Rudolph Rummel, a genocide scholar who applies quantitative analysis of victim statistics in “the Dismal Science of Authorized Terror” (Irving Louis Horowitz),6 gives a total victim count for the Armenian genocide in Turkey, “the first complete ethnic cleansing of this century.” He estimates it at around 1.883 million, i.e. almost 1.9 million people.7

Memory work

The historically-oriented social scientist, involved in theoretical reflection on political and sociological aspects of comparative genocide studies, empirical research, and scientific publications, is less interested in the (certainly relevant) ethical dimension of memory, which may stand for reconciliation, which includes the Christian sense of the word, or dealing with the essential consequences arising from the culture of impunity, which favors genocide and genocide denial. Instead, the focus here is on another memory-related dimension, the possible genocide prevention with regard to the lasting generational and biopolitical consequences of a real genoce event. Public memory here is an essential duty of art in general and narrative art in particular, in the form of novels and novellas, stories and poems, as shown by the example of Werfel’s novel Musa Dagh.

Aryans on paper

The relation between racism and the “genocide which Young Turks have on their conscience,”8 recognized by Franz Werfel, did not escape the notice of German “friends of Armenians” either. As Christians, they tried to draw a lesson from their subjectively perceived co-responsibility for Armenocide: the genocide of the Armenian religious, ethnic, and political minority in the Ottoman Empire during World War I. By a letter of 31 May 1933, the board of the German-Armenian Society, represented by Paul Rohrbach and Ewald Stier, led to the issuing of the decree of 3 July 1933 by the Reich Ministry of the Interior. According to the decree, Armenians in the Third Reich should not be considered, in the light of fascist ideology and its racist implementation, as “Semites,” but as “Aryans.” In an official letter of 31 August 1933 addressed to Stier, the “expert on racial matters in the Reich Ministry of the Interior” wrote: “In accordance with the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service, Armenians are to be considered Aryans.”9

Jews of the Orient

The German(-language) literature presented both an ambivalent image of Armenians as well as a stereotypical perception of them as “the Jews of the Orient” (long before the National Socialist eliminationist racism).10

The negative stereotype of Armenians was promoted by a German mass entertainer who remains popular to this day. In 1897 Karl May published his short story Der Kys-Kaptschiji, in which he presented the anti-Armenian stereotype as follows:

“One Jew outwits ten Christians; one Yankee outwits fifteen Jews; one Armenian is, however, worth one hundred Yankees; that is what some say, and I have found out that, even though this is an exaggeration, it is based on the truth. Those who travel to the Orient with their eyes open will agree with me. Wherever malice or treachery is planned, a hooked Armenian nose must be involved. Where even the unscrupulous Greek refuses to commit a villainy, there will certainly be an Armenian ready to earn the ignoble payment.”11

Anti-Armenian stereotypes were promoted in the 1920s in the form of the violent Armenophobia, with reference to the economic dominance in the Orient, by Halíde Edíb Adivar (1884–1964), a Young Turk ideologist and a popular author, known also in Germany for her 1916 novella Yeni Turan (translated into German as Das neue Turan – ein Frauenschicksal) and her 1924 novel Ateşten Gömlek (translated into German as Das Flammenhemd, and into English as The Daughter of Smyrna or The Shirt of Flame). What seems to be just a manifestation of the early Kemal12 was – and still is – nothing but an anti-human and life-threatening fascism-related ideology.

Eliminationist racism

Hitler’s conception of the world, shaped by the bitter hostility towards Jews, the panic fear of Bolsheviks, as well as his contemporary pseudo-scientific and pseudo-Darwinian racism, was neither original nor intellectually developed. It was essentially a convenient recapitulation of the right and far-right zeitgeist in the spirit of German power.

After the decision had been made about “who should live in this world and access its resources” and “which peoples should be annihilated because they were considered inferior or a hindrance to the winners”13 (Gerhard Weinberg 1995), Hitler, as a representative of the supposed master race, rehashed the eugenic racist stereotype of Armenians and Armenia in his so-called “Weltanschauung.”14 This has also been reflected in a few recorded anti-Armenian remarks made by Hitler in his table talks and conversations, according to which he talked several times about the “non-Aryan blood” of Armenians and the resulting distrust of them in the military policy.15

No elaborate, in-depth hermeneutical interpretation is needed to recognize that the last Reich Chancellor (and, at the same time, the first one “with a migration background”) had also internalized the stereotype of a sly and unreliable Armenian, “Jews of the Orient,” which was so widespread in Germany.

In the two volumes of Hitler’s political manifesto Mein Kampf,16 first published in 1925/26, no references to “the Armenian question,” “Armenians,” or Armenia can be found. Nevertheless, there are records of Hitler’s anti‑Armenian prejudice more than twenty years apart. Without a “solution to the Jewish question” the German people would be “a people like the Armenians”, remarked Hitler, a German völkisch racist, in 1922.17 As a fascist eliminationist racist in 1943, he is said to have emphasized in his “paranoid insanity”18 that peoples, if they “did not deliver themselves from the Jews,” would hit the bottom just “like the Persians, once a proud people, who now lived their miserable lives as Armenians.”19

The anti-human contempt of Armenians and the murderous hatred towards Jews, on the one hand, paired with an admiration for historical authority figures like Genghis Khan and the cruelty of his Mongolian army, and the approval of the twentieth-century Turkish proponents of power politics such as Enver and Kemal, on the other hand, constitute Hitler’s racist power-political ideology and the resulting powerful ideological policy of the National Socialist eliminationist racism.

The Terrible truth

Foreign observers of those times were aware of the “terrible truth” (furchtbare Wahrheit, Georg Glaser) of the relation between the Armenian genocide in Ottoman Turkey in World War I and the persecution of the Jews, which started as early as in the spring of 1933 and was formalized and legalized in 1935 by the implementation of the Nuremberg Laws, one of the steps leading to the genocide of European Jews in World War II. The German racial laws of 1935 reminded Eric Mills, the British Commissioner for Migration and Statistics in Palestine, of “the elimination of the Armenians from the Turkish Empire,”20 as he wrote in a letter to his superior.

On the eve of World War II, in February 1939, the exile executive committee of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SoPaDe) referred to the historical events while expressing their opinion about the persecution of the Jews in the Third Reich:

“In Germany, a minority is being inexorably exterminated, by the brutal means of murder, torturing to insanity, plundering, aggression, and starvation. What happened to Armenians in Turkey during the war is being exercised on the Jews in the Third Reich, more slowly and more systematically.”21


In 1944, Polish-American international law expert Raphael Lemkin (1900– 1959) defined a new word, genocide, referring to what for decades had been described as a “murder of a nation” (Völkermord):

“By ‘genocide’ we mean the destruction of a nation or of an ethnic group [...]. Generally speaking, genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation [...]. It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves. The objectives of such a plan would be disintegration of the political and social institutions, of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups, and the destruction of the personal security, liberty, health, dignity, and even the lives of the individuals belonging to such groups. Genocide is directed against the national group as an entity, and the actions involved are directed against individuals, not in their individual capacity, but as members of the national group.”22

In this context, not only the short-term goal of mass murders (“annihilating the groups themselves”) and the respective destruction plan are of relevance. It is the long-term strategic, biopolitical and intergenerational effects which are characteristic of genocide. This opinion, concerned with present actions which determine future developments, was phrased by Lemkin (1944) in the form of a definition:

“[...] genocide is a new technique of occupation aimed at winning the peace even though the war itself is lost.”23

This means that whoever loses a war may also be the winner, at a biopolitical level, of the postwar time (or, as Lemkin puts it, “peace”) for many generations. This is one of the dimensions of genocide, the relevance of which for the international law (ius gentium) was recognized by Lemkin as early as the 1930s. After World War II, in December 1948, Lemkin’s observations were also incorporated into the definition of the criminal act of international law, included in the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (Convention pour la prévention et la répression du crime de genocide; Konvention zur Verhinderung und Bestrafung des Verbrechens Völkermord).

The Holocaust before the Holocaust

In the preface to the French edition of The Forty Days of Musa Dagh (1986) by Franz Werfel, Elie Wiesel – a Jewish intellectual, an American author and a Nobel Peace Prize winner – wrote of the “Holocaust before the Holocaust.”24 This, however, was recognized in America much earlier, right after the end of World War II, when the publicist Joseph Guttmann wrote an article (1948, first published in Yiddish in 1946) that not only sought to recall the Young Turk genocide of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire during World War I, but also compared both genocides with regard to their main methods. He came to the main analytical conclusion that – prototypically – “the Armenian genocide” showed traditional features of a primitive mass slaughter, whereas “the Jewish genocide” was rather an implementation of a highly-organized industrial “scientifically”-founded mass murder plan in which gas chambers were used.25

Furthermore, as early as in 1946, Joseph Guttmann pointed out the destructive ways of developing forces of production. He considered the mass murders in genocidal factories in the militarily occupied East during World War II as a qualitatively new aspect of Nazi extermination camps. The massive destruction was in no way unorganized. On the contrary, it was a process, a series of carefully planned state-run murder actions against “Gypsies” (nowadays called Sinti and Roma) and other supposedly “antisocial” people, “burdensome, unproductive eaters” (1939–41). The extermination of millions of people, which started in the fall of 1941 and focused on the social group of European Jews, defined as “objective opponents,” went beyond the imagination of contemporaries, including many Germans. Today as well, there are many German contemporary historians who have considerable difficulty in the scientific understanding of the real genocidal event known as the Holocaust.


Hannah Arendt (1906–1975), the author of The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), whose German-language version Elemente und Ursprünge totaler Herrschaft was published in multiple copies and editions,26 made a pertinent point about the nature of genocide. In her book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963, German-language edition in 1964), Arendt considered genocide as a crimen magnum which leads to further massive genocidal crimes:

“[...] once a specific crime has first appeared, its reappearance is more likely than its initial emergence could ever have been.”27

This observation, so important to genocide prevention, was made by a political philosopher and intellectual of great importance and argumentative effectiveness. Despite these qualities, Hanna Arendt showed long-lasting ignorance as to the first planned and state-run genocide of the twentieth century. The “genocide of Armenians” was recognized and judged by contemporaries as the “Murder of a Nation”28 and the “destruction of the Armenian nation.”29 To this day, the Armenocide, also referred to as “Turkish Genocide”30 and “türkischer Völkermord”31 of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire during World War I, has been condemned by countries all over the world (but not by the present Republic of Turkey, Türkiye Cumhuriyeti, and its insular appendix Kuzey Kıbrıs Türk Cumhuriyeti). Uruguay was the first country to recognize the events as “genocide” (by decision of the Senate and the House of Representatives, 20.04.1965), followed by the United States (the House of Representatives, 09.04.1975), Argentina (the Senate, 05.05.1993), Canada (the House of Commons, 23.04.1996), and other countries. In the Federal Republic of Germany a unanimous decision was made by the Bundestag on 16.06.2005.32

In her report on Eichmann’s trial (1964), Hannah Arendt reminded of the “Armenian Tindelian” [in the (online) English book edition I used it is “the Armenian Tehlirian” – trans] in the context of a political assassination. She must have meant Սողոմոն Թեհլիրյան (1897–1960; Soghomon Tehlirian, also: Soromon Tehlerjan), “who, in 1921, in the middle of Berlin, shot to death Talaat Bey, the great killer in the Armenian pogroms of 1915, in which it is estimated that one third (six hundred thousand people) of the Armenian population in Turkey was massacred”33 The author also pointed out that the assassin was acquitted only a few weeks later, during a highlypublicized public trial. The total victim count for “the first complete ethnic cleansing of this century” (around 1.883 million Armenians murdered in the “genocidal cleansing of Turkey”34) was reduced in Arendt’s book by approximately two-thirds, which – along with the references to the assassin – is an example of a shocking lack of knowledge and ignorance. What is more, these indications emphasize the underlying fact which is relevant regardless of the specific situation with all the respective details: if there is no historical confirmation, we always face the risk of selective remembrance in the form of an “ideological memory” (una memoria ideológica), as opposed to the memory of witnesses to history (una memoria histórica, testimonial) as defined by Jorgé Semprun (1977).35 In his post-doctoral speech on 1 February 1989, the author of this article discussed the intergenerational and biopolitical effects of genocide policy:

“Contrary to the popular singularity claim for the genocide of European Jews in World War II, it is only the industrial form of the mass murder with the use of gas which that be considered unique. What is comparable, on the other hand, are the effects of genocide policy for generations of victims, as observed by Raphael Lemkin, and the fact that the genocide policy along with the irrevocable consequences of mass murders made it possible for the inferior firepower of the party of perpetrators to ensure a biopolitical victory, both in the First and the Second World War. [This biopolitical victory] being decisive for the destructive efficiency of genocide policy, the effects of which can still be seen several generations later.”36

Criticism of unique uniqueness

In the light of the uniqueness thesis, the Holocaust was a historical event with unique characteristics. For years, the thesis of its “unique uniqueness” or singularity had an impact also on the relationship between the genocide of the Armenians and that of the Jews, Armenocide and Holocaust, as the two historical genocides in the first half of the past century. In 1977, the historian, political advisor and publicist Klaus Hildebrand recapitulated this theory in a concise way. Not only did he focus more on the form of the genocidal murder than on its content, but he also revealed an ideological variety of the thesis: Theoriefeindlichkeit (the antipathy to theorizing), which builds on anti-Marxist ressentiments and is remarkably widespread in Germany, both among economists and contemporary historians:

“The far-reaching ‘measures’ – if we stick to the language of the regime – of genocide, ‘breeding trials’ and euthanasia programs which go beyond all functionality – that is the essential, singular feature of the Nazi racial policy. No general theory of ‘fascism’ can be expected to provide an accurate description of these measures or to allow us to understand them, if that is at all possible.”37

In Germany, the Holocaust-uniqueness theory was influential to such an extent that it resulted in the temporary tabooization of analytical comparisons and, consequently, impeded comparative (genocide) research. Furthermore, it led to the creation of victim classifications where Holocaust victims would belong to the first category, whereas Armenocide victims would be considered part of the second category.

The theory of the uniqueness of Holocaust is nonsensical on a linguistic level and unacceptable in historical research. Like its English equivalent, the German word Genozid is not a singulare tantum (the term for a noun which appears only in the singular form). On the contrary, it is a central category, a generic term for various “modern” historical genocides in the twentieth century. Hence, it cannot be considered as the unique characteristic of the Holocaust. Furthermore, the ideology of singularity is non-scientific and impedes research progress. Those who focus on the dialectics of the general and the particular, in the spirit of the principle of definitio per genus proximum et differentiam specificam, who do not shrink from arduous work and want to contribute to scientific knowledge, need to introduce preconditions and prerequisites for the purpose of scientific understanding, in order to make it possible to compare state crimes as forms of historical reality. The genocide of the European Jews, known as the Holocaust or Shoah (more rarely: Judeocide), which took place in the occupied East during World War II, was neither deprived of preconditions and unorganized, nor unique. On the contrary, the massive destruction of “lives not worth living” was a process, a series of carefully planned state-run murder actions:

“Forced sterilization, killing (genuinely or allegedly) sick children in hospitals, killing adult inmates of institutions with gas in medical killing centers (euthanasia), killing (genuinely or allegedly) sick inmates of concentration camps, and finally, the mass murders of Jews.”38

The “state-organized genocide”39 of 1941–1945 was not unique as such. It was rather the destructive forms of actual working forces’ development and the bureaucratic organization of the large-scale industrial mass murders in the “factories of death” in the occupied East during World War II that could be considered singular – as qualitatively new moments of the Nazi mass murder and genocide policy.

Genocide theory

In 2004, Micha Brumlik, the director of the Fritz Bauer Institute in Frankfurt am Main, tried to define the place of “the Young Turk mass murder of Armenians” in history more precisely in the light of the theory of genocide. According to Brumlik, what

“at first was only considered to be one of the many massacres of Armenian subjects, committed by Ottoman rulers, is seen until today as the paradigm of a ‘genocide’. That is why it is so crucial for both the European and the global development of a historically-aware culture of remembrance that the Kemalist Turkey [...] has not recognized the events as a genocide until today and, above all, sanctions all those who dare to think differently, at home or abroad. In the debate about the Young Turk genocide of Armenians, we can identify a number of problems and conflict areas relating to the notion [of genocide]. We could ask whether a planned crime of this kind is demonstrable in its full extent and its genocidal intentionality.”40

Furthermore, Brumlik observed that the war plays “a causal role in regard to the genocides of all kind” but, on the other hand, the term “genocide” denotes a specific form of a mass murder which is different from mass slaughter and wartime atrocities in general. Brumlik also noted that underlying each genocide is a racist ideology which provides a new “inclusion/ exclusion model” and is supposed to exonerate the perpetrators. He made the observation that each sociological theory of genocide also contributed to the “systematics of genocide prevention”. At the same time the author recognized that the events described as “the genocide of the Jews” (the Holocaust), which belonged to the historical German Sonderweg in the form of “totalitarian anti-Semitism,”41 had been presented as unique and singular for decades in German writing on postwar history.

From this perspective, Brumlik seems to offer a late recognition of the 1980 thesis developed by Irving Horowitz which considered totalitarian anti-Semitism as state-run eliminationist racism.

“Genocide is a national policy with adherents throughout the world, whereas the Holocaust was a specific practice of the Nazis which entailed the total murder of an entire population.”42

Future perspectives

The large-scale industrial extermination of millions of people, which started in 1941–42 and focused on the major social group of European Jews, defined as “objective opponents,” might have gone beyond the imagination of contemporaries, including many Germans. Today as well, there might still be many German contemporary historians who have considerable moral and intellectual difficulty in the scientific understanding of the real genocidal event known as the Holocaust.

The ideology of singularity or uniqueness was, and still is, not good – quite the contrary. Moreover, it rejects the tentative results of a relatively new research perspective: comparative genocidal research (internationale vergleichende Völkermordforschung).43 The proponents of such an approach want, in part, to overcome the problem of the miserable status of competing groups of genocide victims. This is possible, and the problem is being overcome increasingly, which is definitely a positive development. Following Hannah Arendt, past experiences may be perceived as a task for the future – one of genocide prevention, or as a “saving-lives” policy44 which applies to universal and indivisible human rights, as argued by the American genocide researcher Irving Louis Horowitz (1976). If that is the case, then there is only “one human right” in the end: Hannah Arendt’s (1949) inalienable “right to have rights,”45 or the Right to Life and the Physical Integrity (Grundrecht auf Leben und körperliche Unversehrtheit),46 accepted in the Federal Republic of Germany. According to Hannah Arendt, the right to life is the core of the human right to have rights. Or, as Heinrich Heine wrote while discussing diverse conceptions of history (1832/34), life as such is a right,47 also a right to revolutionary processes: “Life is neither means nor end. Life is a right.”


Richard Albrecht. Social scientist (graduated in 1971, PhD. in 1976, post-doctoral in 1988). First an outside lecturer (until 1989), now he works as an independent research journalist, editor and author in Bad Münstereifel, where he lives. In 1991 he published THE UTOPIAN PARADIGM. 2002/07; editor of the online magazine rechtskultur. de. 2011. His latest book is HELDENTOD. Kurze Texte aus Langen Jahren. Bio-bibliography: http://wissenschaftsakademie.net


1 The first publication of a speech delivered by the author on the “Remembrance Day for the Victims of the Armenian Genocide,” 24 April 2009, Armenian Community in Cologne. The printed version was slightly expanded and supplemented with footnotes.

2 Franz Werfel (1920), Nicht der Mörder, der Ermordete ist schuldig. Eine Novelle (Munich: Kurt Wolff, p. 269).

3 Der Prozess Talaat Pascha (1921). Stenographischer Bericht [...], m.e.Vorwort von Armin T. Wegner und einem Anhang (Berlin: Deutsche Verlagsgesellschaft für Politik und Geschichte, 136 p.); new edition, m.e.Vorwort von Tessa Hofmann (1985), Göttingen: Gesellschaft für bedrohte Völker, XI/136 p. (= progrom [typo? – trans.] series); Rolf Hosfeld (2005), Operation Nemesis. Die Türkei, Deutschland und der Völkermord an den Armeniern (Cologne: Kiepenheuer & Witsch, 351), pp. 13–31.

4 Franz Werfel ([1933]; 21959; 31985), Die vierzig Tage des Musa Dagh. Roman (Frankfurt/Main: S. Fischer, 808 p. [= Gesammelte Werke]); regarding the novel and ist impact: George Schulz-Berend, Sources and Background of Werfel’s Novel [...]; in: Germanic Review, 26 [1951] 2: pp. 111–123; Artem Ohandjanian, ‘Diese Sucht, zu erniedrigen...’ Über Franz Werfel und seinen Roman [...]; in: die horen, 35 (1990) 160: pp. 158–163.

5 Richard Albrecht, “Murder(ing) People. Genocidal Policy Within the 20th Century – Description, Analysis, and Prevention: Armenocide, Serbocide, Holocaust As Basic Genocidal Events During the World Wars,” in Brukenthalia, 2 (2012): 168–185; idem, «nous voulons une Arménie sans Arméniens» Drei Jahrzehnte Armenierbilder in kolonial-imperialistischen und totalitär-faschistischen Diskursen in Deutschland, 1913–1943; in Schweizerische Zeitschrift für Religions – und Kulturgeschichte, 106 (2012): pp. 625–661.

6 Irving Louis Horowitz, “Counting Bodies: the Dismal Science of Authorized Terror,” in Patterns of Prejudice, 23 (1989) 2: pp. 4–15.

7 Rudolph J. Rummel (2003), “DEMOZID” der befohlene Tod. Massenmorde im 20. Jahrhundert. Prefaces by Yehuda Bauer [and] Irving Louis Horowitz (Münster-Hamburg- London: LIT, xxiii/p. 383 [= Macht und Gesellschaft 1]), pp. 177–202; ibid. (1998), Statistics of Genocide. Genocide and Mass Murder since 1900 (Münster: LIT, ix/527 [= Macht und Gesellschaft 2]), pp. 78–101.

8 Johannes Lepsius, “Mein Besuch in Konstantinopel Juli/Aug. 1915,” in Johannes Lepsius (ed.) Orient. Monatsschrift für die Wiedergeburt des Ostens, 1 (1919) 1–3: 21–33.

9 Quoted after the bulletin of the German-Armenian Association e.V. (Berlin), 2.1938: 32; similar observations in subsequent issues; in his articles “Der Orient in Bewegung” (10.1940: 129–132) and “Armenier und Armenien” (15/16.1943: 193–197) Rohrbach later recalled the “radical elimination of Armenians” which started in 1915 in Constantinople and caused “one and a half million” casualties in World War I.

10 Hans-Lukas Kieser, “Die Juden des Orients. Die Armenier waren Träger von Fortschritt und Bürgerlichkeit. Die jungtürkischen Nationalisten verfolgten und töteten sie in blindem Haß”, in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (24.04.2005: p. 15); also earlier idem (2000), “Der verpasste Friede. Mission, Ethnie und Staat in den Ostprovinzen der Türkei 1839–1938” (Zurich: Chronos): pp. 504–508; online: http://www.hist.net/kieser/pu/a&j. html; cf. also http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anti-Armenianism [and] http://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antiarmenismo.

11 Quoted after Dominik J. Schaller (2002), “Genozid, Historisierung & Rezeption. Was kann die Analyse der Rezeption des Völkermordes an den Armeniern 1915 in Deutschland während der Jahre 1915–1945 zum Verständnis der Shoah beitragen?,” in Hans-Lukas Kieser/Dominik J. Schaller (eds.), Der Völkermord an den Armeniern und die Shoah (Zurich: Chronos); online version: http://www.hist.net/kieser/aghet/Essays/EssaySchaller.html.

12 Halidé Edíb, Memoirs (1926); (reprint 1972: New York: Arno Press, vii/472 p. [= World Affairs]); eadem (1928), The Turkish Ordeal(London: John Murray, ix/407).

13 Gerhard L. Weinberg (1995), Eine Welt in Waffen. Die globale Geschichte des Zweiten Weltkrieg (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1174 p.), quoted from page 16; for the information about the author, born in 1928 in Hannover, cf. the researcher‘s portrait of Hans-Heinrich Nolte, “Weltkrieg als Weltgeschichte: Gerhard Weinberg,” in Zeitschrift für Weltgeschichte, 2 (2001) 2: pp. 137–144.

14 Christian Geulen (2007), Geschichte des Rassismus (München: C. H. Beck [= wissen/ sr 2424], 128), 97/98; briefly about Hitler’s “Weltanschauung“: Marlis Steinert (1991), Hitler (Paris: Libraire Artheme Fayard, 710), pp. 166–211.

15 Henry Picker (1976), Hitlers Tischgespräche im Führerhauptquartier: mit bisher unbekannten Selbstzeugnissen Adolf Hitlers, Abbildungen, Augenzeugenberichten und Erläuterungen des Autors [...] (Stuttgart: Seewald [new edition], 548 [5.7.1942]); Werner Jochmann (1980, ed.), Adolf Hitler. Monologe im Führerhauptquartier 1941–1944. Die Aufzeichnungen von Heinrich Heims (Hamburg: Albrecht Knaus, 496), 136/137 [12.11.1941] and 370 [28.8.1942]; Helmut Heiber (ed. 1962), Hitlers Lagebesprechungen. Die Protokollfragmente seiner militärischen Konferenzen 1942–1945 (Stuttgart: DVA, p. 971 [= Quellen und Darstellungen zur Zeitgeschichte 10]): 12.12.1942.

16 Adolf Hitler (1939), Mein Kampf. Jubilee edition (Munich: Zentralverlag der NSDAP Fr. Eher Nachf., 705/XXIX p.); idem (1941), Mein Kampf. One-volume edition (München: Eher, 641.-645. edition, p. 782).

17 Eberhard Jäckel; Axel Kuhn (1980, eds.), Hitler. Sämtliche Aufzeichnungen 1905–1924 (Stuttgart: DVA, 1315 [= Quellen und Darstellungen zur Zeitgeschichte 21]), 557 [December 1922].

18 Sebastian Haffner, Anmerkungen zu Hitler ([1978] 1993) (Frankfurt/Main: S. Fischer, 158), 94; for further details about Hitler’s “career” see also Richard Albrecht (2007), ‘Wer redet heute noch von der Vernichtung der Armenier? Adolf Hitlers Geheimrede am 22. August 1939’ (Aachen: Shaker, 104 p. [= Genozidpolitik im 20. Jahrhundert 3], p. 104), pp. 5–8; 93–94 [preface and postface].

19 Der Prozeß gegen die Hauptkriegsverbrecher vor dem Internationalen Militärgerichtshof, Nuremberg, 14. November 1945 bis 1. Oktober 1946; Volume 2: p. 428.

20 Martin Gilbert (1986), The Holocaust: A History of the Jews of Europe during the Second World War (New York: Holt, Reinehart & Winston, 959), pp. 48/49.

21 Deutschland-Berichte der Sozialdemokratischen Partei Deutschlands, 6. Jg. 1939, No. 2 [February 1939], A 78: Die Judenverfolgungen; zum historischen Gesamtzusammenhang Mark Levene, “Why Is the Twentieth Century the Century of Genocide?,” in Journal of World History, 11 (2000) 2: 305–336; German-language version in: Zeitschrift für Weltgeschichte, 11 (2004) 2: pp. 9–37.

22 Raphael Lemkin (1944), Axis Rule in Occupied Europe; foreword George A. Finch (Washington [D. C.]: Carnegy Endowment for International Peace Division of International Law, xxxviii/674 p.), ix: Genocide, 79–95, p. 79.

23 Ibid., p. 81.

24 Franz Werfel (1986), Les Quarante jours de Musa Dagh; traduit de l’allemand par Paul Hofer-Bury; préface de Pierre Benoît et Elie Wiesel (Paris: Ed. Albin Michel [=Collection Les Grandes Traductions], p. 701).

25 Joseph Guttmann (1948), “The Beginning of Genocide. A Brief Account on the Armenian Massacres in the World War I” (New York, 19); first published in: Yivobleter [New York], 28 (1946) 2: 239–253; later a similar remark was made by Dr. Helmut Kohl (1987) when he was the federal chancellor: “This crime of genocide, with its cold inhuman planning and fatal efficiency is unique in the human history” (Tischrede [zu Ehren des Präsidenten des Staates Israel, 7.4.1987]; in: Presse – und Informationsamt der Bundesregierung, press report 111/97, 7.4.1987).

26 Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarism [1951]; the latest revised Germanlanguage new edition (1986): Elemente und Ursprünge totaler Herrschaft (Munich/Zurich: Piper, p. 758).

27 Hannah Arendt (1986), Eichmann in Jerusalem. Ein Bericht von der Banalität des Bösen. Aus dem Amerikanischen von Brigitte Gransow [...] (Munich/Zurich: Piper, new edition, 358), p. 322.

28 Arnold J. Toynbee (1917), Armenian Atrocities. The Murder of a Nation [...]; revised reprint edition, New York: Tankian, 1975, p. 127.

29 Johannes Lepsius “Mein Besuch in Konstantinopel Juli/Aug. 1915,” in Johannes Lepsius (ed.) Orient. Monatsschrift für die Wiedergeburt des Ostens, 1 (1919) 1–3: pp. 21–33.

30 Irving Louis Horowitz “Government Responsibilities to Jews and Armenians: Nazi Holocaust and Turkish Genocide Reconsidered,” in Armenian Review, 39 (1986) 1: pp. 1–9.

31 Martin Sabrow “Der Kampf der Erinnerungskulturen – Völkermorde als historiografische Herausforderung,” in: ibid. et al. (2005), Völkermorde und staatliche Gewaltverbrechen im 20. Jahrhundert als Thema schulischen Unterrichts (Ludwigsfelder-Struveshof: LISUM Bbg, 103), pp. 81–88.

32 A regularly updated list of the countries which have formally recognized the Armenian genocide is available on Wikipedia: Wikipedia DE.

33 Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem, 314/315 [the quote in the translated article is taken directly from the English edition of the book: http://reflexionesdeunaerreita.files.wordpress.com/2013/05/arendt-eichmann-in-jerusalem-a-report-on-the-banality-of-evil.pdf; no pagination available – trans.].

34 Rummel, “DEMOZID”: 177–202; Statistics of Genocide: pp. 78–101.

35 Jorgé Semprún (1977) Autobiografía de Federico Sánchez. Novela (Barcelona: Ed.Planeta, 347), pp. 240–241.

36 Richard Albrecht, “Die politische Ideologie des objektiven Gegners und die ideologische Politik des Völkermords im 20. Jahrhundert. Prolegomena zu einer politischen Soziologie des Genozid nach Hannah Arendt,” in Sociologia Internationalis, 27 (1989) I: pp. 57–88.

37 Klaus Hildebrand (1977), in Manfred Bosch (ed.), Persönlichkeit und Struktur in der Geschichte. Historische Bestandsaufnahme und didaktische Implikationen (Düsseldorf: Schwann, 175 p. [= Geschichtsdidaktik 1]): pp. 55–61.

38 Bernd Jürgen Wendt (2006), “Moderner Machbarkeitswahn. Zum Menschenbild des Nationalsozialismus, seinen Wurzeln und Konsequenzen,” in Burghart Schmidt (ed.), Menschenrechte und Menschenbilder von der Antike bis zur Gegenwart (Hamburg: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Dokumentation & Buch [= Geistes – und Kulturwissenschaftliche Studien 1]): pp. 157–176.

39 Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem, 321/322.

40 Micha Brumlik “Zu einer Theorie des Völkermords,” in Zu einer Theorie des Völkermords, in Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik, 49 (2004) 8: pp. 923–932; henceforth quoted after this.

41 Max Horkheimer; Theodor W. Adorno (1959), Preface, in Paul W. Massing, Vorgeschichte des politischen Antisemitismus [...] (Frankfurt/Main: EVA [= Frankfurter Beiträge zur Soziologie 8]): V–VIII.

42 Irving L. Horowitz (1980), Taking Lives. Genocide and State Power (New Brunswick [N. J.]-London: Transaction Books, xvi/199), p. 16.

43 For further reflections on the topic, see Richard Albrecht “Lebenskultur und Frühwarnsystem: Theoretische Aspekte des Völkermord(en)s,” in Sozialwissenschaftliche Literatur Rundschau, 28 (2005) 51: pp. 63–73; idem, ‘Völkermord. Zur Begriffsbestimmung eines Schlagworts’, in Zeitschrift für Weltgeschichte, 13 (2012) 1: pp. 73–76.

44 Irving Louis Horowitz (1976), Taking Lives. Genocide. State Power & Mass Murder (Transaction Books, 80 p.); Genocide and State Power (2002; Transaction Books, 5th, revised ed., foreword Anselm L. Strauss, ivx/447 p.); “Genocide and the Reconstruction of Social Theory: Observations on the Exclusivity of Collective Death,” in Armenian Review, p. 37 (1984) 1: pp. 1–21; “Government Responsibilities to Jews and Armenians: Nazi Holocaust and Turkish Genocide Reconsidered,” in: Armenian Review, 39 (1986) 1: pp. 1–9; ‘Counting Bodies: the Dismal Science of Authorized Terror’, in: Patterns of Prejudice, 23 (1989) 2: pp. 4–15; cf. the researcher’s portrait of Richard Albrecht, “‘Leben retten’: Irving Louis Horowitz’ Politische Soziologie des Genozid. Bio-bibliographisches Porträt eines Sozialwissenschaftlers,” in: Aufklärung und Kritik, 14 (2007) 1: pp. 139–141.

45 Hannah Arendt ‘Es gibt nur ein einziges Menschenrecht’, in Die Wandlung, 4 (1949): 754–770, 761; eadem, Elemente und Ursprünge totaler Herrschaft, 462.

46 Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany [List of fundamental rights], Article 2 (p. 2).

47 Heinrich Heine (1832/34), Verschiedenartige Geschichtsauffassung [Textfragment]; quoted after: Werke, Digitale Bibliothek 7, Berlin 2004 (CD-Rom) [translated by Frederic Ewen, Heinrich Heine The Romantic School and other essays, eds. Jost Hermand and Robert C. Holub 1985, p. 260 – translator’s remark].


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

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Photo of the publication The Great War and Its Consequences from a Swedish Perspective
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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Gihl, Torsten (1951) Den utrikespolitikens historia, Vol. IV (1914–1919) (Stockholm: Norstedt).

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Piotrowski, Bernard (2006) Tradycje jedności Skandynawii. Od mitu wikińskiego do idei nordyckiej (Poznań: Wydawnictwo Naukowe UAM).

Qvarnström, Sofi (2009) Motstandets berättelser. Elin Wägner, Anna Lenah Elgström, Marika Stiernstedt och första världskriget (Hedermora: Gidlund).

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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

Photo of the publication The Consequence of the System Transformation of 1989 in Poland
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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Photo of the publication The Christmas Truce of 1914 – Remembered in 2005. The staging of European similarities in the movie Merry Christmas – Joyeux Noël
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

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


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


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

Photo of the publication The Autumn of Nations: History Comes Back with a Bang: Oana Popescu
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.

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

Photo of the publication The Autumn of Nations – 25 years later: Brendan Peter Simms
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.