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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.

Photo of the publication The Autumn of Nations – 25 years after: Aviezer Tucker
Aviezer Tucker

The Autumn of Nations – 25 years after: Aviezer Tucker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[4] Solnik, Ibid, 229.




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

Article written as part of the Freedom Express project - an international social and educational campaign launched on the 25th anniversary of the “year of changes” – the year 1989. The project is organised by European Network Remembrance and Solidarity with the support of ministries of culture from Central European countries and in cooperation with many institutions dealing with the history of the 20th century.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

Article written as part of the Freedom Express project - an international social and educational campaign launched on the 25th anniversary of the “year of changes” – the year 1989. The project is organised by European Network Remembrance and Solidarity with the support of ministries of culture from Central European countries and in cooperation with many institutions dealing with the history of the 20th century.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

Article written as part of the Freedom Express project - an international social and educational campaign launched on the 25th anniversary of the “year of changes” – the year 1989. The project is organised by European Network Remembrance and Solidarity with the support of ministries of culture from Central European countries and in cooperation with many institutions dealing with the history of the 20th century.

Photo of the publication Sites of memory, sites of rejoicing. The Great War in Czech and Slovak Cultural History
James Krapfl

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

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


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

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

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

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

War and Memory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Czech and Slovak Experiences of World War I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Absurdity in the Austro-Hungarian Army

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

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

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

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

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

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

Synergy in the Czechoslovak Legions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alternative Memories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Death and the Morality of Memory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Photo of the publication Review: The Stockholm “Solidarity” Memoirs
Paweł Jaworski

Review: The Stockholm “Solidarity” Memoirs

20 August 2014
  • Solidarity
  • book review
  • Sweden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Photo of the publication Review: The Black Cross. Remembering the Victims of War – for Peace
Sabine Stadler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Every federal state in Austria has its own organization.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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


Photo of the publication Review: Patrick Pesnot, Russian Spies: From Stalin to Putin
Przemysław Furgacz

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

20 August 2014
  • Russia
  • book review
  • spies


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Photo of the publication Review: Jan Salm, The Reconstruction of Eastern Prussian Cities after World War I
Małgorzata Popiołek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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


Photo of the publication Review: Elisabeth Kübler, European politics of memory. The Council of Europe and the remembrance of the Holocaust
Jenny Wüstenberg

Review: Elisabeth Kübler, European politics of memory. The Council of Europe and the remembrance of the Holocaust

20 August 2014
  • Holocaust
  • book review
  • memory politics
  • Council of Europe

Elisabeth Kübler, European politics of memory. The Council of Europe and the remembrance of the Holocaust (Bielefeld: Transcript, 2012)
Elisabeth Kübler, Europäische Erinnerungspolitik. Der Europarat und die Erinnerung an den Holocaust (Bielefeld: Transcript, 2012)

As Elisabeth Kübler notes at the outset of her book, while memory studies has seen considerable development at the level of nation-states and comparative studies, the European level has been treated mostly in speculative essays or normative epilogues. Moreover, the plethora of studies on European integration and identity rarely question the meaning of the Holocaust in the context of the European project. Kübler’s Europäische Erinnerungspolitik. Der Europarat und die Erinnerung an den Holocaust [European Memory Politics” The Council of Europe and the Memory of the Holocaust] is one of the first efforts to examine memory at the transnational level in a comprehensive way and through a political-science lens. In her persuasively-argued and clearly-written study, Kübler takes stock of the memory politics occurring within and under the participation of the Council of Europe (CoE), which has been largely neglected by scholars of European integration. By placing the CoE in the context of both the existing research on European memory politics and its international environment, Kübler provides a wide-ranging overview of the relatively novel policy field of Holocaust remembrance in European institutions.

Based on numerous interviews with key actors, as well as a careful review of documents and publications issued by European institutions, Kübler paints a comprehensive picture of the institutional structures that shape European memory politics, the ideas that are promoted, and the policies that have emerged from this complex field. The book succeeds in offering a helpful introduction to the topic, while also making nuanced arguments about the political, educational, and normative agenda of the CoE. Moreover, Kübler critiques the focus of the CoE’s memory politics on (universalized) victimhood and a somewhat depoliticized emphasis on “European democratic citizenship.” Further virtues of this book are its straightforward organization, its clear language, and its sharp style of argumentation. While this book is a highly competent contribution to the field, it does have some weaknesses of omission. Its lack of attention to the practical and informal politics behind the official narratives of the CoE, as well as to the influence of memory discourses that compete with those of the Nazi past, are issues that might be addressed in future research.

Kübler’s first chapter lays out her central arguments, discusses the relevant terminology and the state of the research, and provides an overview of the development and work of the CoE. Kübler argues that close scrutiny of the CoE’s memory policies brings an enhanced understanding of how Holocaust remembrance has been shaped at the transnational level by the interplay of competing interests and ideologies. Like any other policy field, the implementation of Holocaust memory strategies is determined by institutional structures, funding priorities, and particular strategic interests. Kübler also identifies the important normative framework of “European citizenship,” according to which Holocaust remembrance serves to guide individual action in order to prevent the repetition of history and to shape a positive future for Europeans. While Kübler’s study, then, primarily offers detailed insights into the work of the CoE and other European organizations, she also shows that norms can play a determinative role in international affairs. Moreover, she demonstrates how “culture” can actively be made into an object of “policy field” creation. The author’s overall goal is to evaluate Holocaust memory politics in Europe through a traditional political-science lens. The book is an exploratory study that is concerned with the institutional context and the substantive focus of Holocaust remembrance policies of the CoE, as well as the image of “Europe” that is being promoted through it.

The second chapter is the most interesting and innovative: it provides a comprehensive “map” of transnational memory politics in Europe. Kübler discusses the most important international players in European memory politics and situates the CoE in the European institutional landscape, whose actors compete and cooperate, but rarely find a way to usefully complement each other’s work to join forces for the cause of Holocaust remembrance. Kübler is to be commended in particular for providing a clear overview of the European landscape of memory policy, while still bringing home the considerable complexity of structures and approaches at hand.

The third chapter provides an in-depth analysis of the specific memory policies of the CoE. Based on a Grounded Theory approach, Kübler carefully assesses documents, speeches, brochures and other items that have emerged from the CoE’s relevant programs, above all the “Teaching remembrance” project. The integration of memory policies into the CoE’s educational agenda profoundly shapes its character: the primary focus is the provision of training and the development of educational material for school teachers. In a highly critical section, Kübler examines the CoE’s programs for support and cooperation of the continent’s Romani population. The author argues that this is where all the components of the CoE’s agenda for Holocaust education are combined and put to the test in a practical sense.

Assessing the general nature of the CoE’s memory discourse, Kübler writes that Europe is presented as a project-in-the-making “that is based on the normative trio of the Council of Europe (human rights, rule of law, and pluralist democracy), as well as the admonition of Never Again” (p. 208, reviewer’s translation). The unifying narrative of these memory policies is the ideal of a European democratic citizenship through which the individual feels empowered to “make a difference.” Kübler rightly critiques this somewhat depoliticized reading of the meaning of Holocaust memory, which is not well suited to address the complicated questions about the reasons for persecution and of biographical entanglements in crimes against humanity. However, she also points out that the size of the CoE and the diversity of its member states make a more nuanced and critical approach to the Holocaust hard to achieve.

In a short conclusion, the author argues that the CoE’s concentration on human rights and democracy education through Holocaust remembrance means that it has an important contribution to make to the idea of European memory writ-large. The CoE is actively engaged in the building of a “European identity” by establishing a link between Holocaust memory and the individual notion of what it means to be “European.” A significant aspect of Kübler’s book is to show how such connections are built in a conscious and strategic way. Her work serves as a case study of how culture and individual identification can be created strategically and through policy mechanisms. Of course, as Kübler points out, it remains to be seen how effective such policies are on the ground. The reception of transnational memory initiatives is an important arena for future research.

While this book is a much-needed and innovative addition to the literature on European and transnational memory, it remains too closely wedded to the official narrative issued by these institutional actors. In other words, Kübler expertly answers the who, what, and where of the CoE’s memory politics, and thereby does much to enhance our understanding of these transnational processes. However, what she neglects to examine is the how: How is European memory negotiated on the ground and on what (sometimes unspoken or unofficial) interests, agendas, or identities is it based? Such considerations do appear in the book, but they are not well developed. One burning question, for instance, is why Holocaust remembrance policies – if they are indeed as important as political leaders would have us believe – are so chronically underfunded. The CoE’s core program, “Teaching remembrance,” must make do with an annual budget of 15,000 Euro (p. 78). It would be fascinating to find out more about the everyday politics and boundaries of European politics that prevent the adequate financing of Holocaust memory.



Jenny Wüstenberg. A political scientist currently living and working in Berlin, Germany. After receiving PhD in Government & Politics from the University of Maryland, College Park in 2010, she taught at the School of International Service at the American University, Washington D. C. From 2012–13 she was a postdoctoral fellow at the Free University of Berlin, before becoming a Research Associate working with the “Independent Academic Commission at the Federal Ministry of Justice for the Critical Study of the National Socialist Past.” Dr. Wüstenberg’s research interests include German, European, and comparative politics, as well as memory cultures, civic activism, and qualitative methodology.


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 Relations between the Federal Republic of Germany and the Peoples’ Republic of Poland [...]
Burkhard Olschowsky

Relations between the Federal Republic of Germany and the Peoples’ Republic of Poland [...]

20 August 2014
  • 1989
  • Poland
  • Solidarity
  • Germany
  • National Round Table

This article investigates the political relations between Poland and the Federal Republic of Germany at the end of the 1980s branded by the tumultuous events which took place in Poland at that time. These events included, among other things, amnesty for political prisoners, the Round Table talks between Solidarity and the authorities as well as the establishment of democratic government – a novelty in Poland and in the countries of the Eastern Bloc since World War II. New archive documents shine a fresh light on the negotiations between the two countries concerning a series of economic, political, ethnical and cultural topics, and depict the changes of underlying political conditions in Poland. This paper seeks to analyze the intentions and the bilateral engagement of the negotiating parties, in particular, Helmut Kohl and Tadeusz Mazowiecki, on the background of the radical changes of 1989.

In the beginning of the 1980s, despite the American sanction policy and the “cold times” in relations between global superpowers, Polish relations with the Federal Republic of Germany were kept safe from severe damage. Bonn proved to have been far from ready to subordinate its trade interest and relaxing policy to a tightly construed alliance solidarity with the US. The relation of the Federal Republic of Germany to the Peoples’ Republic of Poland differed in several aspects from Warsaw’s relations with other Western countries. Contrary to the US and Great Britain, Bonn restrained itself from criticism against the introduction of martial law in Poland on 13 December, 1981 and rejected both trade and industry sanctions towards this economically wounded land between the Oder and Bug rivers, considering it a punitive and controversial instrument regarding its actual effectiveness. With three quarters of Poland’s debt, the Federal Republic could count itself as by far the greatest creditor in the “West” among the countries of the “Paris Club.”1 The requirement of genuine economic reforms enabling Poland to repay its debts in the medium term was one of the constant postulates in the Eastern policy of Helmut Kohl’s government.

The relations, as measured by the expectations of both parties, reached a period of stagnation after the repealing of martial law in the summer of 1983. Warsaw hoped for close economic cooperation mostly through granting high unbound loans. Bonn was basically prepared to support Poland, yet – after the experience of the rampant loan policy of the 70s – demanded improved economic framework conditions, which in practice meant the implementation of economic reforms and real prospects for the repayment of open credits.2

Apart from the economic fixation of Poland on the Federal Republic of Germany, the variety of bilateral contacts constituted yet another unique characteristic of their relations – Poland was visited by both the parties represented in the German Bundestag and the representatives of federal states. They had often specific contact persons to turn to and adjusted their own Polish policy agendas accordingly. The special character of those relations originated also from the past events of World War II – not only from the approach to the formerly Eastern German territories, now belonging to Poland, but also from the German specificity as a two-state country and the question of its reunification. Although the Federal Republic had no common border with Poland, as opposed to the GDR, the question of the border on the Oder and Neisse rivers became an unexpectedly current issue in the relations between Eastern Germany and Poland in the late 1980s.

According to many Christian Democrats, complete peace rested not only on external peace, but was also based on a “stable blueprint for long-lasting peace in Europe, which would return personal, unionistic and political human rights to our Eastern neighbours.”3 This standpoint expressed by Alois Mertes, the parliament’s Secretary of State in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was an essential prerequisite to link the German and Polish questions and to seek communication with Solidarity representatives. On 30 June 1983, Artur Hajnicz, a journalist and Mazowiecki’s confidant, came to Bonn to have a long conversation with Mertes and to meet the Federal Chancellor. Apart from Poland’s internal political situation, the host was particularly interested in the opinion of the opposition on the German question. The message provided by Hajnicz was short and precise: Solidarity supports the reunification in the first place, but also the unconditional recognition of the Oder-Neisse border. The major part of the Polish opposition advocated for the aim of German unity within the borders of both German states.4

Soon after Mikhail Gorbachev appeared on the political stage, these issues gained unsuspected momentum. According to Dieter Bingen, the Jaruzelski Team soon realized “that Gorbachev’s European offensive threatens the status quo, which means that the communist German policy could reach an impasse in no time. Gorbachev’s idea of a common home could hardly be harmonized with the Polish defensive status quo orientation. What by now seemed to be a closed German chapter for the communist regime remained an open issue for the oppositional groups in Poland which, from the perspective of Polish national interest, still had to be solved. The leaders of the Polish opposition represented a combination of bold and realistic reasoning, thus supporting the German federal considerations on the European and German unification process, beholding no threat for the Polish state.”5

The policy towards Poland presented by the Christian-liberal federal government under Helmut Kohl’s leadership was characterized in the 1980s by the actual continuation of Willy Brandt’s Eastern policy and, on the other hand, by the emphasis on the legal position concerning the former German territories across the Oder-Neisse border. Under international law, these areas still belonged to Germany as long as there were no regulations provided in a peace treaty with the Big Four. This split was supposed to politically bind the right wing of the Union parties including the expelled Germans. Helmut Kohl felt obliged not only by the content of the Treaty of Warsaw 1970. Also Genscher, backed by Kohl during his meetings with Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs, Marian Orzechowski, President of the State Council, Wojciech Jaruzelski and the assistant Marshall of the Polish Sejm, Mieczysław Rakowski, solicited for trust and encouraged the Polish government to pursue economic reforms and take pragmatic approach towards the German minority. The simultaneous attention dedicated to the group of actively operating expelled Germans was politically transparent and troublesome in terms of the atmosphere of bilateral relations, yet, at no moment did it change the operative foreign policy. Contrary to social democrats, right-wing politicians gave more attention to the Polish opposition and some of their mentors were unanimous with the Solidarity standpoint that there is a need to strive for German unity within a European peace order. That aim, together with the linkage with the Western Europe democracies, would help Poland to free itself from the strategic predicament between Germany and the Soviet Union.6

Eventually, the liberal and Christian democrats were even more unsuccessful in their policy towards Poland than the social-democratic governments a decade previously. This situation was caused not only by the stiff attitude of Jaruzelski’s team. The Polish demand for new loans was opposed to the federal German wish to open consular offices in Cracow and Wrocław (Breslau), and to establish a German Cultural Institute in Warsaw. Poland objected to the proposal of Breslau as regards the name and place for the consular office. Finally, the establishment of a German Cultural Institute failed due to the objection of the GDR, which maintained its own Cultural Institute in Warsaw and sought to avoid a more attractive competition. The recognition of the German minority in Upper-Silesia and the compensations for Nazi forced labourers were considered a particularly tender spot in bilateral relations.7

After his triumph in the elections to the German Bundestag in 1987, the reelected Chancellor Kohl assured that he would revive relations with Poland and make it a priority of his third term. This declaration was insofar interesting as the relations between Western Germany and Poland had remained in stagnation since the beginning of 1980s, even though the Federal Republic had adopted a softer approach towards Jaruzelski’s team than towards the US and Great Britain. The Christian-liberal government exercised a pragmatic attitude towards bilateral problem solving. The Polish side, however, interpreted the diplomatic standstill as a lack of goodwill. Several delays of the long planned visit of Hans-Dietrich Genscher had repeatedly given the Polish government a reason for such an assumption.8

The amnesty for Polish prisoners announced in autumn 1986 and the removal of economic sanctions by the Reagan administration in 1987 opened new options to the federal German parties for the design of Eastern policy. Social democrats still maintained regular contacts with the Polish opposition, which could also be accounted for by the fact that Willy Brandt was replaced by Hans-Jochen Vogel in the chairmanship of the party.9 Henceforth, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Genscher, wanted to combine his official visit in Poland with a meeting with the representatives of Solidarity, yet the Polish regime declined.

Both parties had great expectations towards the official visit of the German Minister of Foreign Affairs, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, in Poland, which took place on 10–13 January 1988. Warsaw hoped for economic support whereas Bonn was planning to open a new chapter of bilateral relations. The two neighbouring countries established three working teams: for Disarmament and Policy, for Economy and for the remaining bilateral issues, which was deemed a true achievement.10

However, the conversation between Genscher and Jaruzelski was not really calculated to open a new phase in the relations between Western Germany and Poland – the dissensions were too significant. Jaruzelski was interpreting the tense relations in his own manner. He reproached the Federal Republic for its participation in the NATO sanctions against Poland in January 1982. He claimed that it was the reason why the Polish national economy suffered a 14-billion-dollar loss and urged that it was time for the federal government to draw on the good relations from the 1970s as if it was the Federal Republic’s obligation towards Poland. Finally, Jaruzelski took exception to the coverage of the Polish visit on the German World Service (Deutschlandfunk) radio calling it biased and criticized the meeting between Hans-Dietrich Genscher and Lech Wałęsa. For years, Polish authorities had been trying to present Lech Wałęsa as an externally manipulated or politically insignificant private person and isolate him. Genscher dismissed the accusations explaining the cause and effect as well as the reference to the freedom of press, and did not let anyone dissuade him from the meeting with the former chairman of the Solidarity trade union.

Although the leaders of the Polish United Workers’ Party still disapproved of this kind of meeting, they were unable to prevent them. An internal paper issued by the Party in February 1988 concerning the meeting of Western politicians with Polish oppositionists measured out the pros and cons of the meeting practice. The expansion of contacts with the West strengthened Poland’s international position: it could present itself as a tolerant country which, owing to its stability, was even able to afford a legal opposition. On the other hand, the opposition was “strengthened and stimulated in its destructive, anti-constitutional actions”. Hence the official policy became “preposterous”, “exposing the internal strife” of numerous Poles. The authors of the paper came to the conclusion that the advantages of the meeting practice of that time prevailed.11

The talks with the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Marian Orzechowski, proceeded in a more positive manner. According to Genscher, the Treaty of Warsaw from 1970 expressed what the governments and people in both countries strived for: a new start into a better future. Genscher left no doubt about the validity of the Treaty as a core element of the social-liberal Eastern policy. The answer of Orzechowski, who as a historian occupied himself intensely with the history of Silesia in the 1970s,12 was at that moment remarkable. He seized on Genscher’s words about the “historical and moral dimension” and indirectly acknowledged the fate of Germans, who lost their homeland. Therefore, the Polish side recognized for the first time the expulsions and the historical and political problem of Poland, however, not attaching it to the right of domicile.13

The issue of the German minority traditionally remained for Polish authorities a trouble area they wanted to avoid and the existence of which they bluntly denied for a long time. If nothing else, this approach was rooted in Bonn’s ambiguous statements on the unchanged validity of the 1937 borders – the way Friedrich Zimmermann, the Minister of Internal Affairs from the Christian Social Union14, expressed it in 1983.15 This immediately triggered Warsaw’s open statements of fears concerning possible alterations of the Oder-Neisse border. In the opinion of the Polish negotiators, Polish concession concerning the German minority would undermine the ethnical integrity and thus the territorial sovereignty of the country, indirectly strengthening revisionist requests in the environment of the expelled associations.16

During his visit to Poland, Hans-Dietrich Genscher met in the German embassy with 12 members of the DFK (Deutscher Freundschaftskreis), established in the middle of the 1980s. The Germans, residing mostly in Upper Silesia, handed the Minister a petition in which they expanded on the discrimination of that group in Poland.170 The Polish party reacted to the meeting with dismay; the free development of cultural and linguistic traditions Bonn had hoped for was still unthinkable at the beginning of 1988.18

Genscher’s encounter with Lech Wałęsa, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, Bronisław Geremek and Janusz Onyszkiewicz during the first official visit of the German Minister of Foreign Affairs in Warsaw after the imposition of martial law was more than just of symbolic importance. In that conversation, Wałęsa requested economic support for Poland, which was supposed to depend on progress in respecting human rights in Poland. On the one hand, Genscher’s aim was to oppose the impression of relying one-sidedly on the readiness of the authorities to introduce reforms. On the other hand, Genscher could “unvarnishedly” gather information regarding the internal political situation of the neighbouring country and the opposition’s foreign policy ideas. Moreover, the federal government ostentatiously set an example for the support of a consistent democratization process in Poland.

or federal politicians the meetings were at times both enlightening and disconcerting. The abovementioned four politicians of the opposition brought forward the issue of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and breathed a wish for the Federal Republic to withdraw it together with the additional secret protocol in a purely moral gesture towards Poland. Genscher was listening, bewildered, and did not comment. Later his side claimed that “he didn’t want to enrage Poles against the Soviet Union.”19 Yet bringing up this subject was not accidental. The debate on historical and political taboos was far more advanced in Poland than it was in its neighbouring countries, although the subjects of the fourth partition of Poland 1939 and the murder of Polish officers in Katyń were two of the most frequently discussed matters. These historical and political as well as moral issues, not acknowledged in bilateral relations thus far, entered official policy through the Polish opposition and media.

The negotiations of financial and economic issues, so important for Polish authorities and their existence in view of the dramatic indebtedness and lacking innovation in Polish industry, were symptomatic of the stagnating relations between Bonn and Warsaw. Warsaw was desperately dependent on new unbound loans from the federal German banks, state loans and investments as well as on contractual regulation of old debts. In return, Bonn demanded an agreement on investment protection, environmental issues as well as scientific and technical cooperation.20

The difficulties in negotiations were based on different expectations: Poland was gradually solving political questions depending on the extent of German concessions in the economic area, but most of all on loan extensions. For the Federal Republic the situation was exactly the opposite. Moreover, Western German bankers and industrialists were sceptical concerning new loans for Poland, notwithstanding the fact that the country could barely redeem the loans from the 1970s. As Minister of Foreign Affairs, Orzechowski, had already visited Bonn between 6 and 8 April 1986, and the German party made it clear that the new financial support was conditional upon exact indications and calculations regarding the purpose of loans and the form of debt redemption in order not to repeat the mistakes committed in the 1970s. The information provided by the Polish party was less than insufficient, resembling economic platitudes mixed with wishful thinking about future economic relations. Jaruzelski engaged himself personally and urged the Prime Minister, Zbigniew Messner, to have a demand profile and exact calculations prepared by particular ministries and the directors of combine enterprises. The result was disillusioning: it revealed the system-determined planning inability within the Polish national economy.21

The three newly established working groups helped to rectify and prevent the paucity of information concerning Polish economic data, yet a breakthrough in negotiations did not come. There were also no players in the political environment who could create trust despite the complicated circumstances. Diplomatic relations between the Federal Republic of Germany and Poland were fostered by the annual German-Polish forum. Poland was represented mostly by the PUWP scientists and journalists. On the German side, the talks were attended also mostly by scientists such as the history professor, Hans-Adolf Jacobsen. More importantly, politicians such as Hans-Dietrich Genscher and Volker Rühe, deputy Chairman of the Bundestag fraction of the CDU/CSU, used the forum to communicate their concerns, rightly assuming that they would reach Jaruzelski and the Polish authorities. In this way, Mieczysław Rakowski, a publicist and Deputy Marshall of the Polish Sejm, Władysław Markiewicz, a sociology professor and chairman of the German-Polish commission for school books, and Ryszard Wojna, a journalist and member of the Polish parliament, as the Polish chairmen of the forum could make an effort to work towards closer relations with the Federal Republic, which obviously displeased Wiesław Górnicki, a journalist and consultant to Jaruzelski, an influential personality, traditionally critical towards Germans.22

The impact of the efforts taken by Rakowski, Markiewicz and Wojna was limited also because the generals, including the Minister of Internal Affairs, Czesław Kiszczak, and the Minister of Defence, Florian Siwicki, perceived the Federal Republic through the German Federal Armed Forces. They considered it to be an expression of American interests in Europe and a direct adversary of the Polish army. A policy deprived of old stereotypes, avoiding even occasional conjuring of German revanchist ideology, thus building the psychological foundations for a reconciliation, had too few advocates among the members of Polish authorities and the leading party.23

As far as the German party was concerned, such personalities as Berthold Beitz, for decades a chief representative of the Krupp company, or Karl Dedecius, translator and founder of the German Poles Institute, campaigned for an improvement and assisted Genscher, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, in his official visit to Poland. The German political and parliamentary sphere was almost devoid of people who knew Poland well, let alone those who mastered the Polish language, which hindered permanent work on the improvement of bilateral relations. The officials from expellee associations and the CDU/CSU Bundestag deputies, such as Herbert Hupka and Herbert Czaja, were suspicious about the meetings with Polish government representatives as long as the situation of the German minority did not improve. On the one hand, the Federal Chancellor, Kohl, devoted much attention to Germans in Poland, also taking into consideration the conservative milieu in the Christian Democratic Union of Germany. On the other hand, he proved to be open to expert opinions. Therefore, at the end of February 1989, he assigned Hans Koschnick, the mayor of Bremen from the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), known for his good contacts with Poland since the 1970s, to sound out the situation before his planned journey to Poland and to invest in trust for the dialogue partners from Warsaw.24

Additionally, since the establishment of Solidarity, Polish negotiators could hardly speak for all of Polish society, which aggravated the situation even more. They had no credentials. After the official visit of Hans-Dietrich Genscher to Poland, the meetings with the Polish opposition became a common practice for federal German politicians during their visits in the neighbouring country, especially since the Polish opposition was represented by such great intellectuals as Stanisław Stomma and Tadeusz Mazowiecki, who had been involved in a dialogue and a Christian-based reconciliation with the Eastern and Western Germans for decades.

Despite the efforts of the three working groups, bilateral talks advanced with difficulty. It was due to the negotiations concerning the investment protection agreement, since the parties were unable to decide on a common wording with respect to German citizenship. On the basis of political considerations regarding the past, Poland refused to accept the broad definition of blood-related “Germans” (ius sanguinis) present as a legal requirement in federal German nationality law until 1999. Cooperation in science and technology faltered due to the fact that Polish negotiating partners were unwilling to integrate with West Berlin institutions. The establishment of a general consulate remained impossible because the German party wanted to use German names of the now Polish territories in the definition of the jurisdiction included in the documentation. Above all, the names of former German cities on Polish territory were not accepted by the Polish party who additionally suspected Germans of a “revisionist” attitude.25

Until the end of 1988 negotiations in the three working groups brought no expected results. The Polish party complained about the allegedly absent will to cooperate on the German side and about destructive behaviour when the German press reported on the ongoing talks. There was some progress in other areas: the youth exchange and the cultural cooperation of both countries had apparently experienced a revival. The ongoing exodus of numerous Poles (in part with German ancestry) to the Federal Republic was allowed, of course, without conceding that there was a German minority in Poland. Polish negotiators cautiously opened to the subject of German resistance, in case of irrefutable evidence, such as the one regarding Krzyżowa/Kreisau.

Additionally, the negotiating range in Warsaw was internally elicited. This included cooperation with relevant organizations like “Volksbund deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge” on the historically fragile question of German war graves. “German minority” remained an unchangedly delicate subject. Due to the fact that this issue was frequently bespoken during the talks and that it was personally important for the Federal Chancellor, Kohl, the Polish side contemplated a sign of goodwill for further negotiations. In a conversation with Dieter Kastrup, a political director in the Federal Foreign Office and Genscher’s negotiator for difficult diplomatic missions, the facilitation of German language classes in the Opole-Silesia was conceded as a possible sign of benevolence – the classes had been practically prohibited to the German minority in this area for more than 40 years. According to the negotiating directive, further steps on the subject of the German minority had to be coordinated with the “highest authority“, which meant with Wojciech Jaruzelski personally, and what is more, they were tied with a notable complaisance in financial issues on the German side.26

During the preparations for the meeting of Tadeusz Olechowski.27, Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs, with Hans-Dietrich Genscher on the margins of the UNO plenary assembly in New York on 26 September 1988, the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs came to the conclusion that the negotiations in the working groups had failed. The lack of perspective for Polish financial and economic policy was dramatic. The economic situation of the country was increasingly worsening, which was reflected in galloping inflation, so painfully perceptible by each and every Pole. At the end of 1988 it reached 60 per cent.28 Additionally, new strikes emerged in Poland in April and May as well as in August 1988. The strikes of early spring were violently suppressed, which was broadly and negatively commented on by the German media. Federal diplomacy restrained from critical comments. Social democrats were openly worried about the violence used recently against the strikers, as were the Confederation of German Trade Unions (DGB) and the governor of Rhineland-Palatinate, Bernhard Vogel. His friend from the same party and CDU’s Secretary General, Heiner Geissler, made it clear that the actions were a violation of basic human rights.29

In October 1988, given the economically and politically chaotic situation, Prime Minister Zbigniew Messner was replaced by the eager to act and politically skilful Mieczysław Rakowski. A year before, the latter wrote a 60-page‑long analysis of the situation where he addressed, in an unusually obvious way, not only the economic and technological but also political weaknesses of the country.30 He did this also being convinced that he was able to find solutions to the crisis. From the perspective of foreign policy he hoped that the good contacts with the Federal Republic he had built up when he was chief editor of the magazine “Polityka” would prove to be useful for economic support. From 20 to 23 of January 1989, Rakowski visited the Federal Republic of Germany on the occasion of the 75th birthday of Willy Brandt, for which Richard von Weizsäcker invited a small number of Brandt’s friends to Villa Hammerschmidt. In a long conversation with Helmut Kohl, both politicians expressed the wish to open a new chapter in bilateral relations and reach swift results. Rakowski made a few substantial concessions in political issues which were important for Bonn (youth exchange; the establishment of the Goethe Institute, German minority associations and consular offices in Hamburg and Cracow, etc.) in order to settle the repayment of the so-called jumbo-loan amounting to billions in form of a “zlotysation”, which meant the assignment of monies in Poland, e.g. to “joint ventures”. Moreover, the conversation resulted in the dissolution of the three working groups assigned a year earlier and in the appointment of the Head of the Foreign Policy Division in the Office of the Federal Chancellor, Horst Teltschik, as the Personal Commissioner for the Development of the German-Polish Agreements. Rakowski assigned the same function to the Head of the Foreign Affairs Division of the Central Committee of the PUWP, Ernest Krucza, a native-born Upper Silesian and a specialist in German issues. Hence the Federal Foreign Office got left out.31

The negotiations between Personal Commissioners overlapped the Round Table talks between Solidarity and the government taking place from 6 February until 5 April, 1989. Contrary to what the Polish side apprehended, the talks which altered the political foundations of the country had no direct impact on the bilateral negotiations, yet they created an unusual atmosphere, especially for Rakowski’s government. At the beginning of the negotiations, at the end of January 1989, the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs suspected that the German negotiating partners were delaying the solution of the economic problems waiting for a Solidarity government with which they could make arrangements.32

Horst Teltschik stressed Kohl’s personal interest in the German minority. A solution to this problem would speed up the resolution of the remaining open issues. According to Teltschik, the Federal Chancellor would have been confronted with little understanding for his possible engagement in the “Polish” issues in his own party and government, if, after his visit to Poland, he had been unable to show a presentable achievement in negotiations concerning the cultivation of German culture and language in Poland – in accordance with the regulations of the Vienna Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. Despite all the concessions on the cultivation of German culture and language in Poland, the term “German minority” remained unacceptable for Ernest Krucza and the Polish government.33

The Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs rejoiced that, in consequence of the new political situation in Poland defined by the admission of Solidarity and the (semi)free elections planned for 4 June, 1989, Western countries changed their approach towards Poland and indicated their readiness for economic support. Henceforth, the Federal Republic of Germany lost its leading role in the normalization of relations with Poland. Warsaw erroneously inferred from these circumstances that from now on Bonn would be put under pressure by other Western capitals to reach certain outcomes in negotiations with Warsaw. Polish diplomacy perceived itself, particularly before the upcoming 50th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II, as morally strengthened to achieve economic concessions from the Federal Republic, yet together with other Western countries.34

The outcome of the Round Table talks, being an unprecedented example of peaceful transformation from dictatorship to democracy, left a lasting positive impression in the West. Teltschik revealed to his Polish pendant that standby-loans were to be expected from the US and France. The “Paris Club” also wanted to participate in the restructuring of the liabilities due in 1989. According to Teltschik, 520 million German marks from the jumboloan were to be frozen, the rest was to undergo “zlotysation” for bilateral projects possibly agreed on in the future, also in the area of culture and environmental protection. For Helmut Kohl a three billion Hermes guarantee expected by Mieczysław Rakowski was unrealistic. It could only be a smaller, tightly outlined loan for machines, jointly coordinated investment projects and “joint ventures.” For Poland, taking into consideration its enormous financial problems, the proposal was far below expectations. The trust that was lacking in the Polish economy after the bad experiences of the 1970s and the uncertainty about the results of the election of June 4, made the federal government cautiously wait. The hope cherished by Warsaw that Bonn’s political concessions made at the beginning of the negotiations would imply economic compromise dissipated leaving only discontent. It was symptomatic that Kohl’s official visit in Poland, initially planned for May, then for July, was finally delayed until late Autumn 1989.35

The negotiations and, even more so, the development of the situation in Poland were closely observed by the relevant German parties and the media. The Round Table talks in Warsaw closed successfully on 5 April, 1989 giving the country a completely new perspective. Consequently, the Greens sent a telegram with best regards to Lech Wałęsa, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, Bronisław Geremek, Adam Michnik and Jacek Kuroń – the protagonists of Solidarity. The assistant CDU/CSU leader, Volker Rühe, spoke of a historical breakthrough for both parties. The West had to encourage Poland to further transformations through economic and cultural cooperation.36 On the request of the Green party, a debate on matters of topical interest in terms of German-Polish relations took place in the German Bundestag on 19 April 1989.37 In this way, the Greens wanted to explicitly appreciate Solidarity’s achievements in the Round Table talks. The entire party acclaimed the “Round Table” talks and their results. According to Otto Graf Lambsdorff, the Federal Chairman of the Free Democratic Party (FDP), they were necessary to enable effective economic and financial support. In particular, Poland needed relief in the servicing of its foreign loans.38

Irrespectively of the verbal expressions of affection, there were still reservations in the CDU, and even more distinctly in the CSU, against further loans for Poland. The German-Polish talks were suspended for four months due to the contradictions in some aspects between the negotiating commissaries, but also because of the Polish demands, deemed excessive, and the rightist anti-Polish resentments, additionally piqued by the inflow of Polish emigrants and German repatriates from Poland.39

The German government was interested in starting prompt negotiations with the new Polish government and its Prime Minister, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, in order not to lose control over the refugee issues and the federal reactions, as well as in sending a signal of political support to Warsaw. On August 31, Helmut Kohl had an extensive telephone call with Mazowiecki during which they agreed to continue the talks between the commissioners mid-September. In the very same conversation, 50 years after the outbreak of World War II, Kohl expressed the wish to come to a “lasting reconciliation”.40

In his statement during the budgetary debate on 5 September 1989, Kohl referred to the Polish transformation and its possible consequences for German-Polish relations. He claimed, among other things, the following: “Twelve months ago, the news that has reached us right now from Warsaw was still unthinkable. With the election of a Prime Minister from the representatives of the opposition, the parliament made clear that it wants to pursue the way towards democracy. What we have to do in our negotiations with Poland includes two components that should be addressed equally: on the one hand, we aim at making the long overdue step towards lasting reconciliation between Germans and Poles; on the other hand – and this goes way beyond our bilateral relations – Poland is an example of a giant attempt to form a liberal democracy out of a communist regime. (...) Poles do not need a good word, but plain tangible support.”41 Kohl‘s words were also directed to Wałęsa, who was visiting Germany from 5 to 8 September 1989. Solidarity was already emancipating in terms of foreign policy, although, as an organization, it was officially re-admitted on 5 April 1989. It was reflected by the meetings of foreign visitors with Solidarity protagonists, mostly in Warsaw and Gdańsk, but was also observed in the growing number of political foreign visits of Lech Wałęsa, Bronisław Geremek and Tadeusz Mazowiecki. The monopoly of the PUWP in foreign policy issues42 was thus irretrievably broken.43

Even before Tadeusz Mazowiecki established his cabinet, he delegated Mieczysław Pszon, an expert on German issues and chief editor of the Catholic newspaper “Tygodnik Powszechny”, to continue the negotiations with Teltschik. In September, Pszon and Teltschik were already able to work out a breakthrough in negotiations about the package of previously contentious issues and a notified Common Declaration of both governments.44

In his first negotiation round with Teltschik, Pszon pointed out the historic dimension of the proceeding system transformation, which spread beyond Polish borders, but also demanded Germany’s support in order for the democratic transition to succeed. In particular, the new democratic Polish government counted on the financial support of the Federal Republic and other Western countries.45 These words had an effect inasmuch as Teltschik – unlike in his conversations with Krucza – did not question the substance of Polish requests. At the same time, once more, he corroborated the need to recognize the rights of Germans in Poland on the basis of the regulations of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, without bestowing a privilege on Germans in comparison to other minorities. Pszon accepted this regulation without further ado, causing discontent in the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which assisted the negotiations. Knowing that the “re-emergence” of Germans in Poland would probably evoke irritation between the Oder and Bug rivers, he asked to mention this issue only marginally in the common statement that was to be signed by Kohl and Mazowiecki, or to include it only in an additional protocol. Both parties sought to solve open issues as soon as possible. Newly emerging problems, such as GDR refugees in the federal German embassy in Warsaw, were ignored for the moment and negotiated separately involving the GDR.46 The issue of compensations for Polish forced workers in the period of national socialism was left aside, as the Federal Republic did not show any signs of willingness to concede. Tadeusz Mazowiecki and Helmut Kohl wanted to initialize all subjects on the occasion of the German official visit and thus welcome the political breakthrough in Poland with a new phase of bilateral relations.47

After only the second hour of talks which took place on 14–16 September 1989 in Bonn, Mieczysław Pszon and Horst Teltschik arranged for the Federal Chancellor to set out on his long-awaited visit to Poland on November 9. However, the preparations proceeded with discrepancies provoked by one item of the agenda on which the Federal Chancellor had insisted. It referred to the proper place for the reconciliation gesture between Germany and Poland. Based on the well-intended invitation of the Opole-Bishop, Alfons Nossol, Kohl suggested a reconciliation mass to be celebrated on St. Anne’s Hill (Góra Św. Anny).48

Annaberg was a symbol of bloody conflicts between Germans and Poles in the national fights for Upper-Silesia in the early 1920s.49 The Federal Chancellor favoured this place also due to the special attention he gave during the negotiations to the German demographic group in Poland. In the light of mutual tabooing and creation of historical myths and the aftermath of the communist and national education policy, neither was the place suitable for the reconciliation gesture, nor would the majority of Poles understand its choice. Both the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Skubiszewski, and the Prime Minister, Mazowiecki, let the Federal Chancellor know that a visit to the Annaberg Mount was not welcome, even more so as there was a significant pressure of “public opinion” imposed by the media influenced by the PUWP. After several telephone calls with Tadeusz Mazowiecki and the more or less forced withdrawal of the invitation by Bischop Nossol, Kohl gave up the visit.50

As an alternative location, Pszon and Mazowiecki suggested the former Moltke Manor in Lower-Silesian Kreisau. This was the place of execution of those Hitler opponents who dared to resist, and it entered history as the “Kreisau Circle”. The “initiation” for Kreisau could be traced back to a session entitled “Christ in the Society” from 2–4 June 1989, organized by the Catholic Intelligence Club (KIK) in Wrocław and the Aktion Sühnezeichen/ GDR. At the end of the session, its participants signed an appeal, addressed to the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Federal Government. They requested including the plan to establish a meeting centre in Kreisau in the German-Polish negotiations. Therefore, the Foreign Office was informed about the engagement aimed at supporting the choice of this place of remembrance. Tadeusz Mazowiecki had known about this initiative run by his friends from the Catholic Intelligence Club and the Aktion Sühnezeichen at the latest since August 1989.51 Helmut Kohl accepted the suggestion of Kreisau after several telephone calls with Mazowiecki, especially as Bishop Alfons Nossol was supposed to celebrate mass with the consent of Cardinal Henryk Gulbinowicz residing in Wrocław.52

On the very first day, the visit of the Federal Chancellor to Warsaw was put in a surprisingly epoch-making context by the spectacular opening of the Berlin Wall. With the slightly hesitant consent of the hosts, the Federal Chancellor took a break in his visit in Poland and on November 12 came back to a changed Germany. On the same day, both government heads took part in a bilingual mass in Kreisau. Kohl and Mazowiecki embraced in a gesture of liturgical greeting of peace, which expressed the will of reconciliation between the two countries. This gesture was for both men connected with a certain liability. Ingested by the symbolism of the place, the Federal Chancellor may have forgotten that Tadeusz Mazowiecki seemed almost like a coerced guest on foreign territory, where hundreds of Germans from the land of Opole Voivodship welcomed Kohl with conspicuous German banners as “our Federal Chancellor”.53

Originally, the common statement was supposed to be signed on November 10. The ceremony had to be postponed, not only because of the fall of the Berlin Wall, but mostly because of the discrepancies in the Oder-Neisse border issue. On 8 November, one day before the official visit to Poland, the German Bundestag adopted a resolution backed by the SPD; the Greens abstained. The resolution provided that “The German Bundestag affirms the Treaty of Warsaw of 7 December, 1970 as a strong foundation of relations between the Federal Republic of Germany and the Peoples’ Republic of Poland. The German Bundestag stands by the known constitutional and international-law-based foundations of our internal and Eastern policy – this obviously includes as well that the Federal Republic will abide by the wording and the spirit of the Treaty of Warsaw in all its parts. We cannot and we do not want to change our legal position. [...] At the same time, both parties declare that the aforementioned Treaty does not violate the agreements concluded earlier by the parties or the international bilateral or multilateral agreements relating to the parties. It also includes, that we still have not concluded a peace treaty. [...] The course of history cannot be turned back. We want to cooperate with Poland for a better Europe of the future. The inviolableness of the borders is the basis for peaceful coexistence in Europe.”54

The resolution was preceded by an intense debate in the German Bundestag, after which 26 delegates from the right wing of the CDU/CSU parties, politically engaged in the expellees issues, refused to follow Kohl’s direction and voted against the resolution. In a parliamentary debate, Hans-Jochen Vogel, the SPD parliamentary leader said: “You, Federal Chancellor – and I say it as a request in consideration of the sensitivity and the importance of the subject – should internalize this phrasing without reservation. The motion is an opportunity to do it. Should you repeat in Warsaw what you have said lately on this subject in front of the Association of the Expellees and what you unfortunately, only indistinctively modified, just said, then your visit, to which also we, social democrats, wish full success in the interest of German-Polish understanding, will be severely tarnished. Poland rightfully expects no constitutional deductions, but a binding political statement, that the Germans consider the Polish western border as final once and for all.”55

The resolution resonated as far as Warsaw. Tadeusz Mazowiecki requested from Helmut Kohl that the border description from the resolution of the German parliament be included in the common statement. Kohl refused, indicating, among other things, the unfavourable preparation of the resolution for his government. Moreover, he pointed to the fact that he was “put under pressure by both extreme left and extreme right”. It would be wrong to expect from him a final regulation of the border. According to Kohl, the Oder-Neisse border could be recognized by the German government only in the name of all Germans, yet it was still too early for that.56 Mazowiecki received this unambiguous attitude with disappointment. Due to his long‑lasting contacts with both German states and his engagement in Solidarity’s activity, he was convinced that political transformation in Poland and the beginning of a non-communist government would, or even should, enable the recognition of the border. Such recognition as the one Mazowiecki kept accentuating in the months that followed would significantly facilitate his already complicated governmental task in reference to the wary postcommunists and their supporters. As he had a great deal of difficult issues to solve, he expected from Helmut Kohl a concession on the border question.57

Kohl eschewed, for his priority was German unification and by his account it was the reunified, sovereign Germany that could decide the Polish Western border, just the way it happened a year later in the German-Polish border treaty. Artur Hajnicz, a thorough political observer and journalist connected to Solidarity, got to the heart of the dilemma: both heads of governments stuck to their negotiating positions, even worse, they were unable to tell each other what the other party so badly expected to hear.58

Even if the meeting between Mazowiecki and Kohl in Kreisau and in Warsaw in November 1989 should not be overrated, it marked the end of a decade of Western German and Polish relations characterized by fears, prejudice and mistrust – a legacy of World War II. The recognition of common values and the implementation of rules of conduct acceptable to both parties was an important step in the establishment of mutual trust. Furthermore, together they established the premise for democratic Poland and united Germany to define and pursue common interests in the 1990s. It was remarkable that the understanding with Poland and the fall of the Berlin Wall happened simultaneously. The “German Democratic Revolutionaries” between the Oder and Werra rivers liberated themselves not only from dictatorship, but they also freed themselves and others from the burden of forced division as a legacy of World War II. In this respect, the understanding with Poland and reunification were not events of a merely national dimension: they were a symbol of post-war epoch closure and the end of the continent’s division.59


Burkhard Olschowsky. Born 1969; graduated from the Faculty of History and Eastern Europe Studies; received his PhD in 2002 at the Humboldt University in Berlin; since 2005 working as a scientific employee in the Federal Institute for Culture and the History of Germans in Eastern Europe; also working for the European Network Remembrance and Solidarity. Range of subjects: comparative social history, contemporary history of Eastern and Central Europe, politics of memory and remembrance.



1 Paweł Kowal, Koniec systemu władzy (Warszawa 2012), p. 329.

2 HIA (Hoover Institution Archives), Marian Orzechowski, Przegrana Partia (manuscript), p. 268.

3 Texte zur Deutschlandpolitik, 3. Series, Vol.1, 13.10.1982–30.12.1983, Bonn 1985, p. 95.

4 Artur Hajnicz, Polens Wende und Deutschlands Vereinigung. Die Öffnung zur Normalität 1989–1992 (Paderborn 1995), p. 33.

5 BStU (Archivs der Bundesbeauftragten für die Unterlagen des Staatssicherheitsdienstes der ehemaligen DDR), ZAIG (Zentrale Auswertungs – und Informationsgruppe) 13024, Pläne und Aktivitäten der Grünen in der VRP, 20.6.1988, p. 6 f; Elisabeth Weber, Zwei Berichte über Reisen nach Polen im April 1986 und März 1988, manuscript; Dieter Bingen, Die Polenpolitik der Bonner Republik von Adenauer bis Kohl 1949–1991, p. 236 ff.

6 Artur Hajnicz, Ze sobą czy przeciw sobie. Polska – Niemcy 1989–1992 (Warszawa 1996), p. 31 ff.; Krystyna Rogaczewska, Niemcy w myśli politycznej polskiej opozycji w latach 1976–1989 (Wrocław 1998), p. 125 ff., 141; BStU, ZAIG 13024, Pläne und Aktivitäten der Grünen in der VRP, 20.6.1988, p. 6 f; Elisabeth Weber, Zwei Berichte über Reisen nach Polen im April 1986 und März 1988, manuscript.

7 Archiwum MSZ (Archive of Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs), RFN 023–220, 1/92, 1988, VII, Notatka informacyjna o pierwszym posiedzeniu polsko-RFN-owskiej grupy roboczej ds. politycznych, Bonn, 25–26 February 1988, pp. 1–11.

8 Patryk Pleskot, Kłopotliwa panna „S”. Postawy polityczne Zachodu wobec”Solidarności” na tle stosunków z PRL (1980–1989) (Warszawa 2013), p. 698.

9 Dieter Korger, Die Polenpolitik der deutschen Bundesregierung 1982–1991 (Bonn 1993), p. 21.

10 Archiwum MSZ, RFN, 1/92, W 7, 220–1–1988, Rozmowa przewodniczącego Rady Państwa W. Jaruzelskiego z H.-D. Genscherem, pp. 5–16.

11 HIA, Poland SB, Box 14, Model wizyt zachodnich polityków w Polsce /doświadczenia, reperkusje, przeciwdziałanie/ (Warszawa 17.2.1988).

12 Cf. Marian Orzechowski, Wojciech Korfanty: biografia polityczna (Wrocław 1975).

13 Przemówienie Mariana Orzechowskiego, in: Rzeczpospolita, 12.1.1988; Hans-Dietrich Genscher, Erinnerungen (Berlin 1995), p. 277.

14 CSU – Christian Social Union.

15 Hans Dietrich Genscher, Erinnerungen, Berlin 1995, p. 270 ff; Bingen, Die Polenpolitik der Bonner Republik, p. 224 ff.

16 Archiwum MSZ, RFN 2210–24121, 1/92, 1988, VIII, Notatka informacjyna. Problematyka tzw. mniejszości niemieckiej w Polsce w aktualnej fazie stosunków PRL-RFN, Warszawa 20.5.1988, pp. 1–6.

17 Bingen, Polenpolitik, p. 240.

18 Archiwum MSZ, RFN, 1/92, 023–220, 1988, Wizyta H. D. Genschera w Polsce, Najważniejsze aspekty polityki zagranicznej FRN, p. 4.

19 Genscher, Erinnerungen, p. 280 f; Hoover Instition Archives (HIA), Orzechowski, Przegrana Partia, p. 274.

20 Archiwum MSZ, RFN 023–220, 1/92, 1988, VII, Notatka informacyjna o pierwszym posiedzeniu polsko-RFN-owskiej grupy roboczej ds. politycznych, Bonn 25–26.2.1988; Bingen, Polenpolitik, p. 239 f.

21 HIA, Orzechowski, Przegrana Partia, p. 268.

22 Pleskot, Kłopotliwa panna „S”, p. 70 ff., 708; Kowal, Koniec system władzy, p. 327 ff.

23 HIA, Orzechowski, Przegrana Partia, pp. 260 f, 275.

24 Pleskot, Kłopotliwa panna „S”, p. 743.

25 Archiwum MSZ, 023–220, RFN 1988, VII, Spotkanie grupy roboczej do spraw politycznych, Bonn 25–26.2.1988.

26 Archiwum MSZ, 023–220, RFN 1988, VII, Polskie Tezy do rozmów grupy roboczej do spraw politycznych, 30–31.5.1988.

27 Tadeusz Olechowski replaced Marian Orzechowski as the Minister of Foreign Affairs in June 1988.

28 Archiwum MSZ, 023–220, RFN 1988, VII, Pilna notatka dot. założen rozmowy ministra T. Olechowskiego z ministrem spraw zagranicznych RFN H. D. Genscherem w Nowym Yorku, 26 września 1988.

29 Pleskot, Kłopotliwa panna „S”, p. 710.

30 Mieczysław Rakowski, Uwagi dotyczące niektórych aspektów politycznej i gospodarczej sytuacji PRL w drugiej połowie lat osiemdziesiątych, Wydawnictwo Myśl 1987, (published illegally), pp. 1–11.

31 Mieczysław F. Rakowski, Dzienniki polityczne 1987–1990, p. 348 ff.; Bingen, Polenpolitik, p. 242.

32 Archiwum MSZ, RFN 023–220, 1/92, 1988, VII, Wytyczne dla Towarzysza E. Kuczy, pełnomocnika Tow. Premiera M. F. Rakowskiego do rozmów z. H. Teltschikiem, pełnomocnikiem Kanclerza Kohla, Warszawa 30.1.1989, Appendix p. 3.

33 Archiwum MSZ, RFN 023–22, 1/92, 1988, X, Sprawozdanie z I. rundy rozmów pełnomocników ws. przygotowań do wizyty Kanclerza H. Kohla w Polsce, Bonn, 1.-2.2.1989.

34 Archiwum MSZ, RFN 023–220, 1/92, 1988, X, Uwagi i propozycje w związku z piątą rundą rozmów pełnomocników szefów rządów PRL i RFN, E. Kuczy i H. Teltschika, 18 maja 1989, p. 1–2.

35 Archiwum MSZ, RFN 023–220, 1/92, 1988, X, Sprawozdanie z VI. rundy rozmów pełnomocników ws. przygotowań do wizyty Kanclerza H. Kohla w Polsce, Bonn, 6.-7.6.1989, S. 1–7; RFN 023–220, 1/92, 1988, X, Uwagi i propozycje w związku z piątą rundą rozmów pełnomocników szefów rządów PRL i RFN, E. Kuczy i H. Teltschika, 18 maja 1989, p. 4.

36 Pleskot, Kłopotliwa panna „S”, p. 745.

37 Deutscher Bundestag, Stenographic Report, 136. session, 19 April 1989, available online at: http://dipbt.bundestag.de/doc/btp/11/11136.pdf

38 Ibidem.

39 Ibidem, compare the utterances of Klaus-Peter Kittelmann, Herbert Czaja and Heinrich Lummer from the CDU in the parliamentary debate.

40 Bingen, Polenpolitik, p. 252 ff.

41 Deutscher Bundestag, 156. session, 5 September, 1989, available online at: http://dipbt.bundestag.de/doc/btp/11/11156.pdf

42 PVAP – Polish United Workers‘Party (PUWP).

43 Archiwum MSZ, RFN – 210, 31/92, 1989, II. In a letter from 13 September 1989 of Polish Ambassador in Bonn, Ryszard Karski, to Bolesław Kurski, Under-Secretary of State in Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, he reports on Lech Wałęsa’s visit in Germany, confessing that the information about the absence of the embassy itself during the meetings of Wałęsa with his German conversation partners came from the German media.

44 Wojciech Pięciak ed., Polacy i Niemcy pół wieku później. Księga pamiątkowa dla Mieczysława Pszona, Kraków 1996, p. 542 ff.

45 Archiwum MSZ, RFN 023–220, 1/92, 1988, X, Ósma runda rozmów pełnomocników w nowej sytuacji politycznej obu stron, 14–16.9.1989, pp. 1–4.

46 Burkhard Olschowsky, Einvernehmen und Konflikt. Das Verhältnis zwischen der DDR und der Volksrepublik Polen 1980–1989, p. 601ff.

47Archiwum MSZ, RFN 023–220, 1/92, 1988, X, Ósma runda rozmów pełnomocników w nowej sytuacji politycznej obu stron, 14–16.9.1989, pp. 3–10.

48 Bingen, Polenpolitik, p. 253.

49 Juliane Haubold-Stolle, Der Sankt Annaberg in der polnischen und deutschen politischen Tradition, in: Juliane Haubold-Stolle, Bernard Linek eds, Górny Śląsk wyobrażony: wokół mitów, symboli i bohaterów dyskursów narodowych (Imaginiertes Oberschlesien: Mythen, Symbole und Helden in den nationalen Diskursen), (Opole, Marburg 2005), pp. 191–207.

50 Helmut Kohl, “Ich wollte Deutschlands Einheit”. By Kai Dieckmann and Ralf Georg Reuth, 3. edition, Berlin 1996, p. 121 ff; Wojciech Pięciak ed., Polacy i Niemcy pół wieku później, p. 542 ff.

51 Annemarie Franke, “Kreisau/Krzyżowa wieder entdeckt – was sollte in Kreisau aus polnischer und deutscher Perspektive 1989/90 entstehen?” in: Waldemar Czachur, Annemarie Franke ed., Kreisau/Krzyżowa – ein Ort des deutsch-polnischen Dialogs Herausforderungen für ein europäisches Narrativ, Krzyżowa 2013, pp. 24–29. http://www.krzyzowa.org.pl/downloads/Materialy/Publikacje/Krzyzowa_DE_FIN.pdf

52 Monika Szurlej, “Wie kam es zur Versöhnungsmesse in Kreisau?” in: Czachur, Franke eds., Kreisau/Krzyżowa, p. 33 (pp. 30–36).

53 Ibidem, p. 34; Artur Hajnicz, Ze sobą czy przeciw sobie. Polska – Niemcy 1989–1992, Warszawa 1996, p. 54; Bingen, Polenpolitik, p. 255.

54Deutscher Bundestag, 11. Wahlperiode, Drucksache 11/5589, 08.11.89, http://dipbt.bundestag.de/doc/btd/11/055/1105589.pdf.

55 Deutscher Bundestag, Stenographic Report, 173. session, 08.11.1989, http://dipbt.bundestag.de/doc/btp/11/11173.pdf.

56 Archiwum MSZ, RFN-220, 31/92, 1989, II, Zapis rozmowy “w cztery oczy” Premiera Mazowieckiego z Kanzlerzem Kohlem, 9–10.11.1989, p. 2, 7, 16.

57 Cf. Tadeusz Mazowiecki,

Rok 1989 i lata następne

, Warszawa 2012, pp. 113–122; Aleksander Hall, Osobista historia III Rzeczypospolitej


, Warszawa 2011, p. 101 f.

58Hajnicz, Ze sobą czy przeciw sobie, p. 53.

59 Klaus von Dohnanyi, Brief an die Deutschen Demokratischen Revolutionäre, Leipzig 1990; “Für Selbstbestimmung und Demokratie. Gemeinsame Erklärung von Polen und Deutschen aus der DDR, Januar 1990”, in: Więź, Polen und Deutsche, Special Edition 1994, pp. 182–186.


List of References
Books and Articles

Bingen, Dieter (1998) Die Polenpolitik der Bonner Republik von Adenauer bis Kohl 1949–1991 (Baden-Baden: Nomos-Verlagsgesellschaft).

Dohnanyi von, Klaus (1990) Brief an die Deutschen Demokratischen Revolutionäre (München: Knaur).

Franke, Annemarie (2013) Kreisau/Krzyżowa wieder entdeckt – was sollte in Kreisau aus polnischer und deutscher Perspektive 1989/90 entstehen? in: Waldemar Czachur, Annemarie Franke (eds.), Kreisau/Krzyżowa – ein Ort des deutsch-polnischen Dialogs Herausforderungen für ein europäisches Narrativ (Krzyżowa).

Genscher, Hans-Dietrich (1995) Erinnerungen (Berlin: Siedler).

Hajnicz, Artur (1995) Polens Wende und Deutschlands Vereinigung. Die Öffnung zur Normalität 1989–1992 (Paderborn: Ferdinand Schöningh).

Hajnicz, Artur (1996) Ze sobą czy przeciw sobie. Polska – Niemcy 1989–1992 (Warszawa: Presspublica).

Hall, Aleksander (2011) Osobista historia III Rzeczypospolitej (Warszawa: Rosner & Wspólnicy).

Haubold-Stolle, Juliane (2005) Der Sankt Annaberg in der polnischen und deutschen politischen Tradition, in: Juliane Haubold-Stolle, Bernard Linek (eds) Górny Śląsk wyobrażony: wokół mitów, symboli i bohaterów dyskursów narodowych (Opole, Marburg: Verlag Herder Institut).

Kohl, Helmut (1996) ”Ich wollte Deutschlands Einheit”. Dargestellt von Kai Dieckmann und Ralf Georg Reuth, 3rd ed. (Berlin: Propyläen-Verlag).

Korger, Dieter (1993) Die Polenpolitik der deutschen Bundesregierung 1982–1991 (Bonn: Europa Union Verlag).

Kowal, Paweł (2012) Koniec systemu władzy (Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Trio).

Mazowiecki, Tadeusz (2012) Rok 1989 i lata następne (Warszawa: Prószyński i S-ka).

Olschowsky, Burkhard (2005) Einvernehmen und Konflikt. Das Verhältnis zwischen der DDR und der Volksrepublik Polen 1980–1989 (Osnabrück: Fibre-Verlag).

Orzechowski, Marian (1975) Wojciech Korfanty: biografia polityczna (Wrocław: Wydawnictwo Zakład Narodowy im. Ossolinskich).

Pięciak, Wojciech (ed.) (1996) Polacy i Niemcy pół wieku później. Księga pamiątkowa dla Mieczysława Pszon (Kraków: Znak).

Pleskot, Patryk (2013) Kłopotliwa panna „S”. Postawy polityczne Zachodu wobec „Solidarności” na tle stosunków z PRL (1980–1989) (Warszawa: Instytut Pamięci Narodowej).

Rakowski, Mieczysław F. (2005) Dzienniki polityczne 1987–1990 (Warszawa: Iskry).

Rakowski, Mieczysław F. (1987) Uwagi dotyczące niektórych aspektów politycznej i gospodarczej sytuacji PRL w drugiej połowie lat osiemdziesiątych (Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Myśl).

Rogaczewska, Krystyna (1998) Niemcy w myśli politycznej polskiej opozycji w latach 1976–1989 (Wrocław: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Wrocławskiego).

Szurlej, Monika (2013) “Wie kam es zur Versöhnungsmesse in Kreisau?” in: Waldemar Czachur, Annemarie Franke (eds) Kreisau/Krzyżowa – ein Ort des deutsch-polnischen Dialogs Herausforderungen für ein europäisches Narrativ (Krzyżowa).

Documents and Protocols:
German Bundestag, Stenographic Reports, http://dipbt.bundestag.de
For Home Rule and Democracy. Common Declaration of Poles and Germans from the GDR, January 1990, in: Więź, Poles and Germans, Special Edition 1994, p. 182–186.
Texts on the Deutschlandpolitik (1985), 3. Series, Vol. 1, 13.10.1982–30.12.1983 (Bonn: Deutscher Bundes-Verlag).

The Archive of Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs,
Archives of the Federal Commissioner for the Records of the State Security Service of the former GDR,
ZAIG (Zentrale Auswertungs – und Informationsgruppe),
HIA (Hoover Institution Archives), Marian Orzechowski, The Lost Party (manuscript).


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 Regime Change in Hungary
Ignác Romsics

Regime Change in Hungary

20 August 2014
  • transformation
  • Hungary
  • National Round Table


In this paper Ignác Romsics, drawing on his own book on the regime change in Hungary, succinctly presents this process from five different perspectives. They are: 1) the National Round Table negotiations held from June to September in 1989 as well as the peaceful political transition in the end of 1989 and in 1990 that resulted from the decisions made at these negotiations; 2) foreign policy reorientation from the early 1990s until the accession to the European Union in 2004; 3) the transition to a market economy that began in the late 1980s; 4) the emergence of the ideological-cultural pluralism which replaced the dominance of Marxism in the 1990s; 5) ambivalence about lustration. One of the main aspects in each perspective is the evaluation of the extent and nature of elite change. The author comes to the conclusion that while the political elite was replaced to a large extent, the elite groups of the late Kádárian-era in cultural and economic life have essentially retained their influence and positions until recent times. The author points at a lack of public accountability as one important reason for this situation.

By regime change and its synonyms I mean the process of transition during which the one-party dictatorships created by Soviet pressure in the aftermath of World War II were changed into parliamentary democracies across Eastern Europe based on multi-party systems, as well as the process during which centrally planned economies founded on state ownership were substituted for market economies based on private ownership. Parallel with this transition, qualitative changes were also taking place in various sub-systems of society, such as cultural life. Similar to most major shifts in world history, this transition resulted from the convergence of several external and internal factors, as well as their impact on one another. The key moment in this transition was the realignment of international power relations, namely the end of the Soviet and American rivalry, which had been going on since the end of World War II, with an American victory. Another important factor was the historic defeat of centrally planned economies based on state and public ownership by capitalism that had its foundations in private ownership and the automatism of market mechanisms. The impact of individual initiatives and internal social movements should not be overlooked, either. They contributed to the transition in that they tried to subvert and/or reform the system by way of taking advantage of the opportunities that presented themselves – oftentimes by even creating these opportunities as well. This process started in Hungary during the last third of the 1980s and became irreversible with the free general elections that took place in the spring of 1990. The key event on the path of this transition – revolutionary in its content, but peaceful in its form and outward manifestation – was the socalled National Round Table (NRT) negotiations. The talks started on 13 June 1989 and ended on 18 September of the same year. They were held between the State Party (Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party, MSZMP) and its satellite organizations, as well as the representatives of the parties and organizations set up by the opposition in 1988 and the beginning of 1989.

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During the opening session of the National Round Table talks the lawyer Imre Kónya, on behalf of the opposition organizations, stated that the aim of the negotiations was to ensure the peaceful transition from the dictatorial system to a representational democracy taking de facto account of the will of the people. “The will of the people” – he added – “should be made manifest in open-ended and free elections, from which no party or political organization is to be excluded as long as they accept the principles of democracy and distance themselves from the application of force.” During the second plenary session on 21 June, Imre Pozsgay, representing the Socialist Workers Party, reacted to this by saying that MSZMP accepts an electoral system based on free elections that expresses the will and intentions of citizens by means of the struggle among the parties.1

At the multi-level talks, discussion was going on simultaneously in various sub-committees with the participation of 1,302 representatives and experts from the three “sides”. According to expectations and preliminary statements of intentions, the parties involved agreed on the process of substituting the one-party dictatorship with a multi-party democracy, as well as on other key issues. The legal framework of the new Republic of Hungary was designed during these talks, which were referred to as “negotiation revolution.”

Of the recommendations of the National Round Table negotiations, decisions concerning the modifications of the Constitution were of the greatest importance. These decisions filled the previous framework of the Constitution with content based on entirely new values, which in many respects resembled the democratic Act I of 1946, adopted prior to the communist takeover. It was agreed upon that instead of a “people’s republic” Hungary would become a “republic” in which the principles of both “bourgeois democracy” and “democratic socialism” would be adhered to. In the new state nobody would have the opportunity for the exclusive exercise of power and no single party could impose its will over the people. The passage about the “leading role of the Marxist-Leninist party of the working class” was deleted and the multi-party system was declared. The new economic system of the country was envisaged as a market economy that would “also take advantage of the benefits of planning” and where “public and private ownership are on equal footing and enjoy equal protection”, an economy that “acknowledges and supports the right of enterprise and the freedom of competition”. It was recommended that the Parliament should function as the chief organ of the state power and the popular representation of the Republic of Hungary, whose members, being professionals and rewarded accordingly, would be elected by the people for a term of four years. Next to jurisdiction, the exclusive competences of Parliament came to include the most important decisions concerning personnel, such as the appointment of government members, as well as the heads of other important state bodies. In case of extraordinary external or internal situations, the Parliament had the power to proclaim martial law, to sign peace treaties, to declare a state of emergency, and to command the armed forces inside and outside the country.2

The parties agreed that the previous multi-member Presidium incorporating the functions of the head of the government would cease to exist and the new position of the President of the Republic would be created instead. A near consensus was reached that the powers of the would-be president – again in the spirit of Act I of 1946 – should be limited.

Act XXXI of 1989, which amended the Constitution of 1949, was the most important of the so-called cardinal laws that were adopted by the communist parliament. As a token of respect for the 1956 revolution and war of independence, the Act went into effect on 23 October, 1989. The republic was declared on Kossuth Square on the very same day by Mátyás Szűrös, communist chairman of parliament, who became the temporary president of the republic. In his speech that thousands were listening to, he referred to several prominent Hungarians as the predecessors of the renascent democracy in Hungary, among them Lajos Kossuth, leader of the 1848 revolution and war of independence; Mihály Károlyi, leader of the democratic revolution of 1918 and president of the republic proclaimed in November 1918; and Zoltán Tildy, president of the so-called second Hungarian Republic, declared in 1946.3 Legally, and to a certain extent in reality as well, the party state and along with it state socialism ceased to exist. After 40 years of a forced detour, Hungary could finally return to the parliamentary system whose foundations had been laid in 1848–49 by the “founding fathers” of the modern parliamentary Hungarian state.

Having ratified the recommendations of the National Round Table talks, after 23 October the old parliament continued with the adoption of the cardinal laws of the new Republic of Hungary. Act XXXII, declared on 30 October, provided for the creation of the Constitutional Court. Such a body had never existed in the life of the Hungarian state. The members of the Constitutional Court were to be elected by parliament for a term of 9 years and the court was granted extensive powers. Its tasks included the the preliminary and follow-up judicial reviews of the acts of parliament, the examinaton of complaints filed for violation of constitutional rights, the interpretation of the constitution, as well as the elimination of conlicts of competence between state bodies and local governments. The Constitutional Court, serving as the main body for the protection of the Constitution and the rule of law, had the right to dispose of acts that were violating the Constitution and to destroy any governmental action in violation of laws. By this, the Constitutional Court became one of the most important bodies of the new system of public institutions and had a crucial role in maintaining the checks and balances in relation to the parlimentary majority and the government. The Constitutional Court started its work on 1 January, 1990. László Sólyom, a professor of law and a former advisor of environmental protection movements, became the President of the Court.4

Act XXXIV on election of the members of parliament also came into force on 30 October. According to this act, parliament was to have a total of 386 members, out of which 176 members were to be elected as individual candidates from their constituencies, 152 members on the basis of regional (counties and the capital) party lists, whereas 58 members on the basis of national party lists. Due to the mixed nature of the election system, each voter could cast two votes: one vote for an individual candidate running for the seat in the single-seat constituency of their residence, and one vote for the regional lists of the parties. The elections had two rounds in individual constituencies. In case none of the candidates could win more than 50 per cent of the votes during the first round, a simple majority was sufficient in the second round. The first three candidates who collected the highest number of votes during the first round were eligible to run in the second round, as well as those candidates who received at least 15 per cent of the votes. In order to guarantee the smooth operation of the Parliament, the election act favoured the bigger or more influential parties as well as candidates. One of the means to achieve this was to bind the fielding of a candidate to certain conditions. In individual constituencies 750 recommendations bearing signatures were needed to field a candidate. Regional lists could only be set up by parties that were able to field candidates in at least one fourth of the individual constituencies of the given region, which meant 750 signatures per candidate. The condition for setting up a national list was that the given party had a minimum of seven valid regional lists out of a maximum of 20. An even stricter element of electivity was the so-called thresholds requirement, which was set at 4 per cent by the Act. If the number of votes cast on regional lists for a given party did not reach this proportion of the total number of votes cast nationally, then the party could not get a mandate based on regional and national lists. Eligibility to vote was bound to two basic conditions by the Act: Hungarian citizenship and 18 years of age.5

After the resolution of 18 September, the process of party formation accelerated and the MSZMP (Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party) split into two at the beginning of October. The majority of its previous members, those in favour of reforms and who were flexible and were willing to listen to the challenges of the times, founded the Hungarian Socialist Party. The minority, however, loyal to their principles, created the (Marxist-Leninist) Workers’ Party, which was essentially communist in its nature.6

During the free elections of 1990, 42 per cent of the votes were won by the Hungarian Democratic Forum, which had been established in the fall of 1987 with a conservative-national orientation. Twenty-four per cent of the votes were obtained by the liberal Alliance of Free Democrats, which was founded in 1988. Eleven per cent of the votes went to the newly reorganized (1988–89) Independent Smallholders’ Party, which was of longstanding. The Hungarian Socialist Party gained 9 per cent of the votes, and the radical-liberal Alliance of Young Democrats, established in 1988, as well as the Christian Democratic People’s Party, each took 5 per cent of the votes. Compared to the old parliament of 1985–1990, the composition of the new parliament was radically different. Ninety-five per cent of the seats were taken by newly elected representatives. This development represented a complete change of the elite from the point of view of both social background and political orientation. The ratio of former MSZMP (Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party) members dropped from 75 to 13.5 per cent, whereas the proportion of former communist party secretaries and other party and committe functionaries declined from 15 to less than 2 per cent. The ratio of representatives with a university degree rose from 59 to 89 per cent. Among the university graduates, the proportion of deputies with degrees in agriculture and technology, forming a very decisive group within the elite of the Kádár-era, dropped from 53 to 18 per cent, whereas the ratio of those with degrees in law and the arts jumped from 23 to 51 per cent. 70 per cent of representatives belonged to the so called unaffiliated intellectuals (researchers, economists, teachers, doctors, lawyers, journalists, engineers, etc.), while the number of workers did not even reach 4 per cent, unlike their proportion of 22 per cent between 1985 and 1990. It was also characteristic that the ratio of the economic leaders – directors of factories, chief engineers, secretaries of cooperatives, and agronomists – of the previous system diminished from 32 to 11 per cent, while the proportion of entrepreneurs of the new type and who were newly represented in parliament, did not reach 2 per cent.7

The changes in the composition of the representatives attest to an almost complete change of the political elite. We must be aware, however, that in public administration and in leadership positions of local governments the scope of this change was much less significant. By the end of 1990, of the most important 700 positions of the old establishment only 100 were affected by the changes. The new ministers of the government – as insisted on by József Antall, the new Prime Minister – were without exception homo novus and had not been affiliated with any party before 1989. Of the 71 newly appointed under-secretaries, however, 29 had held high government offices prior to the regime change. At the level of heads of directorates and departments continuity was even more striking. The results of the municipal elections held in September – October of 1990 also brought changes on a limited scale. One third of the new representatives at the local levels had occupied high positions before 1990. Fifty-five per cent of mayors of small settlements as well as eighteen per cent of the mayors of towns had been council members during communist times.8

Taking everything into consideration, the change of the political elite in 1990 can only be regarded as partial and by no means complete. This can partially be accounted for by the lack of an alternative political elite, and in part by the patriarchal internal relations of small settlements. The landscape became even more complicated with the results of the 1994 elections, during which the Hungarian Socialist Party obtained 54 per cent of the mandates on its own, and as a consequance in the majority of ministries the pre- 1990 status quo was restored. If we also take into account the results of the elections in 1998 as well as of later years, it can be seen that we are not talking about the change of the political elite as a whole but rather about its circulation. This circulation is reflected in the party affiliations of future prime ministers as well. Miklós Németh, who became head of government in 1988 as a young reform-communist, was followed in his office in 1990 by József Antall, a leading intellectual with no party affiliations but who could be considered a conservative-liberal on the basis of his principles. After his untimely death in 1993, he was succeeded by Péter Boross who represented very similar values. However, the politician forming the government in 1994, Gyula Horn, was a former MSZMP (Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party) member, also serving in the paramilitary organization of the Kádár regime, which established itself in the country in 1956–57. He was also active as the minister of foreign affairs during the 1998–90 Németh administration as well as head of the Socialist Party after 1990. In 1998, Gyula Horn was succeeded in office by Viktor Orbán, leader of the Alliance of Young Democrats, who turned conservative after starting out as a liberal politician. In 2002, Orbán was followed by Péter Medgyessy, the minister of finance and later deputy prime minister of the Grósz and Németh governments before the regime change, who was a member of the Socialist Workers’ Party (MSZMP), as well as an officer in the communist intelligence services. He was succeeded in 2004 by Ferenc Gyurcsány, one of the leaders of the Communist Youth Organization prior to 1989.9

Foreign policy was entirely unrepresented among the controversial issues of the National Round Table negotiations. One could learn about the foreign policy ideas of the opposition parties and of the State Party from their proposed programmes as well as from the statements made by their leading politicians in 1988–89. In summary, the essence of these are as follows: both the opposition parties and the reform-minded politicians of MSZMP considered it to be their strategic objective to achieve Hungary’s neutrality and thereby to restore the country’s independence as well as its external sovereignty. The opposition parties – especially SZDSZ and Fidesz – in general phrased this objective in clearer and more radical terms, whereas the reform socialists – especially initially – were using a language that was less clear and more cautious. The parties also agreed that this aim was to be achieved not unilaterally but by taking advantage of the changes in the international balance of power and with the approval of the Soviet Union. However, the sections of the State Party not committed or only partially committed to reforms, envisaged the future of Hungary within the framework of the Soviet systems of alliance and they did not even aim at restoring the country’s independence. The prime minister, Miklós Németh, and the minister of foreign affairs, Gyula Horn, both belonged to the reform socialists. Accordingly, they represented the policy of distancing the country away from the Soviet Union and its integration organizations initially with caution but later with more courage. This was demonstrated by the release of Eastern German tourists into Austria in August and September of 1989.10

The opening of the Austrian-Hungarian border and the release of the German tourists acted as a catalyst in the process of transition throughout Eastern Europe. At the same time, the developments of regime change in the other countries of the Soviet bloc also had an effect on the transition process in Hungary. The collapse of the Berlin wall and the prospect of the unification of the two German states, which could be regarded as a legitimate expectation based on various declarations, created a new situation in the politics of alliance and the military balance of power. It was obvious that a member state of NATO could not unite with a country from the Warsaw Pact and also that a new Germany could not belong simultaneously to two different systems of alliance. The withdrawal of Soviet troops from the territory of the German Democratic Republic and the suspension of the country’s membership within the Warsaw Pact could still not be taken for granted in the end of 1989 but it could realistically be expected. This was suggested by the fact that in January 1990 Gorbachev accepted the idea of German unification. The gesture was noted in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary, countries that all had Soviet troops stationed on their territories.

In the spirit of the reorientation of foreign policy, on 16 November, 1989 the Németh government announced the intention of Hungary to join the Council of Europe and later in January 1990 requested the Soviet leadership to withdraw the full contingent of Soviet troops from Hungary the following year. The resolution concerning the withdrawal of troops was signed in Moscow on 10 March, 1990. During the days following the signing of the document, the minister of foreign affairs, Gyula Horn, announced that Hungarian diplomacy from that day on would aim at reorganizing the Warsaw Pact into a consultative political organization. At that time Horn still had the idea that the reorganization of the Warsaw Pact would take place parallel with the reorganization of NATO and over time by way of these reorganizations a collective European security system would emerge that would include the United States as well as Canada among its members. On other occasions, however, he made statements suggesting that with the passage of time Hungary may also become a member of the various political organizations of NATO.11

The would-be prime minister, József Antall, announced in the very same period that having seceded from the Warsaw Pact, Hungary would either be neutral or would seek its place within a unified Europe which was already in the making. However, after forming the goverment in May 1990, he outlined a much clearer system of objectives. His programme contained four basic goals: 1) secession from the Soviet system of alliance and by this the restoration of the external sovereignty of the country; 2) further approach to and eventual accession to the Western European integration organizations, primarily to the European Communities; 3) mutually beneficial cooperation with the states of the Eastern and Central European region; 4) increasing protection and support for the Hungarian national minorities living in neighbouring countries.12

In order to restore the external sovereignty of the country, between 7–8 June 1990, during the Moscow meeting of the political consultative body of the Warsaw Pact, Antall stated that the organization “as one of the remnants of European opposition” had lost its main function and was “in need of revision”. He suggested that by the end of 1991 the military cooperation within the organization should entirely cease to exist. He also stated that Hungary wished to revise its membership. He recommended that in the future a pan-European system of alliance should safeguard the security of the continent that would also include the United States, Canada, and the Soviet Union among its members. In line with Antall’s announcements, the minister of defence, Lajos Für, informed his Soviet counterpart, Jazov, that Hungary would withdraw its forces from under the command of the combined armed forces and would no longer participate in any joint development or military exercise in the future.13

The announcements of the Hungarian delegation surprised and confused the participants of the meeting. Contrary to Antall’s vision, Gorbachev believed that the Warsaw Pact should be maintained with some minor modifications and by the “democratization” of the decision-making levels as long as NATO continued to exist. This approach was fully shared by the Bulgarian and Romanian delegation, whereas the Poles and the Czechs were vacillating between the Soviet and Hungarian proposals. As a compromise between the various standpoints, the final communique of the meeting suggested to revise the nature, function and activities of the organization more decisively than was originally proposed by Gorbachev, however, there was no mention about the Hungarian intention of secession.14

During the weeks following the Moscow meeting, crucial bilateral and multilateral agreements that were of great importance for the future of Eastern Europe as well, were signed by the leading powers of the world. In return for various guarantees as well as for the financial support earmarked by Chancellor Kohl, on 14–16 July Gorbachev agreed that the unified Germany would be a member of NATO. It was also here that an agreement was reached about the withdrawal of Soviet troops stationed in the Democratic Republic of Germany. With these concessions the Soviet Union suffered another major strategic defeat. On 31 August in Berlin representatives of the two German states signed the reunification document. On 12 September, the so-called 4+2 negotiations were completed as a result of which the United States, Great-Britain, France, and the Soviet Union waived their rights concerning control over the two German states. Simultaneously, Germany obliged itself to acknowledge the Western borders of Poland. In the meantime, a separate agreement was also signed by Germany and the Soviet Union. According to this agreement, Germany pledged 12 billion German marks as a contribution to the costs of the withdrawal of Soviet troops to be completed by 1994, and agreed to provide an interest-free loan for the Soviet Union in the amount of 3 billion marks. The unification of the two German states was declared on 3 October, 1990.15

Parallel with the above mentioned events, the representatives of the member states of the Warsaw Pact were conducting consultations concerning the future of the organization. As a result of the German guarantees, Poland and Czechoslovakia felt less threatened by the West and during the summer and autumn months they moved closer to the Hungarian position. On 16 August, 1990 during a meeting in Budapest, the representatives of the three countries accepted a proposal concerning „the gradual phasing out of the military organizations of the Warsaw Pact”. If this happened – they believed – then the alliance would lose its power and rationele for existence and sooner or later would automatically cease to exist. By this time, the Romanian position became more distant from the Soviet standpoint, while the Democratic Republic of Germany demonstrated an understandable lack of interest and de facto seceded from the organization. As a result of the NATO membership of the unified Germany and the establishment of a common Czech-Polish- Hungarian position, the future of the Warsaw Treaty was in essence sealed. By autumn, the Soviet position of June was essentially supported only by the Bulgarians. As before, Gorbachev reacted to the new situation not in a confrontational way but by acknowledging the seemingly inevitable developments. In a letter sent to the representatives of the member states in the beginning of 1991, he wrote that he agreed to the dissolution of the military functions of the alliance and, if the member states insisted, even to its complete abolition. As a result, during a meeting in Prague on 25 February, the political consultative body of the alliance first disbanded the military bodies of the organization, and later, on 1 July, 1991, the whole organization itself.16

A few days before the disestablishment of the Warsaw Pact, the withdrawal of Soviet troops from the territory of Hungary had been completed. Since 10 March 1990, more than 100,000 Soviet citizens left the country with 50,000 soldiers among them. Their equipment – approximately 20,000 vehicles, 860 tanks, nearly 1,500 armoured vehicles, 622 missiles and 196 rocket batteries – was transported to the Soviet Union by 1,500 trains. The last Soviet unit crossed the border on 19 June, 1990. Hungary, having established its internal sovereignty in 1990, with this event also regained its external sovereignty – its independence.17

Simultaneously with the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, the economic integration organization of the Soviet bloc, CMEA, also ceased to exist. This was formally announced at the last meeting of the representatives of the member states in Budapest on 28 June 1991. At the end of the shortest meeting in the history of the organization – lasting a mere 15 minutes – the representatives of the nine member countries signed the protocol about the disestablishment of CMEA with no debate whatsoever. This move was met with even less opposition on the part of the Soviet Union than the termination of the Warsaw Pact. A considerable number of Soviet economists believed, along with Gorbachev, that maintaining the organization would not be advantageous for the Soviet economy either. This factor made the acknowledgement of the historic defeat somewhat easier. In the aftermath of these events the reorganization of foreign trade relations accelerated. The share of the Soviet Union in the Hungarian export-import turnover, which had been on a constant decline since 1983, was lower by 40–50 per cent in 1991 than in 1990 and by this the total volume dropped below 18 per cent. The same figure in relation with the unified Germany was almost 25 per cent already at that time.18

To the extent the Antall government, in regard to the dismantling the Eastern systems of alliance, could rely on the initiatives of the Németh government they could also expect similar support in the field of joining the Western integration organizations. One of these integration orgnizations was the Council of Europe that made a decision about the accession of Hungary in October 1990. The accession document was signed by Géza Jeszenszky in Rome on 6 November, 1990.19

Joining NATO and the European Union took a much longer time. One of the major reasons was the Soviet, later Russian, opposition to the Eastern expansion of NATO. Therefore, the leaders of the Euro-Atlantic organization made it obvious only in the end of 1993, the beginning of 1994, that they supported the accession of Eastern European post-communist countries. From then on the preparations accelerated. In February 1994 Hungary signed the framework document of Partnership for Peace, then in 1995 it provided a logistics base for the NATO forces participating in the war in Bosnia. Fulfilling the security expectations of the organization, Hungary signed agreements with Ukraine in 1993, Slovakia in 1995, and Romania in 1996, in which, in return for guarantees of minority rights it acknowledged the existing borders of the country. In the autumn of 1997, during a referendum with a 49 per cent turnout, 85 per cent of voters supported the application for admission of Hungary into NATO. Hungary, together with Poland and the Czech Republic, became a full member of the organization on 12 March, 1999.20

The signing of the association agreement with the European Communities on 16 December, 1991 can be considered the first significant step towards EU membership, which had been defined as an objective already in 1990. The essence of the agreement was the creation of an agenda regulating the gradual phasing out of industrial tariffs by 2001. Although the Republic of Hungary applied for accession on 1 April, 1994, accession negotiations were taking place up until the end of 2002. During this time the trade relations between Hungary and the European Union were expanding rapidly. In 1989 the share of the still 12-member organization in Hungarian exports amounted to 25 per cent, while in case of imports the figure was 29 per cent. By 2000 these numbers increased to 76 and 71 per cent respectively.

In April 2003 a referendum was held in Hungary, the results of which were very similar to those of the referendum in 1997. Forty-eight per cent of the voters participated in the referendum, 86 per cent of whom supported accession that took place on 1 May 2004.21 By this act, all restrictions on tariffs were abolished between Hungary and the other member states, and several countries allowed for employment of Hungarian citizens. On 21 December, 2007 Hungary joined the so-called Schengen area.

The disintegration of the Warsaw Pact together with the stalling of NATO’s expansion in Central and Eastern Europe resulted in the creation of a power vacuum. This fact made the idea of cooperation within the region even more urgent. The historical cooperation along the Italian, Austrian, Yugoslav, and Hungarian borders, known as the Alps Adriatic Working Community, was raised to the level of states on 12 November, 1989. With the accession of Czechoslovakia in May 1990, the number of member states increased to five (Pentagonale), and later with the accession of Poland to six (Hexagonale). The first summit of the organization took place in Venice on 1 August, 1990. The resolution that was adopted set very ambitious goals, such as the construction of new motorways and railways that would connect the member states from the north to the south and from the east to the west. However, the resources necessary for the realisation of the objectives were absent. Partly because of the lack of funds and partly because of the disintegration of Yugoslavia, the organisation could not fulfil expectations and by the mid 1990s it silently ceased to exist.22

Next to Hexagonale, the outlines of a more promising regional cooperation were beginning to emerge in the 1990s. The member countries of this cooperation included Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. The credit for the initiative should go to the new president of Czechoslovakia, Václav Havel, and to his minister of foreign affairs, Jiří Dienstbier. The Czechoslovak leaders first consulted with Jaruzelski and Wałęsa about the plan, then they brought up the subject in January 1990 in Budapest as well.23 During a meeting in Paris in November, Antall, Hável and the Polish head of government, Mazowiecki agreed to conduct consultations on a regular basis and to coordinate certain decisions concerning the foreign policy of their countries. Following a preparatory meeting of the ministers of foreign affairs, the representatives of the three countries signed a treaty for cooperation in Budapest on 15 February, 1991. Unlike Hexagonale, the cooperation of the Visegrád Three, then later – after the dissolution of Czechoslovakia in 1993 – the Visegrád Four proved to be longer lasting and more successful.24 However, the lack of economic complementarity, the Slovak-Hungarian conflict, as well as the lack of interest that the Czech Republic demonstrated for years once again prevented the deepening of this cooperation.

The third important aspect of the renascent Hungarian foreign policy was the increased protection and support for the Hungarian national minorities – altogether some 2.5 million people – living in the territories of neighbouring countries. In the treaties signed with Ukraine, Slovakia, and Romania Hungary obliged itself to respect the 1920 Trianon borders, while Ukraine, Slovakia and Romania pledged to guarantee minority rights in accordance with European standards. Although these steps could be considered important achievements from the point of view of the stability of the region and Hungary’s neighbourhood policy, they did not have a profound impact on the expansion of the rights of the Hungarian national minorities. Autonomy and self-management of the kind that was achieved in Switzerland or even in Spain was not part of the notion of minority rights of any of the leaders of these countries. Therefore, the Hungarian minorites in these states have not been granted these rights ever since. Yet, due to the more or less democratic conditions, their situation became far better than it had been prior to the changes of governments. They were granted the rights to set up political parties, schools, and various organizations. Obstacles that prevented contact with the mother country were also removed.

All the new governments of Hungary managed to establish fruitful and friendly relations with two of the successor states of Yugoslavia: Slovenia and Croatia. This can be explained by the fact that the number of Hungarians in both of these countries is minimal so conducting a more generous minority policy posed no danger for these states. The 20,000 Hungarians living in Croatia enjoy wide ranging cultural rights and the 6,000 Slovenian Hungarians – living mostly along the River Mura – can even boast a certain degree of territorial autonomy. Their legal status is guaranteed by agreements protecting the rights of minorities, which were signed with Slovenia in 1992 and with Croatia in 1995.

With Serbia, however, relations remained tense up until the end of the 1990s. As a consequence of the dissolution of the Yugoslav state and the nationalistic policy of the Serbian government, the existential conditions of ethnic Hungarians of Vojvodina – which previously enjoyed extensive autonomy – deteriorated dramatically. The normalization of Serbian – Hungarian relations started only in the new millennium. The treaty for the protection of minorities was signed in 2003 and it confirmed the rights of some 300,000 Serbian Hungarians, mostly living in Vojvodina, for cultural autonomy.

In the field of Hungary’s neighbourhood and minority policies, the adoption of the so-called Status Law or Benefit Law of 2001 can be considered a significant step. This law provided various – primarily financial – benefits for Hungarian families across the borders whose children were attending Hungarian schools. Those who were given Hungarian identity documents from Hungary were also entitled for travel benefits inside the country. More than 90,000 people applied for and received such a document by the end of the last millennium. Expanding the framework of the previously conducted support policy, this law established a new relationship between the Hungarian state and the national minorities living in neighbouring countries. It also demonstrated and strengthened the togetherness of the Hungarian nation defined in cultural terms.

Because of the Benefit Law and the Orbán government’s more active minority policies between 1998 and 2002, the relationship between Hungary and its neighbours became more tense by the turn of the millennium. Although these relations somewhat improved during the governance of the socialist-liberal coalition that came to power in 2002, they were still not without problems. Reconciliation of the type that occured between France and Germany after World War II is hindered both by the nationalistic forces of the neighbouring countries and by the unclear attitude toward the nation on the part of the Republic of Hungary. As an example one could mention the referendum of December 2004 concerning dual citizenship, which was unsuccessful because of several factors. They include the contradictory messages conveyed by the opposing political forces, the low turnout, and the divison of voters. The Orbán government that took office on 3 May, 2010 wanted to remedy this situation by attempting to regulate the issue of dual citizenship. A new law, adopted in the end of May, states that on the basis of individual applications and by way of an accelerated procedure Hungarian citizenship can be granted to non-Hungarian citizens, whose ancestors were Hungarians or who originate from Hungary and / or can demonstrate their knowledge of the Hungarian language.25

The National Round Table talks, in essence, did not address the economic transition whose roots go back to the golden times of the Kádár-era. The process of reforms prior to 1989 had three successive phases: 1) the New Economic Mechanism (NEM) of 1968, that decreased the role of central planning, increased the independence of companies, and allowed for the differentiation of prices and wages; 2) reforms carried out between 1978 and 1982, the most important among them being the support for various small businesses and economic associations, as well as the legalization of the so-called second economy; 3) the decision of the Central Committee of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party that aimed at the creation of guided market economy, based on mixed – state, cooperative, and private – ownership. This latter formed the basis for the transformation of the state’s ownership rights onto the so-called company councils, of which 50 per cent consisted of company leaders and 50 per cent of the workers’ representatives. This was followed by the adoption of the Bankruptcy Act of 1986, which allowed for the liquidation of non-competitive companies. The two-tier banking system came into effect on 1 January 1988, placing the process of applying for credit on new foundations. Then on 1 January, 1988, corporate tax and personal income tax was introduced. This process was completed by the Association Act, which was adopted on 10 October, 1988, and became effective on 1 January, 1989. It allowed for the transformation of state companies into economic associations, the inclusion of foreign direct investment, and the establishment of companies, whose employees could not exceed 500 in number. This act formed the basis of the so-called spontaneous privatization, meaning the privatization of state assets.26

Through the process of spontaneous privatization, which took place with the complete exclusion of social control, the incumbent company management could acquire property with extremely favourable conditions. This process, which took place behind the scenes, was called by Elemér Hankiss “the conversion of power”,27

but the general public simply referred to it as the transition of power or the transition of ownership.

It was the democratically elected Antall government that put an end to spontaneous privatization. From then on, it was possible to privatize or establish associations only with the appraisal by independent external experts of the assets to be privatized, or by way of public tenders. Despite the new regulations, privatization continued to be the hotbed of corruption, only the circle of those implicated became more difficult to define. To sum it up, in a decade the property relations of the economy changed dramatically. In 1989, still 80 per cent of the GDP was produced by state companies while the share of private enterprises amounted only to 2 per cent. At the end of the 1990s, the share of public ownership dropped to 30 per cent whereas the share of private ownership stabilized around 70 per cent. In other words, by the end of the decade Hungary transformed itself into a market economy of mixed ownership in which private ownership regained the upper hand.28

As the restructuring of property relations was taking place, due to problems inherited from the past as well as to changes in external economic conditions, the economic crisis continued to deepen. In 1993, gross domestic product was already 18 per cent behind the level of 1989. The decline in production went hand in hand with the rise in inflation. After being 29 per cent in 1990, the rate of inflation increased to 35 per cent in 1991, and it was not until 1994 that it returned to under 20 per cent. The drop in GDP led to an abrupt fall in incomes. Between 1989 and 1993, real wages and pensions combined fell by more than 15 per cent. Nevertheless, the volume of convertible foreign debt continued to rise and by 1994 it reached 28 billion dollars. While average income declined, disparities in incomes increased. In 1993–94, the average income of the top 10 per cent of the population was almost eight times higher than that of the lowest 10 per cent, whereas it was only 4–5 times higher in the 1980s. The people who were living under or around the officially defined poverty line were unskilled workers, peasants, agricultural workers, people on widows’ pensions and on disability pensions, as well as the unemployed. The number of the jobless increased from 14,000 in 1989 to over 600,000 by 1993. 71 per cent of families with three or more children and 56 per cent of the Roma population belonged to the poorest stratum of society earning less than 50 per cent of the average income. During the last decades of the Kádár-era, 62 per cent of the active working age Roma population worked on a regular basis. By 1993, this figure dropped to 22 per cent and, in essence, it has not changed ever since. Owing to the permanent loss of jobs and to their low level of education, the overwhelming majority of Roma people occupied a place among the poorest third of society, that is to say among the estimated one and a half million poor.29

The deterioration of living conditions and the rise in the disparity of living standards had a disheartening effect on a significant part of the society, which led to a loss of enthusiasm for regime change. For these unfavourable trends many put the blame on the new system as well as the government embodying it. By 1994, dissatisfaction with the governing coalition rose to such levels that during the second free elections the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) suffered a resounding defeat and the successor of the communist state-party, MSZP (Hungarian Socialist Party), gained an absolute majority.

After hitting bottom in 1993, most of the economic indicators started to improve from 1994 onwards. In 1994, per capita GDP grew by 3.3 per cent, in 1995 by 2 per cent, and from 1997 the annual rise amounted to more than 4 per cent. In 1998, per capita gross domestic product was only 5 per cent lower than the level in 1989. By 1998, inflation decreased to 14 per cent and unemployment fell to 9–10 per cent of the active population. By 1995, the volume of gross national debt grew to 31.6 billion dollars, later it began to decrease. In 1997, it amounted to only 22 billion dollars thanks to revenues generated from privatization, while the volume of net debt also declined from 16 billion to 10.6 billion dollars. Despite these favourable economic changes, the shrinking of incomes and household consumption stopped only in 1996. By this time, the real value of net wages was 26 per cent lower, whereas the value of pensions was 31 per cent lower than their respective levels in 1989. Income and consumption levels in the middle of the 1990s were comparable to the figures in the second half of the 1970s. Most probably this economic situation contributed to the fact that by 1998 the support for MSZP (Socialist Party) decreased compared to 1994, therefore Fidesz, having gained 38 per cent of the votes and having entered into a coalition with the Independent Smallholders’ Party and MDF (Hungarian Democratic Forum), had the opportunity to form a government.30

During the four years of the Fidesz – FKGP (Independent Smallholders’ Party) – MDF (Hungarian Democratic Forum) government, led by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, recovery from the economic crisis continued to take place. Owing to the increased GDP growth rate of 4–5 per cent, in 1999, per capita GDP caught up with the 1989 level and in 2001 it even surpassed it by 8 per cent. Simultaneously, the inflation rate of 8–9 per cent in 1999–2001 decreased to 5.3 per cent by 2002. The proportion of the unemployed dropped from 9.6 per cent in 1998 to 5.8 per cent in 2002. Per capita real wages, as well as household consumption reached the level of 1989 only in 2001. In the meantime, differentiation of incomes continued to take place. Despite the general improvement of the economy, in reality only a minority of the people experienced a rise in living standards, while the bigger part of the population even in 2001–2002 was poorer than 12 years earlier. In spite of favourable economic developments, similar to all post-regime change governing parties, Fidesz also suffered a defeat at the hand of the voters during the general elections. The socialists and the free democrats were invited back by the voters and Péter Medgyessy was given the mandate to form a new government.31

The favourable economic trends taking place from the middle of the 1990s came to a halt after the turn of the millennium. From about 2001–2002 onwards, signs of worrisome disparities started to manifest themselves in the economy. Although until 2006 the dynamic growth of GDP continued to take place with only some minor fluctuations, a grave budget crisis developed by the middle of the decade. This was partially due to the unjustifiably high wages before the elections of 2002, and to a large extent to the redemption of the election promises of the Medgyessy government in 2002–2003. As a result of the 50 per cent pay rise for civil servants, tax-exemptions for those earning only the minimum wage, the increase in family allowances, as well as the introduction of the 13th month pension, by 2002 real wages finally caught up with the 1989 level and in 2006 they even surpassed it by 24 per cent. Public spending on education, health care, as well as on other social programs also increased significantly. However, there were not enough funds in the budget to finance these costs along with the ever rising rate of motorway construction. Following good old practices, the Orbán, and more pertinently the Medgyessy, as well as the Gyurcsány governments, made up for the rising deficit of the budget by taking out credit from foreign sources. Therefore, from 2000 the net foreign debt of the country again started to rise and by 2006 it reached 38 billion euros. This amounted to an almost four fold increase compared to the level of 1999. Between 2001 and 2006, the deficit of the state budget in relation to GDP grew from 52 to 66.5 per cent, whereas the balance rose from 3.5 to 9.2 per cent. These indicators were almost as negative as those of the record low period of 1993–94.

In order to restore the balance, the second Gyurcsány government introduced numerous austerity measures during the fall of 2006 and in 2007. As a result, the budget deficit decreased to 3.3 per cent by 2008. Apart from this, most economic indicators continued to deteriorate. The annual growth of GDP, which had been around 4 per cent, fell to 1.1 in 2007 and to 0.5 per cent in 2008. Real wages declined by about 5 per cent in 2007 and grew by less than 1 per cent in 2008. Gross foreign debt relative to GDP again jumped to over 70 per cent, while the rate of unemployment approached 10 per cent. These woes were only aggravated by the global economic crisis that began to manifest itself from the autumn of 2008. The resulting social and economic situations, along with sharp political conflicts, were undoubtedly among the main reasons for the street demonstrations and unrest in Budapest between 2006 and 2008. All this spelt the end of the Gyurcsány government in the spring of 2009. The so-called technocratic government, led by Gordon Bajnai, took up the task of crisis management and introduced further austerity measures.32

By 2010, the accumulated problems led to the complete transformation of power relations among political parties. One of the major forces administering regime change, the Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ), had disintegrated already before the elections. The same fate awaited the Hungarian Democratic Forum as well, which still ran in the elections but did not manage to have a single representative in parliament. MSZP (Socialist Party) suffered a major blow as well: it received a 20 per cent support on regional lists but succeeded in getting only 15 per cent of the seats in parliament. The far-right Movement for a Better Hungary (Jobbik), founded in 2003, faired much better. Another new party, the liberal LMP (Lehet Más a Politika – Politics Can Be Different), however, could gather only 4 per cent of the seats. The absolute winner of the elections was the coalition of Fidesz and the Christian Democrats that took 52.7 per cent of the votes on regional lists. Due to this result and their outstanding performance on constituency lists, they obtained 68 per cent of the seats in parliament. No other party had gained such a victory since the regime change in Hungary. These results significantly increased the scope of action of Fidesz, which, similarly to its previous term of office in 1998–2002, was led by Viktor Orbán.

In 2006, the volume of GDP, reflecting the total achievement of various fields of the economy, surpassed the 1989 level by 32 per cent. Of course, the overwhelming majority of other countries in the world were also developing. In 2006, per capita GDP in Hungary amounted to 60 per cent of the one measured in the old 15 member European Union, just like in 1989. With this result in 2006, among the 25 countries of the European Union Hungary occupied 21st place. Since then the position of the country has further deteriorated.33

Due to the long pre-history of economic transition and the specific features of privatization, the pre-regime change entrepreneurial–managerial elite in Hungary managed to retain about four-fifths of their positions until the turn of the millennium. The sociological features of this group were summarised by Iván Szelényi in 1998 as follows: “they were recruited primarily from the middle layers of the late Kádárian nomenclature. Their average age was around 45 and they worked in mid-managerial positions already during the 1980s. A large segment, at least half of them, were also members of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party. It is fair to say that they joined the party not because of ideological commitment but rather out of practical, pragmatic considerations. [...] a major part of their members held degrees in technology or economics and many of them belonged to first generation intelligentsia. Their parents were likely to form the ranks of the upwardly mobile workers and the more well-to-do stratum of the peasant population but we may also find petit bourgeois citizens among their grandparents. Their way of thinking was clearly pragmatic already during the 1980s: this stratum was the first to realise [...] that it was possible to transform the economy in such a way that the transition, instead of harming their interests, would even benefit them personally.”34

This sociological generalization can be illustrated with the concrete examples of Sándor Demján, the second richest person in Hungary today, as well as the career of billionaire Gábor Széles. Sándor Demján (1943) started his career in a cooperative in the countryside in the 1960s, and in 1976, he became the director of the Budapest Skála Department Store, unique for its entrepreneurial spirit and profit-oriented philosophy. Because of his achievements, in 1986, he was entrusted with the creation of the first Hungarian commercial bank (Magyar Hitelbank). Similarly to Skála in the field of trade, Hitelbank was a pioneer in the construction of the new banking system. Among other things, he played a key role in bringing foreign capital to the country, as well as in the selling of state-owned companies. Since 1990, Demján has been the head of several large international investment companies.35 Gábor Széles (1945) studied to be an engineer and worked for many years at the Geophysical Institute of ELTE University. Taking advantage of the opportunity, together with two of his associates, he established an economic cooperative called Műszertechnika GMK. They designed and produced various scientific equipment at their own risk and for their own profit. In 1988, when the Companies Act allowed them to transform into a company, already some 600 people were employed by the enterprise. In 1989, he joined the Hungarian Democratic Forum and in 1991, he bought Videoton, one of the biggest electronics factories of Hungary. Between 1996–1997, he put it back on its feet, then in 1998, he acquired Ikarus, the only bus factory in Central Europe. In the end of the 1990s, he employed 21,000 people in his three large companies.33

The gradual loosening of intellectual life determined by the hegemony of Marxism goes back to the 1960s. Similarly to the reforms of the centrally planned economic system, the intellectual policies supported works with a Marxist orientation and the ones that were at least in tune with the party line; tolerated writings that although not Marxist, but at least did not enter into open polemics with Marxism; and prohibited the unmistakably anti- Marxist and anti-regime products of the intellect. According to this, using French examples, the writings of not only Louis Aragon, Roger Garaudy, and Jean-Paul Sartre were translated into Hungarian but also a few works by Francois Mauriac, Teilhard de Chardin, and even the Mémories de guerre by Charles de Gaulle. Raymond Aron, however, was considered to be forbidden fruit up to the very end. Due to the greater degree of openness, one of the main characteristic features of the cultural life of the Kádár-era was the partially latent, partially open separation of different intellectual trends, that is to say, the emergence of a kind of limited ideological pluralism. However, the various ideological, generational or regional groups, or schools of thought were still not allowed to become institutionalized and independent organizations with a financial basis of their own. Of course, the freedom of churches was also constrained. The teaching of religion was continuously banned from 1949.37

Liberalization continued during the 1980s. Although illegally, the influential periodical of the democratic opposition, entitled Beszélő, started to be published in 1981. The Open Society Foundation of George (György) Soros, which supported anti-Marxist opposition movements on a regular basis, could operate in Hungary from 1982, and from 1984 it continued its activities in cooperation with the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. The foundation of the so-called folk-national opposition, the Bethlen Gábor Foundation, came into being in 1985. In the end of 1986, the Writers’ Association removed almost all protégées of the Party State from among its leaders by voting them out. They replaced them with mostly prominent figures of the opposition. In 1989, the Publishing Directorate, which had the function of granting permission for various products of the press, was discontinued. The compulsory teaching of the Russian language was abolished in schools; and the previously closed sections of libraries, where anti-Marxist and antiregime books had been kept, became open for everyone. The teaching of religion in schools became possible and religious orders, banned in 1950, were also allowed to resume their activities.38

The intensive intellectual atmosphere, so typical of the second half of the 1980s, entailed the direct political role of the cultural elite and their organization into ideological movements. The first leaders of the opposition parties came almost exclusively from the ranks of the intellectual elite. In 1990, about half of the ministers of the Antall government were university professors or researchers at the Academy of Sciences. The majority of those who stayed in their professions either remained with the Socialist Party (MSZP) or joined the elite surrounding the liberal parties. The support for the national-conservative side was limited among the cultural elite, and it was minimal among the media-intellectuals. Today this situation has changed significantly. In the first half of the 1990s the churches regained many of the schools they had owned previously, and for the first time in Hungarian history, Catholic and Protestant universities were established. The overwhelming dominance of the socialist and liberal media intellectuals also decreased to some extent. The so-called national-conservative side has for years had a national daily paper (Magyar Nemzet), two weeklies (Heti Válasz, Magyar Demokrata), numerous periodicals (Magyar Szemle, Valóság, Hitel, etc.), several radio stations, and two television channels.

As can be seen, from an ideological-political point of view, the Hungarian cultural elite has changed significantly. It essentially adapted to the political spectrum. As to its personal composition, however, the change could be regarded as minimal. These changes are partially connected with the rehabilitation of people who had been removed from academic research institutes and universities because of their critical activities (Ágnes Heller, Sándor Radnóti, György Bence, etc.). Partially they can be accounted for by the natural generational mobility. It should also be noted that the regime change in Hungary did not entail the institutional removal of any university professors, high priests, chief editors or any members of the Academy. In case it happened, those removed could go on with their careers in different elite positions. The cultural elite can, therefore, be characterized with a continuity and permanency of a similar or even higher degree than in the case of the economic elite.

On the basis of all the above mentioned factors we can state without exaggeration that although regime change did take place in Hungary, a change of elite either did not happen or did so to a very limited extent. This is all the more surprising because before the 1990 elections the majority of the opposition parties demanded a “major spring cleaning” and there were also many among the ranks of the winning party, the Hungarian Democratic Forum and its partner, the Independent Smallholders’ Party, who advocated a radical clean-up at all levels and in all areas of public administration, the economy, and social life. This wish was reflected in the so-called Justitia plan of 1990 that called for the complete “screening” of the post-1956 economic, political, and cultural elite with the purpose of “impeaching and prosecuting the individuals responsible for the catastrophic state of the country”. Furthermore, the plan demanded the revision of all transactions of privatization and the full re-examination of leaders during that period, as well as their successors.39

The Justitia plan, however, was rejected not only by the MSZP (Hungarian Socialist Party), the party most involved, but also by the liberal SZDSZ (the Alliance of Free Democrats) and Fidesz (the Association of Young Democrats), not implicated in the process due to the young age of its constituency. Referring to the embeddedness of the entire society during the Kádár – regime, one of the leaders of the Social Democrats (SZDSZ) warned that “those in search of individuals responsible for the past might end up finding collective responsibility” .40 Instead of the Justitia plan, SZDSZ proposed the exclusion of former secret agents from public life. According to assumptions at the time, the implementation of this proposition would have decimated primarily the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) and to a certain extent that would have endangered the parliamentary majority of the coalition. József Antall did not embrace this or the Justitia plan. He feared that both solutions, as well as their myriads of combinations, would easily lead to witch-hunts and may shake the faith of the people in democracy. Domokos Kosáry, the new president of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, took a similar stand to that of József Antall. Drawing on the lessons of the purges of the 20th century, whose outcome in all cases turned out to be counterproductive, he resisted every attempt at a cleansing in the realm of science based on political considerations in retrospect.

Alongside the fear of witch-hunts, we know of two further explanations why impeachment and large scale personnel changes were not carried out. Rudolf Tőkés, an American political scientist of Hungarian descent, assumes that there was a “tacit agreement” on the part of reform communists and opposition leaders to “avoid reprisals against former party members in the aftermath of the transition”. That is to say, the price paid for the peaceful transition was the lack of accountability.41 Péter Kende was of a similar opinion. He believed that compensation for the lack of accountability was “in essence revolutionary change without a revolution.”42

Ferenc Gazsó, a Hungarian sociologist, however, maintained that regime change had been “preceded by a radical shift of elite that took place during the 1980s.” In other words, the ranks of the economic and cultural elite, and partially the political elite as well, had been filled with competent intellectuals, therefore, a radical elite change after 1990 would have been entirely unreasonable, unnecessary and, for lack of an alternative elite, even unfeasible.43 Though phrased with different words, essentially the same conclusion was reached by Erzsébet Szalai in the middle of the 1990s when she wrote that “in the end of the 1980s, the communist nomenclature as a homogeneous social group did not exist any more” and within the party bureaucracy, as well as the state bureaucracy, a “traditional pro-order stratum” was competing with a “technocrat-reformist stratum” representing the interests of “enlightened managers and entrepreneurs”.44

To a certain extent, probably each of these factors contributed to the fact that a market economy, parliamentary democracy, and ideological pluralism was established in Hungary paradoxically by a post-communist elite, which to a large extent was identical with the communist elite prior to the regime change. Ultimately, this could be the explanation why the outcome of so many consultations, debates, and all the legal fuss about delivering justice ended up to be two – in essence – ineffective acts. One of them is Act XC adopted on 22 October 1993 that provided for the prosecution of war crimes and crimes against humanity that would never expire under the Geneva Conventions of 1949, which had been signed by Hungary as well. The other one, Act XXIII, provided for the screening of the past of individuals holding important public offices, such as MPs, ministers, under-secretaries, etc. If persons in high positions turned out to have been officers or agents of the internal counter-intelligence of the Ministry of the Interior, or if they had been informed about the decisions of this particular department; if they had served in the special police forces between 1956–57; if they had joined the Arrow Cross Party prior to1945, then the special judicial body in charge of the investigation would request their resignation. If they complied with the request their past would not be made public. If not, the judicial body would publish its findings in the Hungarian Gazette. In order to safeguard the authority and reputation of the first democratically elected legislative body of the country, the act entered into force only after the term of office of the Parliament had expired.

On the basis of Act XC of 1993, the office of the attorney-general indicted 28 people in a total of 7 cases. The accused were commanders in charge of the volley fired during and after the 1956 revolution, or represented the ranks of junior soldiers and people serving in the special police forces. The trials, having passed through the labyrinth of constitutional reviews and appeals, lasted for years. The last verdict was passed in 2003. Most of the proceedings ended with acquittal, several of the accused died in the meantime, and in the case of other accused persons imprisonment could not be carried out due to amnesty or the suspension provisions of the courts. There were only three exceptions: two people accused and convicted in the Salgótarján case, and one in a case in the town of Tata. They spent two and three years in prison, respectively.

The application of Act XXIII of 1994 also yielded meager results. Since its scope of action covered only politicians who were still holding leadership positions and was not applicable for those who had already left politics, as well as the members of the business, intellectual and religious elite of the country, it did not have the effect of a complete clean-up of public life. Of the 11,000 people screened in 10 years until the end of 2005, only slightly more than 200, that is less than 2 per cent, were found to be implicated. However, based on the materials of the Historical Office, which was set up in 1997 and where a certain part of state security documents were kept, more and more renowned church leaders, sports people, artists, scientists, and journalists turned out to have had some level of contact with the internal security forces. Agent lists, as well as other documents exposing certain individuals also appeared from various other sources, the origins of which may not be clear even today. Over the years, numerous political and public scandals emerged concerning these documents, with the biggest one having erupted following the 2002 elections. It was at that time that the general public learnt that the new Prime Minister, Péter Medgyessy, worked for a few years as a top secret agent for counter-espionage in the capacity of a financial expert. The committee that was set up following the eruption of the scandal established similar suspicions in relation to several former ministers and under-secretaries. As a consequance, a need was expressed for a new screening or agent act that would be more encompassing than the previous one. This time again, the adoption of such an act was prevented by the lack of agreement among the parties. This is considered to be, by many, the biggest handicap of the regime change that needs to be remedied by all means possible, while others would like to personally forget the whole issue and wish it were forgotten by everyone else as well.45


Ignác Romsics. Professor of Modern Hungarian History at the University of Eger. Since 2001 he has been Member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and from 1999 to 2007 he was General Secretary of the Hungarian Historical Society. Between 1993 and 1998, and in the academic year of 2002–2003 he held the Hungarian Chair at Indiana University, Bloomington (USA). In the Spring Semester of 2006 he taught at the University of Jyväskylä (Finland). In April 2009 he was professeur invité at Sorbonne (Paris). He has authored and edited several books including Wartime American Plans for a New Hungary (1992), István Bethlen (1995), Hungary in the Twentieth Century (1999), The Dismantling of Historic Hungary (2002); From Dictatorship to Democracy. The Birth of the Third Hungarian Republic 1998–2001 (2007); Kriegsziele und Nachkriegsordnung in Ostmitteleuropa. Der Pariser Friedensvertrag von 1947 mit Ungarn (2009).



1 András Bozóki (ed.) A rendszerváltás forgatókönyve. Kerekasztal-tárgyalások 1989- ben. Dokumentumok, volume II. Bp., Magvető, Új Mandátum, pp. 19–20 and 145.

2 Magyar Közlöny, 23 October 1989, 1219–1230. Ignác Romsics (ed.) Magyar történeti szöveggyűjtemény 1914–1999, volume II (Budapest, 2000), Osiris Kiadó, pp. 481–491.

3 Magyar Nemzet, 24 October 1989. Kikiáltották a Magyar Köztársaságot.

4 Magyar Közlöny. 30 October 1989. 1283–1297. See András Körösényi, A magyar politikai rendszer (Budapest, 1998), Osiris, pp. 337–338.

5 Magyar Közlöny. 30 October 1989. 1305–1328, in Magyar történeti szöveggyűjtemény 1914–1999, volume II. pp. 499–505. See András Körösényi: Ibid., pp. 148–160.

6 About the process see in more detail: Ignác Romsics, From Dictatorship to Democracy. The Birth of the Third Hungarian Republic. Highland Lakes (New York, 2007), Social Science Monographs, Boulder, Co; Atlantic Research and Publications, Highland Lakes, NJ, pp. 207–212.

7 Ibid., pp. 288–289.

8 Rudolf Tőkés, “Az új magyar politikai elit,” Valóság, 1990/12. pp. 9–12.

9 Ignác Romsics, Hungary in the Twentieth Century (Budapest, 1999), Corvina, Osiris, pp. 442–445 and 557–561.

10 András Oplatka “The Pan –European Picnic – well – known facts and blind spots,” in György Gyarmati (ed.) Prelude to demolishing the Iron Curtain (Sopron, Budapest: L’Harmattan, 2012), pp. 65–72.

11 Népszabadság, 7 February 1990. Magyarország jövője a semlegesség. See Alfred Reisch “The Hungarian Dilemma: After the Warsaw Pact, Neutrality or NATO?”, Report on Eeastern Europe 15, 13 April 1990, pp.16–21.

12 Népszabadság, 26 May 1990. A Nemzeti Megújhodás programja. See Andrew Felkay Out of Russian Orbit; Hungary Gravitates to the west (Westport, Connecticut, London: Greenwood Press, 1997), pp. 14–15.

13 Népszabadság, 8 June 1990. Rendkívüli VSZ-csúcs lesz Budapesten and ibid., 9 June 1990. Árpád Göncz, “Eredményesek voltak tanácskozásaink.”

14 Alfred Reisch “Hungary to Leave Military Arm of Warsaw Pact,” Report on Eastern Europe 1991/26 (29 June) pp. 20–25. See also Lajos Für A Varsói Szerződés végnapjai – magyar Szemmel (Budapest: Kairosz, 2003), pp. 116–156.

15 Manfred Görtemaker “Verhandlungen mit den Vier Mächten,” in Informationen zur politischen Bildung, 1996/1. pp. 36–45.

16 Joseph C. Kun, Hungarian Foreign Policy. The Experience of a New Democrarcy (Westport, London: Praeger, 1993), pp. 87–90.

17 Miklós Szabó “From Big Elephant to Paper Tiger: Soviet-Hungarian Relations, 1988–91,”in Béla K. Király, András Bozóki (eds) Lawful Revolution in Hungary, 1989–94 (New York, Highland Lakes, 1995) Atlantic Research and Publications, pp. 395–406.

18 Magyar Nemzet, 29 June 1991. Tegnap Budapesten feloszlott a KGST. Concerning the developments of foreign turnover see Magyarország népessége és gazdasága. Múlt és jelen (Budapest, 1996) Központi Statisztikai Hivatal, pp. 144–153.

19 Népszabadság, 7 November 1990, Magyarország a 24. tagállam.

20 László Valki “Hungary’s Membership of Nato,” in Lee W. Congdon and Béla K. Király (eds) The Ideas of the Hungarian Revolution, Supressed and Victorious 1956–1999 (New York, Highland Lakes, N. J., 2002), Atlantic Research and Publications.

21 Gabriella Izik Hedri “Preparations for Hungary’s Accession to the European Union,” in The ideas of the Hungarian Revolution, ibid., pp. 485–512.

22 Joseph C. Kun: ibid., pp. 73–74.

23 Ralph Thomas Göllner: Die Europapolitik Ungarns von 1990 bis 1994 (München: Verlag Ungarischs Institut, 2001), p. 72.

24 Jan B. de Weydenthal “The Visegrad Summit,” Report on Eastern Europe 1991/9 (1 March) pp. 28–32.

25 Nándor Bárdi, Csilla Ferdinec, László Szarka (eds) Minority Hungarian Communities in the Twentieth Century (New York, Highland Lakes, 2011), Atlantic Research and Publications, pp. 435–584.

26 See in more deatail Iván T. Berend A magyar gazdasági reform útja (Budapest: Közgazdasági és Jogi Könyvkiadó, 1988). Concerning the relevant parts of the act on personal income tax and economic associations see Magyar történeti szöveggyűjtemény, vol. II. ibid., pp. 417–418 and 432–437.

27 Elemér Hankiss, Kelet-európai alternatívák (Budapest: Közgazdasági és Jogi Könyvkiadó, 1989), pp. 326–338.

28 A gazdasági átalakulás számokban, 1989–1997 (Budapest: Pénzügyminisztérium, 1997). In the form of a manuscript.

29 Antal Stark: Rögös úton. Nemzetgazdaságunk rendszerváltás előtti és utáni két évtizede (Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó 2009), pp. 35–73.

3 A gazdasági átalakulás számokban 1989–1997, ibid., and Magyar Statisztikai Zsebkönyv 2000. Budapest, 2001, KSH.

31 A társadalom és a gazdaság főbb folyamatai 1999-ben. Statisztikai Szemle, 2000/9. pp. 725–752.; Beszámoló a társadalom és a gazdaság főbb folyamatairól. Statisztikai Szemle, 2002/9. pp. 874–889.

32 Antal Stark: ibid. Pp. 35–73. Magyarország 1989–2009. A változások tükrében (Budapest: KSH, 2010).

33 Erzsébet Viszt (ed.) Versenyképességi évkönyv 2007 (Budapest, 2007), GKI Gazdaságkutató Zrt. and www.indexmundi. GDP per capita (PPP).

34 Iván Szelényi “Megjegyzések a posztkommunizmus hatalmi elitjéről és uralkodó ideológiájáról,” in Rolf Müller, Tibor Takács (eds) A magyar elit természetéről (Debrecen: Kossuth Egyetemi Nyomda, 1998), p. 61.

35 László Dalia “Demján Sándor,” in Sándor Kurtán, Péter Sas, László Vass (eds) Magyarország évtized-könyve. A rendszerváltás 1988–1998, volume II (Budapest: Demokrácia Kutatások Magyar Központja, 1998), pp. 839–842. Foundation.

36 Ibid., pp. 868–874. (Ágnes G. Barta: Széles Gábor)

37 Ignác Romsics: Ibid.,(1999) pp. 388–401.

38 Ignác Romsics: Ibid., (2007) pp. 26–45.

39 Sándor Kurtán, Péter Sándor, László Vass (eds) Magyarország politikai évkönyve, 1991 (Budapest: Ökonómia-Economix Rt., 1991), pp. 762–763.

40 Ferenc Kőszeg, “Legyen Justitia – vesszen a világ,” Beszélő, 1990/34. p. 4.

41 Rudolf Tőkés: Ibid. P. 10.

42 Pierre Kende, Le défi hongrois. De Trianon a Bruxelles (Paris: Buchet/Chastel, 2004), p. 125.

43 Ferenc Gazsó, “Elitfolyamatok a rendszerváltozásban,: in A magyar elit természetéről, Ibid., p. 50.

44 Erzsébet Szalai, Az elitek átváltozása (Budapest: Új Mandátum, 1998), pp. 20–21.

45József Debreceni, A miniszterelnök. Antall József és a rendszerváltozás (Budapest: Osiris, 1998), pp. 261–273. and Imre Kónya “Radikális rendszerváltozás és elvetélt számonkérési kísérletek 1989–1994,” in Tamás Fricz, András Lánczi (eds) Identitásaink és (el) hallgatásaink. A XXI. század évkönyve (Budapest: XXI. Század Intézet, 2011), pp. 79–90.


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 Passing the Torch, despite Bananas. The Twentieth‑Anniversary Commemorations of 1989 in Central Europe
James Krapfl

Passing the Torch, despite Bananas. The Twentieth‑Anniversary Commemorations of 1989 in Central Europe

20 August 2014
  • 1989
  • transformation
  • Poland
  • Hungary
  • Central Europe
  • Romania
  • Germany
  • Slovakia
  • Czech Republic


The 2009 commemorations of the revolutionary events of 1989 provided an excellent opportunity to observe where central European political cultures stood a generation after the annus mirabilis. This article interprets the twentieth anniversary commemorations in Poland, Hungary, Germany, the Czech and Slovak Republics, and Romania, based primarily on the author’s firsthand observations. It argues that patterns of observance fell along a spectrum from relatively “democratic,” foregrounding citizens in public space, to “aristocratic,” privileging elites and barring access to citizens. The more “democratic” societies were nonetheless divided over the question of whether democracy or consumption was the central aim of civic engagement in 1989.

Fedor Gál, one-time chairman of the Slovak civic initiative Public against Violence, expressed surprise in late November 2009 at the “tremendous explosion” of public discourse set off by the twentieth anniversary of the revolution of 1989.1 The For the entire year preceding the anniversary, Czech students had conducted an “Inventory of Democracy,” calling on elected officials to prove by 17 November 2009 that they were responsive to their electorate. Newspapers, radio, and television, throughout 2009, reprinted or rebroadcast the news of “twenty years ago today.” Museums, theatres, and other cultural institutions across the Czech and Slovak Republics put on exhibits relating to 1989. The anniversary was the theme of film festivals, conferences, and a greater number of moderated discussions than any individual could hope to attend; even Česko Slovenská SuperStar (a newly “federalized” Czecho-Slovak spin-off of Britain’s Pop Idol) addressed it. On November 17 itself, the smorgasbord of commemorative acts, became truly bewildering, with over a dozen different simultaneous events in Prague alone.

To anyone who had been following the memory of 1989 closely, such an “explosion” was only to be expected. Similar phenomena had occurred on the fifteenth anniversary, the tenth anniversary, and so on back to the “onemonth anniversary” in December 1989.2 The political cultures of the Czech and Slovak Republics are inscribed within the collective memory of 1989, such that the anniversary regularly invites vocal comparison of present-day realities with the ideals of a mythic (though by no means mythical) founding moment. The twentieth-anniversary commemorations were more extensive, to be sure, than any in the previous decade – but this, too, was to be expected, since twenty years marks the turning of generations and citizens had often said in 1989–90 that it would take this long to assess the fruits of their efforts.3 That Gál could have been surprised was indicative of a social fragmentation of memory – a phenomenon evident not just in the Czech and Slovak Republics, but throughout central Europe.

This article describes and analyzes the twentieth-anniversary commemorations in Poland, Hungary, Germany, the Czech and Slovak Republics, and Romania. It is based in part on my own observations (from May to December 2009) and in part on a survey of relevant discussions and coverage in the media of the countries in question. The anniversaries demonstrated the continuing importance of 1989 in all six countries as a founding moment on which the legitimacy of present-day regimes depends at least in part; the commemorations invariably sought to specify the meaning of 1989 in order to emphasize this legitimacy or to question it, and in order to support arguments for how the appurtenant political communities should evolve. Degrees of agreement about the meaning of 1989 were reflected in patterns of commemoration, which ranged from extensive, harmonious consensus in Germany and the Czech Republic to tense and clearly dysfunctional disagreement in Hungary. In Germany and the Czech Republic, commemorations were vividly “democratic” in nature; citizens rather than elites were at the centre of attention, and the activities both reflected and facilitated a renewal of civic engagement in public affairs. In Hungary, by contrast, the official commemorations were highly “aristocratic” – almost exclusively the affairs of state officials and privileged guests, and mostly off limits to ordinary citizens. Commemorations in other countries fell in a spectrum between these two extremes.

Though commemorations in the more “democratic” countries were characterized by a visible consensus, this was not a consensus about the exact meaning of 1989. In both Germany and the Czech Republic, there was a debate between fundamentally opposing interpretations of 1989 that took as their rival symbols the torch and the banana. Citizens organizing commemorations in Leipzig chose as their iconic image a photograph of a child on her father’s shoulders carrying a candle like a torch; they argued that the revolution had primarily been about democracy and that the torch needed to be passed on. The mayor of Prague, by contrast, chose the banana as the emblem of activities that his office sponsored, suggesting that the revolution had primarily been about material well-being, now happily improved. Despite disagreement about the meaning of 1989, however, participants in the “democratic” commemorations still functionally agreed about how to disagree. They could express opposing views in the same physical space without any fear of violence. In the more “aristocratic” countries, by contrast, there was a crisis of meaning, with the opposing camps literally unable to share public space and with barricades separating people from elites. In Hungary, moreover, the fear of violence was palpable.

“It all started in Poland”

My first encounter with Polish commemorations of 1989 was in Bratislava, where a red-and-white billboard at the main train station greeted visitors with the bold words (in English) “Freedom: Made in Poland.” Such billboards, I soon learned, were widespread across central Europe, along with signs proclaiming “It all began in Poland.” There were outdoor exhibits in Berlin, Prague, Bratislava, and Timişoara about the Polish road to 1989, and the Polish Institutes in the various capitals organized discussions and film screenings throughout the summer on this theme.

I arrived in Cracow on June 3 to find the city modestly decked out for the anniversary of the June 4 elections in which Solidarity candidates won a resounding victory over their Communist rivals. Banners fluttered on Rynek Główny, and outdoor exhibits were stationed in various parts of the city. That evening, however, a television debate made clear that the anniversary would be a contested one. Viewers were invited to vote via their mobile phones on the question: “Did the elections of 1989 mark the end of Communist power in Poland?” According to the vast majority of respondents, the answer was “no.”

On the anniversary of the elections I went first towards Wawel Castle. At 11 a.m., Prime Minister Tusk was to meet his counterparts from Germany, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Lithuania, Ukraine, and Romania, to be followed by a Te Deum in the cathedral and the sending of “a message to young Europe.”4 The entire hill was cordoned off, however – this commemoration was to be an exclusively elite affair. All those admitted at police checkpoints, their names ticked off a list, were in suits – even the group of middle school students who, presumably, were to represent “young Europe.” Now and then sirens would announce the arrival of cars and minibuses, some with diplomatic flags and all escorted by several police cars. Being present at the site I could learn little more than that this commemoration of Poland’s first democratic election since 1928 was closed to democratic participation, but on the evening news I learned that Greenpeace activists had somehow got in to stage a demonstration. Otherwise the event was as decorous as could be desired. Cardinal Dziwisz led the religious service, and Chancellor Merkel of Germany concluded her speech with the Polish words “dziękuję bardzo, Polsko” (thank you very much, Poland).

The only popular forms of commemoration I encountered that day in Cracow were a small renters’ protest, consisting of a march from Rynek Główny to the castle, and a more substantial anarchist march. Over 100 people took part in this second procession, which began at noon in front of the main train station and continued around the Ring and south to the foot of Wawel hill. Their lead banner proclaimed “without us there is no democracy,” while another declared “enough compromises: class war continues.” Amid the black or red and black flags were signs announcing affiliations, e.g. the Anarchist Federation, the Polish Association of Syndicalists, the New Left, and Young Socialists. While generally young, the marchers were not exclusively so; grey-haired old ladies walked alongside middle-aged men, and many of the participants in the earlier renters’ protest had joined this crowd. While some of the marchers wore black and a few had bandanas tied over their faces, most were dressed in ordinary street clothes and did not seek to hide their identity. Indeed, the well-behaved, polite manner of this demonstration made the extent of the police escort – perhaps one heavily equipped policeman for every marcher – seem ridiculous. Passers-by seemed to enjoy the scene even if they did not cheer the protesters (though the ranks of the marchers did swell somewhat as they progressed); the streets were lined with people taking photographs.

From television that afternoon I learned that things were much more interesting elsewhere in Poland. In Katowice, the trade union Solidarity had organized a demonstration larger than anything in Cracow under the banner “Silesia protests.” A placard in the crowd confirmed what one of the speakers said: “things are not as they should be,” and the ceremonies featured a coffin – suggesting, perhaps, the death of the dream of 1989. The real centre of events, however, was Gdańsk. While in one part of the city Tusk sat down with Václav Havel and Lech Wałęsa for a conference on “Solidarity and the Fall of Communism,” at the shipyard an outdoor platform provided a space for workers and clergymen to address a crowd. The present chief of Solidarity spoke, as did a priest who related 1989 to John Paul II. President Kaczyński, sporting a button with a cross, declared that “twenty years ago the Polish people said no to Communism.” For some in the crowd, though, this was evidently not enough. One banner called for the end of political parties as such.

During the day the crowd in Gdańsk was smaller than the one in Katowice, but in the evening the proportion reversed itself. The shipyard became the site of a grandiose public ceremony organized by the European Solidarity Centre, a new state-funded institution in Gdańsk, under the theme “It began in Poland.” Monolithic red dominoes were set up in a line leading from the stage, each bearing the name of a formerly Communist country. From the stage, a grinning Lech Wałęsa pushed the first domino (Poland), which knocked down Hungary, the GDR, Czechoslovakia, and fifteen others, culminating in Mongolia. At that moment fountains burst into action while red and white confetti fluttered above. The subsequent item on the program was a Scorpions concert, for which there was now a huge crowd. The band commenced with heavy metal and a few times invited the crowd to fill in for their vocals, but hardly anyone seemed to know the words. Only when the time came for “Wind of Change” – the last number, just before 11 p.m. – did the audience really join in. Many held their hands up in the V-sign and swayed.

I don’t know how many Poles joined in the 8 p.m. (20:00) “toast to freedom” proposed by journalists from Gazeta Wyborcza, the newspaper founded to support Solidarity in the run-up to the 1989 elections, but the day did seem to be the occasion for discussion, even if it was quiet compared with what would take place in eastern Germany and the Czech Republic in the fall.5 Polish television broadcast footage from June 1989 (reminding people of the joy they had visibly felt after voting) and held several discussions on the theme of the anniversary – including one comparing independence in 1918 and 1989. Television interviewees included a boy born on 4 June 1989, Wojciech Jaruzelski, and President Kaczyński. Jaruzelski emphasized that the elections would never have happened without him, and Kaczyński complained that June 4 was not a public holiday. There were commemorative events in dozens of other cities, and special Masses were said throughout the country.6

The fragmentation of memory is quite visible in the Polish case, not just because of the protests or the refusal of the president and prime minister to appear in the same place, but also because of the enforced separation between people and elites.7 It seems that official organizers put more effort into foreign policy than providing an opportunity for civil society to renew itself. It is significant, though, that no one challenged Solidarity as a sacred anchor of collective memory. The logo was used in both official and protest commemorations – even Greenpeace invoked it (though with green lettering, not red). It is also significant that elitism was counterbalanced by dignified protest. The same would not be true everywhere else.

“1989 was made possible by 1956”

The twentieth anniversary of the reburial of Imre Nagy did not become the occasion of as much public discussion as the anniversary of the Polish elections. There were commemorative events, but not as big, and if anything the exclusion of ordinary citizens from participation was more complete.

I missed an event that was to take place at Plot 301 early in the morning, but made it to Martyrs’ Square downtown for a ceremony at 9 a.m. The square itself was completely blocked off, and from none of the surrounding fences was it possible to see clearly what was going on. A military band and a group of two or three dozen grey-haired men in suits were gathered around the statue of Imre Nagy, together with a gaggle of photographers, while policemen and well-dressed security thugs chatted here and there in other parts of the enclosed space. There was a speech about freedom, some singing, and the laying of wreaths.

Only on Nádor utca was there anything like a congregation, but there were as many police and guards as onlookers. A couple of youths were there with a large Hungarian flag, while a middle-aged woman stood right at the fence with a small flag, emblazoned with the numbers 56/96, over her shoulder. There were maybe two dozen onlookers in all. An older man in a black suit stood at the fence with a bouquet of white flowers, while a young man held a single flower in paper. I overheard a passer-by speaking on his mobile phone about what happened “twenty years ago,” and I witnessed an older man walking a bicycle, who evidently wanted to cross the square to get home, arguing with the police to no avail. Five minutes after the ceremony ended we were allowed to enter the square and see the wreaths that had been left, guarded by two soldiers in interwar-style dress uniform.

From the distance with which I could view Heroes’ Square at 10 a.m., its wide space appeared to be festively arrayed with toy soldiers and a variety of Hungarian flags. The brass band was there, neatly lined up on the square’s front left quadrant, while a military choir stood in formation behind them, to the left of the flag-surrounded catafalque. Opposite them stood a large crowd of grey-haired men in suits, enlivened now by the presence of a few women in more colourful dress. In the front right quadrant stood a cluster of soldiers with wreaths, while a central red carpet leading to the catafalque was lined by soldiers bearing a variety of Hungarian flags. All the soldiers, once more, were wearing interwar-style dress uniforms.

The square was closed off to the public, so I could observe the ceremony only from across the street, where about as many people watched with me as had been on Nádor utca in the morning – including some of the same ones. The woman with the 56/96 flag was debating about the nature of “the Hungarian person” with a portly man whose T-shirt featured a map of pre-Trianon Hungary and the inscription: “to the god of the Hungarians.” As the ceremony across the street continued, the debate expanded to include more onlookers and to touch on the themes of Viktor Orbán and the present (Socialist) leadership, the role of the Communists, and Hungarians in Slovakia and Ukraine, all the while returning to the dates 1956 and 1989.

The only official commemorative event at all accessible to the public was an evening concert on Heroes’ Square. It was a much less exalted affair than the concert in Gdańsk – no well-known political or cultural figures took the stage – but still, several hundred people came. In between performances of famous opera choruses and arias, a male and a female speaker (both too young to remember 1956, possibly teenagers in 1989) read prepared comments on the significance of the day. “Without 1956, there would have been no 1989,” read the man. “1989 was an important year in Europe,” read the woman, “but the Hungarian revolution of 1956 was what made it possible. We are gathered here to commemorate an event that took place in 1989, but the key date of that year was not June 16, but October 23 – the beginning of the Hungarian Republic. In October 1989, freedom and love stood next to each other. The ideals of 1989 were Hungarian independence, democracy, and Europe.” The crowd did not appreciably diminish when a rain shower burst in the middle of the concert, and they joined in singing Verdi’s “Va, pensiero” as well as the national anthem.

Whereas the official slogan of the Polish commemoration was “It all began in Poland” (in 1980), the officiators at the Hungarian commemoration insisted that it really all began in Hungary (in 1956). Whereas the Poles made their claims known throughout central Europe, however, the Hungarians kept their beliefs largely to themselves. The country attracted attention in early July, when the increasingly popular but arguably fascist Magyar Guard was dissolved by court order, but less so on the October 23, anniversary of the revolution of 1956 and the founding of the (non-People’s) Republic of Hungary in 1989, when the Guard successfully defied this order. While the president and Socialist prime minister attended an official ceremony off limits to the public in Kispest, Viktor Orbán of the opposition Young Democrats led his supporters in a rival commemoration in Buda, and Krisztina Morvai of the far-right Jobbik party addressed a crowd of thousands on Elisabeth Square in central Pest, with uniformed Guardsmen in attendance. As night fell, the Jobbik crowd – including the outlawed Guardsmen – invaded the square in front of Parliament, shouting across the heavily policed barricades at the government officials gathered for another official commemoration inside. The police did not intervene, and the Guardsmen were visibly proud of what they took to be not just a symbolic victory.8

“Jesus Christ, thank you for the peaceful Wende”

Germany also conducted an anniversary foreign policy, but it was less arrogant than Poland’s. In all four of the Visegrád capitals, the German embassies organized events under the banner “Germany says thank you,” spanning several days in June. The one I witnessed in Bratislava featured theatrical performances, concerts, discussions with German and Slovak writers, and a curious machine with which individuals could produce postcards with their photograph and handwritten “greetings of freedom.” The campaign explicitly declared that the German revolution of 1989, and subsequent reunification, would not have been possible without the efforts of opposition movements in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. Germany’s official foreign policy was complemented by an extensive domestic discourse, particularly in the former GDR. There were exhibits throughout the “neue Bundesländer” on the revolution and about everyday life in the preceding decades. Museums and civic associations organized programs for schoolchildren, who of course had no memory of Communism or the revolution. New films premiered with titles such as Wir sind das Volk (We Are the People) and Das Wunder von Leipzig (The Miracle of Leipzig). Commemoration activity was particularly intense in Leipzig, with public discussions every Monday in the former Stasi headquarters, a weekly walking tour “Following the Traces of the Peaceful Revolution,” and at least a dozen long-running exhibits in museums, churches, theatres, and schools.

I arrived in Leipzig on October 9, just in time to catch the end of the “Democracy Market” on the city’s central Grimmaische Straße. Thirty-three citizens’ initiatives – some international, others national or very local – manned tables set up along the street, distributing literature, gathering signatures on petitions, and explaining their ideas to passers-by. The groups included Amnesty International, ATTAC (Association for the Taxation of financial Transactions and Aid to Citizens), a German movement for “More Democracy,” a “Christian Initiative for the Unemployed,” an “Anti-Privatization Initiative,” and a local group rallying under the slogan “No to the military airport.”

A stage was set up at the intersection with Universitätsstraße where readings, discussions, and allegorical performances had taken place throughout the day. When I arrived, a man was reading a poem he had written with the refrain “Freedom will be defended.” Hardly anyone was listening. Nearby was a “round table” (both literally and figuratively, with a sign attesting to the latter), where someone recorded an interview with the poet after he had finished. Later, I found the poet manning the ATTAC table. He told me that the city had spent roughly €900,000 on the official celebrations, but that the Democracy Market was at participating groups’ own expense. It was, however, endorsed by the citizens’ initiative “Day of the Peaceful Revolution,” which coordinated most of the official celebrations.

Peace prayers began at 5 p.m. in the Nikolaikirche. Admission was open to the public until capacity, but the line was so long that by the time I arrived I knew I had no chance. I therefore contented myself with milling about the huge crowd outside. The mood was positive. On the square, around a banner that read “The Third Way: Consensus Structure,” a group began singing the “Ode to Joy” while some of their number passed out leaflets summarizing Helga LaRouche’s interpretation of the past twenty years. A solitary man held up a poster declaring his “private protest” (target unspecified). The police were around, but not an overwhelming presence as in Cracow or Budapest. They wore dress uniforms (not in the interwar style), stayed in groups of two or four, and were not visibly armed. All ages were present, as was a greater number of wheelchairs than one normally sees on cobblestoned European squares. There were a few obvious foreign tourists, but mostly I heard German, and I noticed that people were speaking to strangers. Almost everybody had a camera or camera-equipped mobile phone.

The LaRouche choir was still singing after 45 minutes. I noticed more placards in the crowd: “Freedom of movement for all: abolish residence requirements” and “One of the 70,000 does not feel himself after twenty years to be just betrayed and sold.” At around 6 p.m. the services in the Nikolaikirche ended and the crowd started drifting in the direction of Augustusplatz. People were clearly coming from work now, and the crowd was growing. As the sea of humanity bore me in the direction of Grimmaische Straße I heard a loud voice proclaiming the need to defend socialism and urging citizens to disperse. It turned out that loudspeakers were set up at the intersection of Ritterstraße and Grimmaische Straße, broadcasting the speeches of twenty years past. Hearing it before seeing it was surreal.

At the entrance to Augustusplatz young people were handing out candles, neatly nestled in clear plastic cups to keep out the wind, but many people had brought their own. It was not long before the immense square was absolutely full. Around me I spied more banners, e.g. “Jesus Christ, thank you for the peaceful Wende” and “Non-violent revolutionary cells at the Central Theatre.” Way up front near the opera house, I knew, candles were being placed in large frames so that the wording “Leipzig ’89” could be read from the sky, but there was no hope of approaching through the dense throng. As the sun set, speakers on a platform in front of the opera house began to address the crowd. Though Kurt Masur and Hans-Dietrich Genscher spoke briefly, the masters of ceremonies were Jochen Lässig and Katrin Hattenhauer, local civil rights activists before and since 1989.9 Hattenhauer, who had been imprisoned for participating in the first Monday demonstration in September 1989, emphasized how important it was that everything took place in 1989 without violence and urged the crowd to continue in this tradition tonight. Together they spoke for only about ten minutes, which seemed to me just right. It was long enough to give focus to the event, but not so long as to deflect attention away from the real phenomenon of the evening: the tens of thousands of people assembled on the square.

At about 7:15, in the dark now, the crowd began moving off the square to march around the Ring. The march was combined with a “Light Festival.” At 21 “stations” on the route from Augustusplatz to the Runde Ecke (the former Stasi headquarters now turned museum), artists from across Europe had set up thought-provoking exhibits involving light and sometimes sound or tableaux vivants.10 Stations of the Cross? Certainly it was a time for reflection, and though people conversed with one another, the mood was – for lack of a better word – reverent. As fate would have it, out of the tens of thousands of people marching I ran into the anti-globalization poet. I could tell that he preferred solitude to company, but it would have been impolite to say nothing, so I asked what he thought of the event. “I have mixed feelings,” he replied. “There are probably more people marching tonight then there were twenty years ago, but I am unsure of their motivations. It is good, though, that young people can gain experience participating in something like this, and it is good that it brings people into contact with modern art.”

At the Runde Ecke, “cannon” periodically blasted into the air above the marchers little slips of paper, each of which bore the typewritten codename of a Stasi agent or informer. The route of the march officially ended there, but many people continued on as if they intended to go around one more time. Others went into the Stasi museum, which was keeping its doors open until midnight. Among the activities taking place there were a “free reading” from Timothy Garton Ash’s The File, a screening of Das Wunder von Leipzig, and “guided tours” of Stasi files. My last image from the evening was back at the Nikolaikirche, where again it proved impossible to get in – this time for a concert conducted by Kurt Masur. At the side of the church, however, many candles were lit alongside flowers and a small, handmade poster: “swords into ploughshares.” A woman, perhaps in her 50s, stood vigil beside the candles, with tears in her eyes.

Whatever mixed feelings one might have about the aims behind the commemorations of October 9, it would be hard to imagine a more balanced and tasteful way to organize them. The multiple activities and events allowed practically everyone to observe the anniversary as he or she saw fit, individually or collectively. As seems befitting a “democratic” revolution, moreover, the demos was really at the centre of attention throughout the day. An official ceremony had taken place in the Gewandhaus in the morning, with Chancellor Merkel and various other political figures in attendance, but it was open to the public and the dignitaries mingled with citizens afterwards, shaking hands and signing autographs.11 The high point of the day, moreover, was clearly the prayer service in the Nikolaikirche and the march around the Ring. Eastern German newspapers the next day confirmed that roughly 100,000 people had taken part – over a third more than in the original march.12 (Western German newspapers, in remarkable contrast, provided little or no coverage of the event.13) The poet was perhaps right that the experience would not convert many participants to greater civic activism, but because the commemoration had allowed them to do something – indeed, fulfilled a desire to do something – civic awareness was surely strengthened, renewing a sense of having a stake in a community of citizens. There was, finally, no kitsch (save possibly for the Stasi confetti at the Runde Ecke). Perhaps there would be a month later in Berlin, as there would be in Prague on November 17, but in Leipzig on October 9 there was nothing to detract from the earnestness of the commemoration.14

The next day anarchists, mostly but not all from eastern Germany, converged on Leipzig for an anti-commemoration. Over a thousand youths dressed in black marched from the main train station to Augustusplatz behind a banner that read “Still not lovin’ Germany: die Revolution – ein Mythos, die Freiheit – eine Farce, Deutschland – eine Zumutung” (the revolution – a myth, freedom – a farce, Germany – an imposition). They chanted “never again Germany!” as they marched, and several held aloft cardboard bananas on sticks. Others bore placards that read “the great Leipzig swindle,” “still loving communism,” or “against GDR-nostalgia: for a radical social critique”; two marchers carried Israeli flags. At Augustusplatz one of the marchers read a speech, in which she claimed that most East Germans were motivated in 1989 not by democratic consciousness but by consumerism, which led to a reawakening of German nationalism. She criticized united Germany as a racist “fourth Reich,” in which the myth of a dictatorial GDR diverted the attention of both westerners and easterners from the preceding regime and precluded critical debate about real socialism. She acknowledged that as a result of 1989 easterners had more civil rights and in many cases higher living standards than before, but insisted that “the transition from really existing socialism to capitalism was not a comprehensive emancipation,” since the basic freedoms of the Federal Republic were bound up with the capitalist logic of valuation and could thus be violated. As evidence she cited surveillance of workplaces, public spaces, and the internet. She concluded by insisting that the “really existing Germany” was an imposition, and led those assembled in shouting “for something better than Germany! For something better than the nation!” Police were more numerous at this demonstration than they had been in Cracow, though they were less heavily armed. Onlookers, however, were less amused than their Polish counterparts had been (a woman next to me exclaimed that the anarchists should be sent into a wasteland), but most went about their business rather than listening to the long speech, and the event concluded without incident.

The anarchists were implicitly arguing against the “Leipzig Theses” that the citizens’ initiative behind most of the commemorations, “The Day of the Peaceful Revolution,” had published on September 4. In these eleven theses the activists had argued that, precisely to overcome the legacy of National Socialism, the political identity of all Germans needed to rest on the twin pillars of the Federal Republic’s Basic Law and the Peaceful Revolution. They insisted that democratic engagement, incarnated in Leipzig on October 9, was what had made possible the opening of the Berlin Wall on November 9 and subsequent reunification, yet they expressed concern that Germany was now becoming a “spectator democracy.” In order to revitalize democratic engagement, they hoped to harness “the power of memory” by drawing German attention away from November 9 and its accompanying narrative of a passive Wende, riveting attention instead on October 9 and the active yet peaceful revolution that citizens in Leipzig had begun.15 In keeping with this aim they committed themselves to elaborate commemoration not just of the twentieth anniversary, but of all subsequent anniversaries at least until 2014.

“The Day of the Peaceful Revolution” was not the only group that came into being in 2009 with the goal of making the memory of 1989 a force in the present. On October 9 itself, Christian Führer – the pastor of the Nikolaikirche in 1989 – and several colleagues announced the creation of “The Peaceful Revolution Foundation.” Führer declared that “the Peaceful Revolution must continue,” and specified that in the wake of the global financial crisis, the revolution should not limit itself to a renewal of democratic political engagement, but must also tackle economics. “I have in mind the Jesus mentality of sharing,” he said. “Instead of encouraging greed, we must share work, prosperity, and income with those who are weaker.” The foundation issued a “Charter for Courage” (clearly inspired by Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia), the signatories of which pledged to advance in specific ways four core ideals of the Peaceful Revolution: “no violence,” “swords into ploughshares,” “we are the people,” and “open for all.”16

“Make way for the Tunnel of Democracy”

As in Germany, the public discourse surrounding the anniversary in the Czech Republic began long before the crucial autumnal dates. Already in January, newspapers and radio stations began revisiting the news stories from twenty years ago “on this day,” highlighting the twentieth-anniversary commemoration of Jan Palach’s death in January 1989, the circulation of the “Few Sentences” manifesto in June, and the August and October protests coinciding with the anniversary of the Warsaw Pact invasion and the founding of Czechoslovakia. Special museum exhibits and conferences started inviting attention in early 2009 as well, until by autumn the country was thick with them. Refreshingly, all these manifold forms of commemoration took place in a spirit of genuine curiosity and open inquiry, exploring topics and interpretations that had hitherto received scant attention in the public sphere. Most of the exhibits were organized by small town museums, libraries, theatres, and other cultural institutions, and focused on what citizens in that particular locality had done in 1989, reminding the public that the revolution was not confined to Prague. Conferences, for the most part, were more serious and scholarly than they had ever been before, and when prominent personages of 1989 spoke at them, they engaged in hitherto uncharacteristic self-criticism17 The revolution was clearly something that lots of Czechs wanted to reflect upon in the anniversary year, and they wanted to do so in new ways.

The high point of the year naturally came on November 17, the anniversary of the “massacre” (as it was called in 1989) that sparked the revolution. Though local organizers planned candlelight marches, concerts, and other commemorative events throughout the country, the greatest concentration of commemorative energy was in Prague. As in Leipzig, independent civic groups were behind most of the activities in the Czech capital, but there were so many of them (at least twenty) that it was impossible for one person to attend them all.18

An 8 a.m. text message from a friend alerted me to a student initiative to prevent President Klaus from laying a wreath at the plaque on Národní třída that marked the spot where the greatest violence had taken place on 17 November 1989. The idea was to reincarnate the student guards of 1989 by physically, albeit non-violently, blocking access to the spot once the president arrived. In an effort to keep the city police from finding out, my friend told me, the plan was not being advertised publicly, but circulated only via Facebook and personal communication. I reached the memorial shortly before Klaus’s scheduled arrival and found a thick crowd around it, but no clearly discernible “blockade.” Because of the crowd I could not see Klaus’s coming, but I certainly heard it. From the opposite end of the archway under which the plaque was situated came cries of “Shame! Shame!” as well is booing and whistling, rejoined by other voices shouting “Long live Klaus!” Police evidently ensured that the president was able to lay his wreath, after which he disappeared into a high-class café adjacent to the archway. The shouting continued, however, with the shouters dividing into distinct camps, each of which seemed to unite multiple sets of constituents. Present and former “students” were evidently in the group protesting Klaus, while young Civic Democratic Party activists and anti-EU nationalists comprised the group protesting the protesters. Members of the first group displayed such banners as “Klaus is not our president! –students of 1989” and “Schröder-Gazprom, Klaus-Lukoil,” as well as EU flags. Members of the opposing group brandished placards saying “Enough of the EU,” “Berlin – Moscow – Brussels,” and “Klaus’s guarantee to business.” “Shame!” cried the one side. “Long live Klaus!” shouted the other. After perhaps fifteen minutes of this Klaus emerged from the café, followed by city police whose jackets identified them as an “anti-conflict team,” and exited stage left. Rock music commenced from a podium down the street, but did not deter the protesters and antiprotesters from continuing their war of words. “Long live Klaus!” shouted one side. “Somewhere else!” responded the other. The drama fizzled out about forty minutes after it began, though I noticed that the Klaus supporters held out longer – perhaps because they had a megaphone.

Whereas Leipzig had a Democracy Market, the City of Prague sponsored a “Socialist Market” on its Old Town Square. Advertisements scattered about the city promised that food and drink would be available “at socialist prices” (e.g. 2.90 crowns for a beer) but it turned out that this was to be for only half an hour later in the afternoon. Meanwhile, stands situated about the square offered sausages, beer, tea, and mulled wine at contemporary capitalist prices.

In the centre of the square, however, two “fruit and vegetable” stands and a booth labelled “Tuzex” (the Communist-era hard-currency shop for Western goods) were supposed to represent socialist reality. Long queues snaked in front of each of them. No produce was visible on the counters of the fruit and vegetable stands, but the women staffing them would reach down below the counters and produce for each customer one small orange. The “Tuzex” counter displayed chocolate eggs from (West) Germany and a handful of other insignificant items for five or six “coupons” each. The coupons could be obtained only from shady “moneychangers” supposedly circulating around the square. If Leipzig didn’t have kitsch, Prague certainly did.

The message became clearer when I returned to Národní třída, where I found the entrance to the street from the Vltava embankment embellished by a large inflated gate on which was written “What we would be running for if it hadn’t happened.” Go-carts in the shape of bananas raced along the street, the prizes being toilet paper, bananas, and similar items that had at times been scarce prior to the revolution. For the organizers, evidently, this was what the revolution had been about.

Upon this happy scene of consumer satisfaction there burst a large group of young people dressed in black, some holding banners with the letters “DS” for the arguably fascist Dělnická strana (Workers’ Party), accompanied by lots of riot police.18 They congregated in front of the space between the National Theatre and the New Stage, where their chairman, with a megaphone, delivered a speech. He had reached his peroration by the time I got close enough to hear, but the point seemed to be that the situation in 2009 paralleled that which existed prior to 1989. This thesis garnered enthusiastic applause from the black-clad youths, none of whom appeared to be old enough to remember life before 1989. The group then began to march in the direction of the bridge spanning the Vltava from Národní and I realized at that moment how large it was. I estimated 300, though newspapers the next day claimed only 200.20 They chanted “Dělnická strana” as they marched, police on every side, and quite a lot of them made the finger sign – to everyone around, it seemed. I was glad to leave the scene and head south along the embankment to Albertov, where a re-enactment of the 1989 march was set to commence, but when I looked back now and then I could still see a huge crowd on the bridge, where evidently the Workers’ Party adherents had stopped, and I heard some choral shouts. A helicopter hovered overhead.

Anyone who did not know the layout of Prague’s New Town could still have found the way that day to the Natural Sciences campus of Charles University in Albertov, simply by following the masses of people heading in that direction. In 1989, a student-organized commemoration of the Nazi execution of Czech students in 1939, which had begun at Albertov and continued to the National Cemetery, had turned into a march of perhaps 50,000 towards Prague’s downtown core, where they were brutally intercepted on Národní třída. In 2009, an independent civic initiative called Opona (the Curtain) invited citizens to join a commemorative march along the same route. I arrived at Albertov at around 3 p.m., shortly before the event was scheduled to commence, and made my way uphill toward the front, where a platform had been erected. On my way I encountered a bearded youth distributing what I guessed might be information about the event. “What are you handing out?” I asked him in Czech. “Flyers with the program,” he answered in Slovak. Over the course of the afternoon I would hear Slovak quite frequently.

The crowd was already thick around the grandstand, so I made it only as far as the entrance to the geography building, perhaps fifty meters away. After about fifteen minutes of what seemed to be irrelevant rock music, speeches began, but the sound system was so poor that it was impossible to make out most of the words. Fortunately I was later able to obtain an outline of the speeches from the organizers, according to which – after a few introductory words from a moderator – a spokesman for Opona addressed the crowd. According to the organizers’ program, the essence of his speech was: We have something to celebrate! Fellow thirty-somethings! We do not live in totalitarianism!

Besides being a celebration, today’s march is a reminder of what happened here twenty years ago. By recalling the Communist past of our country we are trying to contribute to the self-assessment of this nation and particularly of the young generation. If this self-assessment and a coming to terms with the period of totalitarianism and its consequences do not occur, we cannot expect that our democracy will develop in a good direction. We thank not only those who have turned out today, but all those who strive for democracy and freedom. Do not let yourselves be provoked by extremists. We won’t have anything to do with extremists!

The moderator then invited a Slovak guest, Milan Žitný, to speak for a couple minutes, followed by Šimon Pánek – one of the most prominent students of 1989. After his two minutes, Pánek welcomed two “foreign” guests, one from Russia and one from China (note that the organizers did not consider Slovakia “foreign”).

After a musical interlude, the moderator invited two representatives of the student initiative “Inventory of Democracy” to speak, noting that their declaration was being distributed among the people. These two students were allotted nine minutes according to the program – more than anyone else received. While I couldn’t hear them, I noticed at that time a commotion in the crowd behind me and heard a loud, clear voice cry out (in Slovak) “Make way, please, the Tunnel of Democracy is coming!” The voice turned out to be that of a young man dressed in a comic suit and hat, leading a “train” of other young people who held aloft a large tube of brown cloth given shape by hoops sewn in at intervals of a meter or so. White letters between the hoops identified the tube as, indeed, “the Tunnel of Democracy.” The gag clearly alluded to the many “tunnelling” scandals of the past twenty years (in which enterprise managers enriched themselves by metaphorically building secret tunnels through which assets could be embezzled) and produced lots of laughter and smiles among those able to see it.

The next speaker was Martin Kotas, the founder of a civic movement that had supported the installation of NATO radar in the Czech Republic before U. S. President Obama pulled the plug from the project in October 2009. The point of his one-minute address was:

Democracy isn’t for free. If we give up on it for reasons of repulsion and hopelessness, we will lose it. It is difficult to work towards it but easy to lose it. Therefore, the revolution of 1989 will continue only when young people take responsibility for the situation in society and join political parties (excepting the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia). If you’re angered, then join one of the parties.

Finally, the moderator invited the actor Tomáš Matonoha to present his “open letter to the Communist Party” – little more than a long string of extremely vulgar Czech words that he composed in response to a Communist proposal in the Czech parliament to restrict usage of such language in certain media.20 Matonoha introduced his “letter” by noting that it was addressed not only to the Communist Party, but “to all Lumpen who want to abuse or suppress our freedoms for their own personal interests.”20

“Are we going?” people started to ask, once the inaudible speechmaking had evidently stopped. “We’re going,” spread the answer through the crowd. I took a position on the steps of a research institute halfway down the street, where I could observe the march as it passed. Since the part of the crowd that had been behind me was now at the front of the procession I could from this position survey only a portion of it, but this was enough to reveal certain facts. First, the marchers included people of all ages, from toddlers in strollers to grey-haired grandparents, but I would guess that the median age was thirty-something. Newspaper reports the following day confirmed that many participants were veterans of the 1989 march, often now with young children in tow.23 University students (of 2009) also seemed to be a significant contingent. Second, nearly all of the many placards and banners in the procession were handmade – as they had been in 1989 – and in pleasing contrast with the boring, lifeless, printed placards that one usually sees in political demonstrations these days. The placards and banners in this procession were creative, lively, and often humorous (usually involving untranslatable puns), and some were minor works of art. Even more remarkable was the diverse nature of opinions that these handmade creations expressed. Not far from a placard demanding Havel’s reinstatement as president (“Havel back to the Castle”) was one condemning Havel as a criminal. A few meters behind a placard encouraging citizens to “support Klaus” was one declaring that “Klaus is not my president.” If ever there was such a thing as a democratic parade, this was it. The opinions expressed were diametrically opposed, but still all could agree on a framework for expressing them, and through their participation in this commemorative reincarnation, all celebrated this framework.

I opted not to follow the crowd to the National Cemetery so that I could take up a position on the embankment, whereby I would be able to watch the entire procession pass and gain a sense of its size independently of unreliable media reports. Many other people had similar ideas, and I found the embankment lined with people carrying flags, placards, and in some cases flowers. One young man (perhaps my age, actually – in his late thirties) particularly impressed me, with a solemn expression and a modest orange flower sticking up out of a small, beat-up backpack that might have been new in 1989, along with a sign: “Let us reason democratically: freely and responsibly.” Many people who looked to be my age were there with children in strollers – often with flags attached.

The head of the procession arrived shortly after sunset and found me in front of a building that, I soon discovered, happened to be the very one where Olga and Václav Havel had lived in 1989. From this position I watched the entire procession pass by, recording all the placards that had escaped my attention before. I also noticed how a woman’s voice repeatedly sounded from a position to my right, recalling how Olga Havlová had waved to the marchers from her window and enjoining the commemorators to thank Olga and Václav Havel. Applause inevitably followed and a white sky lantern rose into the air. The first time I heard the applause I thought it was touching. By the fifth time I began to wonder at its consistency, following the announcer’s speech each time with the same intensity. I learned from the next day’s newspaper that there were “professional applauders” in the crowd, thus accounting for the consistency but also – to my mind – inviting comparison with the secret police agents who, in 1989, had been planted in the crowd and guided it toward the trap set up on Národní třída.24

The procession took 35 minutes to pass me, and given the width of the street, the pace of the marchers, and the varying density of the crowd, I estimate that at least 24,000 took part (significantly more than the five to ten thousand reported in newspapers the next day).25 I then followed to Národní, where at 6:00 a concert was set to begin. As I entered the boulevard I passed a woman on the steps of the National Theatre handing out treats to her three children: “Chocolate for the demonstrators,” she said with a smile. I stayed for only the beginning of the concert – long enough to witness Michael Kocáb play a few notes and hear Václav Havel be introduced, but since the concert was being broadcast by Czech Television and a recording was made available on the internet, I was able to reassure myself later that I hadn’t missed anything.26 Havel did little more than introduce Joan Baez, limiting his substantive address to “I have been a citizen and now I rely on you, my fellow citizens.” Otherwise the point of the concert, as its moderator put it, was: “Those who want to celebrate, let them celebrate; those who don’t, let them refrain. We have freedom of choice.”

My choice was to make it to the top of Wenceslas Square in time to get a good position for observing the Inventory of Democracy happening that was set to begin at 6:30. Approximately 2,500 people turned out for this student-led event – those who, as one of the moderators put it, “do not mean to content themselves with a party on Národní třída, but who want to consider where we are after these twenty years and what will come next.”27 The students began by summarizing the results of their previous year’s appeal to politicians to give them a “present” for their “twentieth birthday” in the form of restrictions on the immunity of parliamentary deputies, regulation of lobbying, the reigning in of “wild riders” to legislation, and depoliticization of media oversight boards – i.e. the removal of “legislative absurdities” that, as the students put it, “place our democracy at times at the level of banana republics.” A representation of the gift that the students had in fact received had been unveiled in a Prague park the previous week – a sculpture its author described as an example of “fecalist realism” – but the students insisted that their failure had been mixed with hope. By personally visiting deputies and publicly reporting on their activities, they had succeeded in getting motions onto the floor of parliament. In other words, citizens could have an influence. The students then read sections of their “Student Proclamation on the Twentieth Anniversary of the Velvet Revolution.”28 They emphasized in these selections the risk of unfreedom in the present, asking “why” – twenty years after the supposed end of Communism – “do we still feel powerless? Why is there such tolerance for corruption? Why do we regard only our own material security as important?” “Entering public space is getting harder and harder and soon will be entirely closed off to decent folk,” they said. “There is a danger that in ten years we will be able only to lament that our democracy failed to reach its thirtieth birthday.”

At this point sheep masks were distributed through the crowd in preparation for the promised happening: an Orwellian “fairy tale” in which four students with pig masks danced on the stage and impersonated well-known Czech politicians. Playing on the Czech words občané (citizens) and ovce (sheep), the pigs addressed the crowd as “ovčané” and thanked them for allowing pigs to abuse their positions. “There is no one else to vote for,” they emphasized, “so please continue to vote for us and remain exactly as you are.” In the end, at a sign from one of the moderators, the crowd took off their masks and became citizens again, whereupon the pigs fled the stage. The moral of the story, explained the student dramaturge behind it, was that “even after twenty years we are still more ovčané than občané.” “We lack skills and competence that should normally belong to citizens in a democracy,” and as a result, “politicians here enjoy exactly such a life as these pigs; they get away with the most obvious roguery because no one has a vision that might compete with them.”

To conclude their event the students introduced “Truth and Love himself ” – Václav Havel. There was a moment of laughter when one of the student moderators had to intervene because Havel wasn’t speaking directly enough into the microphone, but his speech here was more substantive than it had been on Národní. He bemoaned the fact that the gulf between politics and society was deepening. “Politics,” he said, “should attract people and not repulse them.” He expressed his admiration for the student initiative precisely because it sought to correct this situation, and he emphasized the necessity for all citizens to shoulder their share of responsibility. The students then distributed candles for people to lay before the statue of St. Wenceslas, “to thank him thus for sticking with us on every occasion,” and closed by leading those assembled in the Czech national anthem. A few lone voices continued with the beginning of the Slovak anthem (which everyone twenty years previously would have sung) and then there was applause. Discussion groups formed and continued on the square for some time afterwards.

“What kind of Tiananmen Square...?”

The anniversary commemorations in Slovakia fit somewhere between the democratic German/Czech pattern and the aristocratic Polish/Hungarian paradigm. The civic dimension was markedly weaker in Slovakia than in the Czech Republic (a difference that Slovak commentators often lamented) but on the other hand, there were no barricades.

June’s “Germany says thank you” events in Bratislava were poorly attended and even the moderators made jokes that devalued the anniversary, but they were overshadowed by a high-profile rumpus on the occasion of a state visit by the Chinese president, Hu Jintao. Slovak human rights activists greeted Hu and his delegation in front of the downtown presidential palace with signs drawing attention to the plight of Chinese political prisoners and to other human rights violations; members of the delegation physically attacked the Slovak protesters and Slovak police intervened on the side of the Chinese. Several protesters were beaten and arrested. The irony of such an event on the twentieth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre – at a time when Slovakia was otherwise celebrating the anniversary of the Velvet Revolution – was not lost on journalists across the political spectrum. “What kind of Tiananmen Square would please [President] Gašparovič?” asked one.29 Jeremy Irons, accepting a prize at the Trenčianske Teplice film festival – which this year was devoted to the anniversary and featured a new documentary on the revolution in which Irons had participated – earned vigorous applause when he criticized Slovak authorities for their refusal to stand up for the ideals of the revolution.30

On the occasion of the November anniversary itself, rival commemorations took place in Bratislava. Though in Slovakia, as in the Czech Republic, November 17 is a state holiday (the “Day of the Fight for Freedom and Democracy”) President Gašparovič chose to spend the entire day in Austria, while Prime Minister Fico spent most of it in London, where he told his audience at University College that “speakers at the revolutionary stands were not always just and fair people” and asked, “How can one esteem November 1989, when the promises of a higher living standard have not been realized?”31 Fico returned to Bratislava that evening, just in time to attend a concert organized by the speaker of Parliament for members of the governing party and their coalition partners in the new building of the Slovak National Theatre. Zuzana Mistríková, Ján Čarnogurský, Martin Bútora, and other former “speakers at the revolutionary stands,” for their part, officiated at a well attended ceremony on Hviezdoslav Square (site of the city’s first revolutionary meetings in 1989), where a replica was unveiled of Daniel Brunovský’s “Heart of Europe” – a sculpture originally formed out of barbed wire taken from the border with Austria in one of the greatest Czechoslovak happenings of 1989 (the sculpture had subsequently been destroyed in a flood). “Nothing is ever definitively won,” the speakers lamented. “The struggle continues and will continue.”32 Members of opposition parties left candles and proceeded to their own concert in the old building of the National Theatre. Meanwhile, the Plastic People of the Universe opened a third, independently organized “Concert for Those Who Noticed” in Bratislava’s Park of Culture and Rest. The title of this most well attended event alluded to a statement by Róbert Fico in 2000, when the future prime minister had claimed not to have noticed in 1989 that any “fundamental change” occurred.33

The political split in Bratislava had its parallel in other cities as well. In Košice, for example, the mayor’s office sponsored the ceremonial installation of a plaque on the downtown library building, from the balcony of which speakers had addressed mass meetings in 1989. In opposition to the mayor’s initiative, the local founders of Civic Forum (which in Košice had been more prominent than Public against Violence) independently organized their own ceremony to install a plaque on the building where they had established their coordinating centre. Unlike the split in Bratislava, this one was not overtly partisan (the mayor belonged to one of the parties that participated in the Hviezdoslav Square commemoration), and though the two sides disagreed about how exactly to memorialize the revolution, they both agreed that it should be memorialized.34 Nonetheless, the inability of the two groups to cooperate speaks to the absurd extremes to which Slovak political discourse was fragmented (why not, after all, have two plaques?). The comparison with Košice is also revealing in another sense. In Bratislava, several founders of Public against Violence set up an anniversary exhibit in the gallery where their initiative had come into being, focusing on its leaders and their undertakings. The ladies selling tickets told me that hardly anyone visited. In Košice, by contrast, a group of young artists organized an exhibit showcasing the diversity of local civic initiative in 1989, including revolutionary texts that ordinary citizens had generated, and I could see for myself that visitation rates were high. The contrast suggests that the “success” of commemorative activities might be tied with 1) the ability to reach out to ordinary citizens, such that they can see themselves reflected in what is being commemorated, and 2) the ability to pass leadership roles on to a new generation. Part of the reason why, on the whole, commemorations in the Czech Republic were more engaging than those in Slovakia may not just be that Czech organizers were better at following these two principles, but also that many of the brightest Slovak youth go to study and work in the Czech Republic – an exit/voice dynamic reminiscent of that between the two Germanies before 1990.35 (Indeed, the chief coordinator of the Košice exhibit moved to Prague in 2011.)

“Heroes never die”

A wide range of commemorative activities took place in Romania in the fall of 2009, though they were more common in the formerly Habsburg parts of the country than elsewhere. Beginning in September, special religious services marked revolution-related anniversaries in Cluj and Timişoara; in November a new play about the revolution premiered in Oradea, and the exhibition ’89 Retro, showcasing young Romanians’ artistic interpretations of Communism, travelled from Cluj to Timişoara through Arad and Oradea. The main events, however, began on December 14 in Timişoara, the eve of the day when, twenty years previously, Communist authorities had attempted to evict Pastor László Tőkés from his residence at the downtown Hungarian Reformed Church, only to meet with the determined resistance of his parishioners. The conflict had set off a week of dramatic events, and the city was prepared to remember them with seven days of discussions, exhibits, film screenings, and more active forms of commemoration.

The first event I witnessed in Timişoara was a series of public addresses by Lech Wałęsa, Emil Constantinescu, Viktor Orbán, and László Tőkés in the university aula on December 15. The event began an hour later than scheduled, by which time the aula was about two-thirds full; students made up a large portion of the audience, but there were many others, mostly dressed in suits. A moderator from one of the Hungarian minority groups sponsoring the event began by introducing the speakers in relation to their “struggle” against Communism. Wałęsa, “a simple worker,” and Orbán, “a young student,” had shown that even the powerless could effectively challenge the Communist regime. In Romania, unfortunately, “Communists did not disappear; they transformed themselves in very efficient ways,” such that Emil Constantinescu’s administration from 1996 to 2000 marked the only time Romania had had democracy. László Tőkés, instrumental in sparking the Romanian revolution and now a delegate to the European Parliament, “continues to fight against Communism.”

Wałęsa received vigorous and lengthy applause when he rose to speak. Through an interpreter, he emphasized the role of Christianity in opposing Communism and sustaining civil society, making references to Pope John Paul II. He appealed to his audience “to believe.” Constantinescu pointed out that, when he visited Poland as Romania’s president, the first thing he did was to convey to Wałęsa the homage of the Romanian people. Instead of “Christianity,” however, Constantinescu emphasized “morality,” referring to Václav Havel and positing the moral impact that “Central Europe” should exert on international affairs, informed by its experience of totalitarianism and the struggle to overcome it. He also expressed the hope that this anniversary would re-establish the dignity of the revolution in Timişoara, which contained all the acts of a real revolution (presumably in contrast with the not-so-real one that took place in Bucharest). Timişoara, he said, should be the symbol of the revolution.

So far, so good. Then Viktor Orbán spoke. Unlike Wałęsa, he did not use an interpreter, and in reaction to this offensive gesture half the audience walked out. Orbán continued the theme of a particular Central European wisdom, highlighting again the experience with fascism and Communism but also castigating “the West” for its compromises with Communism and its naive sympathy for socialism based on lack of experience. “History has shown,” he insisted, “that freedom and independence are tied together,” and he suggested that Central Europeans should stand united to preserve both (in the face of threats to both the East and the West).

Pastor Tőkés began with a blessing in both Hungarian and Romanian. Perhaps because most of those who did not understand Hungarian had left, however, he continued solely in that language (as a result of which more people left, leaving the aula only one-fourth full). Tőkés thanked Wałęsa for his solidarity and the people of Timişoara for their tolerance and ecumenical spirit. He also spoke of Romanian solidarity with Hungary in 1956 and of how Romanians view Poland as a symbol of freedom, again sounding the Central European theme. He concluded with a blessing as he had begun.

December 17 was the anniversary of the day when armed forces had opened fire on protesters in Timişoara. Romanian television marked the anniversary by broadcasting recordings of the Securitate coordination of the attack and by commemorating the dead, while in Timişoara a large cross made up of votive candles was set out on Victory Square in front of the opera house. Early in the evening, after a memorial service in the Orthodox cathedral, a march set out from the church to Heroes’ Cemetery on the opposite side of town. At the entrance to Victory Square the crowd of perhaps 200 mostly but not exclusively young people passed a monument to the revolution, buried beneath wreaths after a ceremony earlier in the day, and proceeded to the cross of candles, where they knelt in silence. Several carried placards emblazoned with the symbol of a hand in the V-sign or the words “eroii nu mor” (heroes never die) and “respect.” A group near the front of the procession carried a large Romanian flag with a hole in the middle. From the square the marchers proceeded to the alley next to the opera house, where they paused to take in the screening of victims’ faces on a wall opposite the Opera, which had commenced at sunset.

By this time the crowd’s numbers had grown and its composition become more overwhelmingly young and male. A number of youths had maps of Greater Romania sewn onto their jackets. As they proceeded past the army building on Liberty Square, where someone left a candle burning atop a cannon, the chants of these young men became more aggressive. “Down with Communism!” they cried. “Down with Communists! Freedom! Timişoara!” At the next stop on their itinerary, the Museum of the Revolution, as many as could fit took up positions on the outer rim of the courtyard or one of the two encircling balconies above, but still people were left waiting outside. The ceremony was brief, centring on the dedication of a new monument to the victims of 1989: a bell-like sculpture around which individuals lit votive candles. The crowd then continued its march to the cemetery, chanting slogans on the way, and left candles and wreaths at the gravesites.

The killing had continued in Timişoara on December 18, so this, too, was a day of mourning. The focal point of the day’s events was a performance of Verdi’s Requiem in the opera house at 6 p.m., but before this another candlelit march set out, this time from the Reformed church where Tőkés had been pastor in 1989. Following a roundtable discussion sponsored by the president of the European Parliament, Jerzy Buzek, which had culminated in the inauguration of a “Revolutionary Pantheon” and the ceremonial lighting of the renovated church building, participants and parishioners gathered outside. Instead of the simple Orthodox candles that participants in the previous day’s march had brought with them, expensive-looking gas torches were distributed to those outside the Reformed church, along with white armbands on which were printed the words (in Romanian) “Timişoara, first city free of Communism, 1989–2009.” The crowd was smaller than on the previous day, but was more mixed in terms of age and gender and was markedly better dressed. Most spoke Hungarian. Following a short speech by Tőkés, in which he referred to the Hungarian 1848 hero Sándor Petőfi and liberty, we walked the short distance to the Orthodox cathedral, where on the steps a prayer was said in Romanian. We then proceeded across the square to the Opera, arriving early and obtaining good seats. The program featured not only Verdi’s Requiem, but also readings of specially composed poems by Herta Müller and Viorel Marineasa. It was broadcast live on Romanian television and simultaneously screened outside on the square, though when I went outside to check very few people stood watching it – perhaps because of the extreme cold.

The only event of significance that I noticed on December 19 (a Saturday) was an ecumenical service in the Reformed church at 5 p.m. Though the pews did not fill up, the organizers did an impressive job of gathering prominent representatives from all of Timişoara’s major religious and linguistic communities, including the Romanian Orthodox bishop, German- and Hungarian-speaking Roman Catholics, the Greek Catholic bishop, Hungarian-speaking Lutherans and Romanian-speaking Baptists, a Ukrainian Orthodox clergyman, and the head of the Jewish community. The present pastor of the Hungarian Reformed church began the service by emphasizing that the revolution did not come from abroad, that it began “here in Timişoara” thanks to the faithfulness not just of the Hungarian Reformed community, but everyone. Provocatively, though, he proposed that the revolution had no heroes, “for no one but Christ is the truth, the way, and the life.” The theme of a pluralist Timişoara was picked up by several speakers, including the Romanian Orthodox bishop and the leader of the Jewish community, who suggested that a unique chance existed in Timişoara for ecumenism. The German-speaking Catholic emphasized the theme of a divine origin to the revolution, asserting that “freedom is a gift from God and a grace to us all,” and added that there is no freedom without responsibility. Each speaker spoke his own mother tongue (sometimes adding some sentences in another language) and headphones provided simultaneous interpretation to the dignitaries (the congregation, evidently, was assumed to understand all the languages spoken). Tőkés wrapped the service up with a quotation from Scripture and the claim that what happened in 1989 was not a mere “regime change,” but a “revolution,” which was not just about Communism and in which the Church was strong. He thanked those who had come, saying that they represented “the true Timişoara,” and expressed his hope that the memory of the Timişoara revolution would continue to inspire common efforts across confessional and linguistic divides to solve common problems.

Sunday, December 20 was a quiet day in Timişoara. A heavy snowfall and temperatures below –10°C kept most people indoors. Nonetheless, at 10 a.m., members of the “Victory Association of Revolutionary Fighters in Timişoara” met in the County Council building for a “festive assembly” dedicated to the anniversary of the “unleashing” of the Romanian revolution, the constitution of the Romanian Democratic Front (RDF), and the proclamation of Timişoara as a city free of Communism. At midday, founders of the RDF repaired to the balcony of the opera house, where they reread their twenty-year-old proclamation to a largely empty square.36 They later complained of the low turnout, claiming that it showed the people of Timişoara to be apathetic, but the freezing cold and lack of any prior publicity for this event might be better explanations. When at 1 p.m. sirens sounded throughout the city, most people could probably only guess what it meant.

According to flyers that were posted around the city, the week’s events were supposed to culminate in a “spectacol festiv” on Victory Square at 6 p.m. When the event finally started at 6:30, the temperature was – 11°C and falling, and the square was nearly empty. The program began with a series of speakers from the Victory Association, starting with its president, the eccentric Lorin Fortuna. A teacher in the Electrotechnical Faculty of Timişoara’s polytechnic before 1989, Fortuna has since become a self-proclaimed prophet of esotericism, preaching that members of the “gorrillian” civilization, descended from the ancient Dacians and centred in Romania, are the original inhabitants of our planet but must now fight against various invading civilizations from outer space. At the “spectacol festiv,” however, he limited himself to more commonplace political commentary: what happened in Timişoara was an authentic revolution and “today marks the most important anniversary in our history”; the National Salvation Front in Bucharest was subversive and stole the revolution. When the speeches were done a music ensemble, dressed in folk costumes beneath winter coats, came on stage and with what must have been freezing fingers played a number of lively tunes. There were more people in front of the grandstand now (perhaps two dozen) and they danced to keep warm. Finally, at 7:30, a brief fireworks display over the cathedral consummated the event.37


What was the significance of these commemorations? First of all, they showed that 1989 remains a politically potent point of reference in central Europe. Even if there was disagreement about the exact meaning of 1989, there was substantial agreement that something meaningful happened in that year, and no government or head of state could ignore it. The commemorations were attempts to fix the meaning of events through collective acts of signification, and needless to say the promulgated meanings had significant implications for the present, being either calls to action or appeals to accept the status quo. While the commemorations allowed space for discussing particular political questions of the day, however, they transcended ordinary political debates by inviting citizens to focus on the framework through which political issues are resolved (or not), since in one way or another this framework was founded in 1989.

It is noteworthy that in Leipzig, Prague, and Timişoara, commemoration organizers made a determined effort to rehabilitate the notion that genuine revolutions had commenced in their cities in 1989. This did not go without saying. In Germany, Leipzigers’ elaborate insistence on the narrative of a “Peaceful Revolution” was self-consciously directed against a more nationally hegemonic Berlin-centred narrative of a mere Wende, or “turn.” Though Revolution was the term that East Germans themselves most commonly used in 1989, Helmut Kohl and the West German press followed Erich Honecker’s successor Egon Krenz in favouring the less radical-sounding moniker, which eventually became standard across reunited Germany.38 Similarly, in the Czech Republic, the term převrat (reversal) largely supplanted the originally dominant revoluce in the mid-1990s, until shortly before the twentieth anniversary the original conceptualization made a comeback. In Timişoara, as in Leipzig, there was an explicit effort to rehabilitate the idea of revoluţie by emphasizing its origins in local civic engagement prior to its “theft” by elites in Bucharest. The argument in Leipzig and Timişoara, as throughout the Czech Republic, was that the real meaning of 1989 was to be found not in the doings of elites in the capitals, but among citizens who had mobilized themselves as a force in public affairs. The relatively democratic nature of the commemorations in these locations can be directly related with the revived memory of democratic revolution.

The more aristocratic commemorations were correlated with a lack of revolutionary experience in 1989. Hungarian politicians have often attempted to make the revolutionary experience of 1956 substitute for the lack of one in 1989, but evidently the memories are too dim to serve this purpose, or they have not been effectively transferred to younger generations. In 2009, neither 1989 nor 1956 seemed capable of uniting citizens across the political spectrum. Whereas in other countries, despite political disagreements, citizens could still functionally agree on a framework for expressing them in public space, the framework in Hungary seemed to have fallen into dysfunctionality. By contrast, though most Poles concur that their country experienced no revolution in 1989, they still have a functional equivalent in the memory of Solidarity in 1980–81, which helps to explain why the separation of political elites from citizens – and of political elites from one another – was more laughable in 2009 than frightening. There might have been a fight over the legacy of Solidarity, but not over the remembered moment of collective transcendence itself.39

The awkwardness of commemoration in Slovakia, despite an experience of democratic revolution essentially akin to that of the Czech Republic, resulted in part from attempts by prominent political figures to discredit that experience. Slovakia was the one place in central Europe where revolution had never gone out of fashion as the proper name for what happened in 1989, but Prime Minister Fico nonetheless argued in 2009 that this revolution had failed and so saw no reason to encourage celebration. Opposition party leaders responded by appropriating for themselves the legacy of the revolution – in such a clearly partisan way that it became difficult for citizens across the political spectrum to revive the ethos of pluralist dialogue that had in fact characterized all of Czechoslovakia in 1989. With it being so easy and desirable, both politically and economically, for civic-minded young Slovaks to move to the other successor state (or elsewhere in Europe), it was not surprising to see a more aristocratic (or mafia-like) political culture emerging in Slovakia despite the revolutionary experience of 1989.

It cannot escape a historian’s notice that the two countries where barricades separated people from elites were the two countries that once had the largest aristocracies in Europe – a social peculiarity that left its mark on Polish and especially Hungarian politics well into the twentieth century. It is also a remarkable coincidence that the two countries with the most democratic commemorations were Germany and the Czech Republic – successor states of the Holy Roman Empire with similar patterns of medieval settlement (a greater number of smaller towns per unit area than in countries to the east) and similar trajectories of early modern industrialization (likewise more evenly distributed across territory than was the case farther east). The traditions of dead generations may indeed weigh on the brains of the living, if not necessarily as the nightmare that Marx bemoaned.40 However, the mixed cases suggest that while the longue durée may cast an influence, it is not inescapably deterministic. Slovakia, after all, is just as much a successor state of the Kingdom of Hungary as is today’s (ex-Republic of) Hungary, and if the Hungarians of Hungary could not organize pluralist commemorations, the Hungarians of Romania could.41

Between the “democratic” and “aristocratic” extremes of political culture, the anniversary commemorations revealed a spectrum of variation. With the exception of Hungary, the various efforts to articulate the meaning of 1989 were all characterized by a remarkable degree of pluralism. On the streets and on the internet there was, indeed, an “explosion” of anniversary-related discourse, allowing for the side-by-side and for the most part tolerant expression of multifarious views. Even the shouting match between Klaus’s critics and supporters on Národní was good-natured, with the two sides chanting against each other in harmonious counterpoint. The anarchists in Cracow and Leipzig marched under the sign of pluralism as well. The black-clad Poles were quite mild-mannered, settling into discussion groups as soon as they reached the barrricades at Wawel Hill. Their German counterparts seemed less intent on discussion than shouting, but they showed no sign of disrespect for the rules the city imposed on their protest. Only irredentists in Hungary and neo-fascists in the Czech Republic inspired fear, but in the latter case, at least, they were easily cowed. When a group of these youth tried to disrupt the late-afternoon commemorative procession, marchers carrying pro-Klaus placards united with their opponents to tell the would-be disruptors to “go home!” – and they did.42 After the Inventory of Democracy happening a middle-aged Workers’ Party supporter even settled into a passionate but civil debate with the students.

Despite the pluralism of anniversary commemorations, however, one could not help noticing that the various strands of discourse remained largely separate, with little consequential dialogue among them. The separation was enforced in Hungary and Poland, and the refusal of political elites to share a stage with one another extended to Slovakia as well, though no barricades were set up to keep citizens out. In the Czech Republic, by contrast, Havel and Klaus famously appeared together at a commemorative concert that Havel sponsored on 14 November, but discourses were sundered here as well.43 In Brno, for example, an assortment of cultural intellectuals and invited guests assembled with Havel in a theatre on 19 November to discuss “Czech visions” for the 21st century under the banner “Dawn in Bohemia.”44 While a group of protesters stood outside, asking when dawn might break in Moravia, a mass meeting took place on the city square that had been the focal point of civic gatherings twenty years previously, where people heard a concert mixed with speeches by former activists even as present-day activists circulated in the crowd, passing out flyers. Though it would have been easy and potentially productive to connect the conversations taking place among these three groups, there was no attempt to do so – quite unlike 1989. Whereas the revolutions of 1989 were made possible by the coming together of diverse groups of citizens and the discovery of a common language, in 2009 memory was socially fragmented. One could see this in Timişoara as well, where despite sincere and often successful efforts to integrate Hungarian and Romanian commemorations, a significant degree of separation nonetheless persisted.

In Leipzig and especially in Prague, the deepest discursive divide was between those who saw the revolution’s meaning in democracy and those who identified it with material prosperity – the torch versus the banana. The separate commemorations organized by Prague’s mayor and the Inventory of Democracy students illustrate the substance of this divergence particularly well. At the Socialist Market, as at the Národní třída races, freedom was explicitly equated with “freedom of choice”; on Wenceslas Square it meant the ability to participate in government. It is not a coincidence that the mayor at the time, Pavel Bém, was a member of Václav Klaus’s Civic Democratic Party and that the celebrations sponsored by his office promulgated a line equating political and economic freedom, in harmony with Klaus’s neoliberal ideology. In this line of thinking, the political arena is considered a kind of market, with voters free to choose parties just as they might select produce. The students, by contrast – whether or not they had read Hannah Arendt – agreed with her that “freedom [...] means the right ‘to be a participator in government,’ or it means nothing.”45 Which interpretation had been dominant in 1989? Evidence from East Germany and Czechoslovakia suggests that material issues were not actually at the forefront of citizens’ minds when they took action in 1989, though of course they were amenable to opportunities for material improvement should these arise.46 At the time it was probably not immediately obvious to most people that they had to choose between democracy and prosperity. Even in 2009, the necessity of choice was not necessarily obvious to central Europeans, though the lesson of Bratislava’s Tiananmen Square was clearly that the cost of economic development might well be political freedom. It seems fair to say, however, that material satisfaction is not what motivated citizens in 2009 to attend prayer services in the Nikolaikirche or to march around Leipzig’s Ring, and those of Klaus’s supporters who showed up for the Národní rumpus or marched in the anniversary procession demonstrated by their actions that even they believe democracy requires civic engagement outside the framework of elections and political parties. Though many of those who stayed home may have been celebrating the banana (one need not enter public space to do so), those who participated in public commemorations clearly paid homage to the torch.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of the twentieth-anniversary commemorations was the passing of this torch to a new generation. In Germany, the Czech and Slovak Republics, and Romania, at least, the generation just coming of age was keenly interested in the events of 1989. The organizers of commemorative acts and exhibits in these countries were often young people with no direct experience of the revolutions, and their undertakings – with a new focus on the experiences of ordinary citizens in 1989 – succeeded in transmitting knowledge and even intuition to a new generation. As a 17-yearold participant in the Leipzig march explained, “Now I have a better feeling for what it was like then.”47 Re-enacting the collective experiences of 1989, even if the original sense of risk could not be reproduced, constituted an excellent means of handing down a revolutionary tradition. This is a good thing, if we agree with the mayor of Leipzig that “democracy must every day be won anew.”48 It was significant, moreover, that the revolutionary tradition being reproduced was a self-consciously non-violent and pluralist one, capable of uniting rather than dividing. Such a tradition seems to have become firmly rooted in Germany, the Czech Republic, and Poland, and to a significant extent in Slovakia and Romania as well. In Poland people could laugh at the barricades because, despite political divides, there was really no chance of violence breaking out. In Hungary, by contrast, the threat of violence was vividly apparent, such that laughter was unthinkable. (It is not coincidental that Hungary was the only place in central Europe where soldiers figured in the anniversary commemorations.) If there is such a thing as historical policy, it would seem worth the attempt to write Hungarian citizens back into their history (particularly the history of what Hungarians call “the regime change”), in order to give them something to be proud of that lies more within the realm of human agency than “the god of the Hungarians.”49 As the Leipzigers noted, political identity must be founded on some collective point of reference, and the Hungarians desperately need a positive foundation.

Can anything of the revolutionary tradition of 1980–89 be transferred beyond the boundaries of central Europe? The disregard with which the western German press treated the Leipzig commemorations is not encouraging in this regard. Though the inhabitants of the former Ottoman and Romanov Empires may draw inspiration from 1989, the relevance of the revolutions to what used to be called the “First World” has apparently been lost on it. Arguably this is a result of neoliberal interpretations of 1989 that remain hegemonic in western Europe and its former colonies, according to which all that happened was the “collapse” of Communism and the concomitant reaching out of “East” European masses for the bananas of the West. Failure to appreciate the more radical implications of 1989, however, means passing up the chance to learn from a revolutionary tradition capable of integrating atomized societies and establishing functional democracy – complete with the wisdom (perfected after twenty-odd years) that democracy can never be established once and for all, but “must every day be won anew.” Organizers of 25th-anniversary observances might therefore seek to extend their commemorative foreign policy to the increasingly divided societies of western and southern Europe – if not farther afield.


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



Thanks are due to Kevin Adamson, Barbara J. Falk, Erin Jenne, Libora Oates-Indruchová, Susan C. Pearce, Don Sparling, and Marcel Tomášek, and Martina Vidláková for assistance with the research that brought this article into being.

1 This was spoken at a public roundtable with Jiřina Šiklová, Václav Žák, and Milan Hořínek, “Beseda k 20. výročí sametové revoluce,” Olomouc, 21 November 2009.

2 James Krapfl, Revolution with a Human Face: Politics, Culture, and Community in Czechoslovakia, 1989–1992 (Ithaca, N. Y.: Cornell University Press, 2013), pp. 221–25; Jiřina Šiklová, “Everyday Democracy in the Czech Republic: Disappointments or New Morals in a Time of Neo-Normalization,” in Grażyna Skąpska and Annamaria Orla-Bukowska (eds), The Contemporary Moral Fabric in Contemporary Societies (Leiden: Brill, 2003), pp. 93–101; Andrew Lass, “From Memory to History: The Events of November 17 Dis/membered,” in Rubie Watson (ed.), Memory, History, and Opposition under State Socialism (Santa Fe, N. M.: School of American Research Press, 1994).

3 See, for example, Martin Kukučka, “Voláme po demokracii...”, Trenčianska verejnosť 2, no. 2 (25 January 1990), p. 1; and “Výzva klubu angažovaných nestraníků,” List koordinačního centra Občanského fóra v Pardubicích, no. 18 (29 April 1990), p. 6.

4 National Centre for Culture (Warsaw) and European Solidarity Centre (Gdańsk), website for “The Commemoration of the 70th Anniversary of the Outbreak of World War II and the 20th Anniversary of the Collapse of Communism in Central Europe,” page “Spotkanie przywódców państw na Wawelu,” available online: http://3989.pl/w404,pl.html.

5 Piotr Pacewicz and Piotr Najsztub, “Nie ma wolności bez radości,” Gazeta Wyborcza, 4 June 2009, p. 2.

6 An extensive list can be found at the aforementioned website website for “The Commemoration of the 70th Anniversary of the Outbreak of World War II and the 20th Anniversary of the Collapse of Communism in Central Europe,” available online at: http://3989.pl/pl,d2,baza_wydarzen.html?wydwgdata=2009=6=4.

7“Prezydent i premier w Gdańsku, ale osobno,” Rzeczpospolita, 4 June 2009, available online: http://www.rp.pl/artykul/304373,315202_Prezydent-i-premier-w-Gdansku- -ale-osobno.html.

8 Ildikó Csuhaj, “Orbán a józan észről, győzelemről és újjáépítésről,” Népszabadság, 24 October 2009, available online at: http://nol.hu/lap/mo/20091024-orban_a_jozan_ eszrol__gyozelemrol_es_ujjaepitesrol; Robert Hodgson, “Far Right Takes Centre Stage,” Budapest Times, 26 October 2009, available online: http://www.budapesttimes.hu/2009/10/26/ far-right-takes-centre-stage/; Attila Kálmán, “Vesszen Trianon! – kiabálták francia vendégeiknek a jobbikosok,” Népszabadság, 24 October 2009, available online: http://nol.hu/ belfold/tobb_ezren_a_jobbik_rendezvenyen; Susan C. Pearce, “Budapest, Hungary: October 23, 2009 Commemorations,” on the travel blog “Commemorations of the 1989 ‘Autumn of Nations,’” available online at: http://susancpearce.wordpress.com/2009/10/23/ october-23=2009-commemorations/.

9 Kurt Masur had been the Gewandhaus orchestra conductor in 1989 whose personal appeal to local Party functionaries had been instrumental in preventing a Tiananmen Square-style massacre in Leipzig. Hans-Dietrich Genscher had been the West German foreign minister in 1989–90 and thus one of the architects of unification.

10 Photographs of the installations and information about the artists and their motivations can be found in the bilingual publication edited by Thomas Seidler, Lichtfest Leipzig / Leipzig Festival of Lights: 20 Jahre nach der Friedlichen Revolution / 20 Years after the Peaceful Revolution (Leipzig: Leipziger Medien Service, 2009).

11 Thomas Mayer, “Wortfeuerwerk eines Bürgerrechtlers,” Leipziger Volkszeitung, 10 October 2009, p. 3.

12 Peter Krutsch, Mathias Orbeck, and Thomas Mayer, “Über 100 000 beim Lichtfest,” Leipziger Volkszeitung, 10 October 2009, p. 1; “Deutschland dankt den Helden von Leipzig... und 100 000 zogen um den Ring,” Bild (Leipzig), 10 October 2009, pp. 6–7. Newspapers in other cities, it should be noted, published substantially lower estimates; according to the Freie Presse (Chemnitz) the number was 70,000 (“‘Sie können für immer stolz sein,’” 10 October 2009, p. 1), while the Ostthüringer Zeitung (Gera) placed it as low as 50,000 (“Glücklicher Tag der deutschen Geschichte,” 10 October 2009, p. 1). The Mitteldeutsche Zeitung (Halle) agreed with the Leipzigers’ figures (“Leipzig feiert die friedliche Revolution,” 10 October 2009, p. 1).

13 Die Zeit and the Süddeutsche Zeitung completely disregarded the commemoration, while the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung carried only a short article limited to the doings of Kurt Masur and the politicians in attendance (“Leipzig feiert die friedliche Revolution,” 10 October 2009, p. 4).

14 Western German newspapers did give coverage to the November 9 commemorations in Berlin, as of course did their eastern counterparts. For non-journalistic observations, see Susan C. Pearce’s travel blog “Commemorations of the 1989 ‘Autumn of Nations,’” available online at: http://susancpearce.wordpress.com, and Barbara J. Falk’s article “Berlin Wall: A Miracle in the Capital,” The Mark, 11 November 2009, available online: http://pioneers. themarknews.com/articles/657-berlin-wall-a-miracle-in-the-capital/#.UmXzPbyvUy4. Swine flu, alas, prevented me from attending.

15 The full text of the Leipzig Theses can be found at the “Day of the Peaceful Revolution” available online at: http://www.herbst89.de.

16 Führer, quoted in “Wo ist der Schwung geblieben?” and Peter Krutsch, “‘Friedliche Revolution muss weitergehen,’” Leipziger Volkszeitung, 10 October 2009, p. 18. The full text of the Charter can be found at the Foundation’s website, available online: http://www.stiftung-fr.de.

17 Particularly noteworthy were Martin Bútora’s and Petr Pithart’s addresses on 16 September 2009 at the conference “1989: Society, History, Politics” in Liblice, where they identified as erroneous the decisions to embark on rapid rather than gradual economic transition and to give the new federal parliament elected in 1990 a mandate of only two years. Václav Havel, speaking in the Slovak National Theatre in Bratislava on November 18, also said he would have done certain things differently.

18 See Jana Sotonová, “Oslavy v Praze: 20 akcí, 1000 policistů,” Hospodářské noviny, 16 November 1989, p. 3.

19 The Czech Supreme Administrative Court ordered the party’s dissolution in 2010 as a result of its affinity with Nazism and sanction of violence, declaring that the party constituted a direct threat to democracy.

20 Petr Weikert, “Extremisté v Praze řádili, střetli se s policií,” Hospodářské noviny, 18 November 2009, p. 7; “Neonacisty vyhnali z centra: Ti se pak poprali s policisty,” Mladá fronta dnes (Prague), 18 November 2009, p. C3.

21 Matonoha originally read his letter on the HBO comedy show Na stojáka (Stand- Up) in 2006; a recording is available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=djFcjDyaZNY.

22 The Communists, for their part, celebrated the anniversary of 17 November 1939, but refused to celebrate 17 November 1989. For their interpretation of the “reversal” that occurred in 1989, see the numerous articles in Haló noviny from 16 and 18 November 2009.

23 Lenka Tréglová, “S pivem, dětmi a hlavně bez obušků,” Mladá fronta dnes, 18 November 2009, p. A3; Michaela Poláková, “Pochod připomínal streetparty,” Lidové noviny, 18 November 2009, p. 3.

24 Tréglová, “S pivem.”

25 Petr Blahuš, “Česko slavilo pád komunismu,” Právo, 18 November 2009, p. 1; Petr Kupec, “Praha vzpomínala,” Mladá fronta dnes (Prague), 18 November 2009, p. C1.

26 A videorecording of the concert, under the official title “20 let bez opony,” available online at: http://www.ceskatelevize.cz/porady/10249870304=20-let-bez-opony/.

27 Police and organizers agreed on the estimate of 2,500, though I think this is high; since I was at the front of the crowd, however, I could not get an overall view. “Studenti vyzvali lidi, aby nerezignovali na politiku,” Lidové noviny, available online at: http:// www.lidovky.cz/studenti-vyzvali-lidi-aby-nerezignovali-na-politiku-pc7-/zpravy-domov. aspx?c=A091117_204336_ln_domov_kim.

28 The text, “Prohlášení studentů ke 20. výročí sametové revoluce,” can be found at: http://www.stuz.cz/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=670:studentskeprohlaseni- inventura-demokracie-2009&catid=53&Itemid=73.

29 Andrej Matišák, “Aký Tchien-an-men by sa páčil Gašparovičovi?,” Pravda, 19 June 2009, p. 4.

30 “Jeremy Irons kritizoval postup slovenskej polície počas čínskej návštevy,” Sme, 20 June 2009, available online at: http://kultura.sme.sk/c/4899260. The documentary, directed by Cory Taylor, was entitled The Power of the Powerless (Los Angeles: Agora Productions, 2009).

31 Róbert Fico, speech at University College London, 17 November 2009, available online at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YzOHQbXVEok; Monika Tódová, “Fico: Ako môžeme oceniť november?,” Sme, 18 November 2009, p. 1.

32 Lenka Davidová, “Odhalené srdce pripomenulo pád totality,” Bratislavský kuriér, 23 November 2009, p. 4.

33 Quoted in Domino forum (Bratislava), no. 50 (2000).

34 Jana Ogurčáková, “Mesto Košice sa nedohodlo s aktérmi novembra,” Košický korzár, 14 November 2009, available online at: http://kosice.korzar.sme.sk/c/5109112/mesto-kosicesa- nedohodlo-s-aktermi-novembra.html; Ogurčáková, “Oslavy Nežnej revolúcie Košičanov nezaujali,” Košický korzár, 16 November 2009, http://kosice.korzar.sme.sk/c/5113160/oslavyneznej- revolucie-kosicanov-nezaujali.html.

35 Albert O. Hirschman, “Exit, Voice, and the Fate of the German Democratic Republic: An Essay in Conceptual History,” World Politics 45, no. 2 (Jan. 1993), pp. 173–202.

36 Ştefan Both, “Timişorenii au uitat prima zi de libertate,” Adevărul de seară (Timişoara), 20 December 1989, p. 1.

37 I was unable to attend the commemorations in Bucharest on December 21 and 22, but the sociologist Susan C. Pearce observes that they were more sombre than the events in Timişoara and that the cold snap and imminence of Christmas negatively impacted popular involvement, though there was evidently a constant stream of people waiting to write in the “guestbook” at a commemorative exhibition in the subway. See “Bucharest, Romania,” on Pearce’s travel blog “Commemorations of the 1989 ‘Autumn of Nations,’” available online at: http://susancpearce.wordpress.com/2009/12/31/bucharest-romania/.

38 See Gareth Dale, The East German Revolution of 1989 (Manchester: University of Manchester Press, 2006), p. 59.

39 On the Polish debate over whether there should have been a revolution in 1989, see Artur Lipiński, “Meanings of 1989: Right-Wing Discourses in Post-Communist Poland,” in Kevin McDermott and Matthew Stibbe (eds), The 1989 Revolutions in Central and Eastern Europe: From Communism to Pluralism (Manchester: University of Manchester Press, 2013), pp. 235–52.

40 Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (New York: International Publishers, 1963), p. 15.

41 Following the Young Democrats’ “electoral revolution” in 2010, they proceeded to draft a new constitution that went into effect in 2012, as a result of which the official name of the country changed from “the Republic of Hungary” to just “Hungary.” It is worth noting that Prime Minister Orbán presented this “revolution” as making up for the lack of one in 1989. “Orbán Viktor: Most tetszettünk forradalmat csinálni,” Népszabadság, 14 May 2010, available online at: http://nol.hu/archivum/egy_ciklus_kezdete__eskure_gyultek_ossze_a_ kepviselok; Dóra Matalin, “‘1989 forradalom volt, 2010 nem az,’” Népszabadság, 20 May 2010, available online: http://nol.hu/belfold/20100520-_1989_forradalom_volt__2010_nem_az_.

42 Jakub Pokorný, “Táhněte domů, neonacisti!” Mladá fronta dnes, 18 November 2009, p. A2.

43 Jana Sotonová, “Havel: Země vzkvétá, ale...,” Hospodářské noviny, 16 November 2009, p. 1.

44 The reflections that formed the basis for their discussion were published in Tomáš Mozga, Barbara Gregorová, and Pavel Jílek (eds), Česká vize: Hledání identity 21. století... (Brno: Dialog centrum, 2009).

45 Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (New York: Viking, 1963; rev. ed. 1965), p. 218.

46 Mike Dennis, The Stasi: Myth and Reality (Harlow, Engl.: Pearson/Longman, 2003); Krapfl, Revolution, pp. 79–81.

47 Quoted in Mathias Orbeck and Peter Krutsch, “Ein Abend voller Emotionen,” Leipziger Volkszeitung, 10 October 2009, p. 17. Emphasis added.

48 Burkhard Jung, quoted in Peter Krutsch, “Das Ei schweigt,” Leipziger Volkszeitung, 10 October 2009, p. 18.

49 So far the only effort to shed light on popular civic engagement in Hungary in 1989 is Alan Renwick, “The Role of Non-Elite Forces in the Regime Change,” in András Bozóki (ed.), The Roundtable Talks of 1989: The Genesis of Hungarian Democracy (Budapest: Central European University Press, 2001), pp. 191–210.


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 Mourning Aachen’s War Dead: Cultures of Memory during the First World Warm and the Postwar Period
Jens Lohmeier, Stephanie Kaiser

Mourning Aachen’s War Dead: Cultures of Memory during the First World Warm and the Postwar Period

20 August 2014
  • Great War
  • First World War
  • World War I
  • Aachen
  • obituaries
  • cementaries


The First World War proved costly to European societies, resulting in numbers of human casualties which went far beyond the imagination of the time. Coming to terms with these losses required new ways of coping, both on a broader social level and in terms of individuals and families. The focus of our study is an examination of the forms that the mourning of the war dead took at the local level. Special emphasis has been placed on semi-public and private remembrance in the German society of war times, and more specifically, in the city of Aachen, which has seldom been addressed in scholarship. To this end, we have analyzed hitherto unexamined archival sources containing obituaries from local newspapers from the war period, as well as materials on the construction of monuments, commemorative celebrations, and books from the 1920s and 30s. In the majority of private obituaries, one detects a national-patriotic glorification of the dead, which tapered off somewhat in isolated cases towards the end of the war. Public memory of the war changed towards the end of the Weimar Republic into a commemorative culture supported by the state with no regional differences, before being put into the full service of military revanchism by the beginning of the Third Reich.


“Why Germany Has Forgotten the First World War.” Thus reads an early 2013 cover of the national newspaper Die Welt, offering in stark terms an examination of a German blind spot as regards the country’s efforts to make sense of its own history. This occurred in spite of the fact that Germany was named “World Champion of Coming to Terms with the Past” by the Nobel Prize Committee Chairman Péter Esterházy (Stepanova 2009, 17). After the end of the Third Reich, memory of the First World War disappeared almost entirely from German public view, as the Second World War cost nearly four times as many human lives as the First, once held to be the war to end all wars (Kershaw 2011, 511). The twelve years of National Socialist rule remain one of the best-researched epochs in German history, though the cost of such unyielding attention has been a tendency to consign other chapters of German History to oblivion. In the other European countries that participated in World War I, its memory is both more present and more carefully preserved. While preparations to commemorate (in 2014) the 100- year anniversary of the outbreak of the war are in full swing, Germany wants to yield primacy of place to the war’s victors and maintain only a secondary role (Schmid 2013; Alpcan 2013). Aachen, the site of the first battles of the German army on the Western front that commenced during the invasion of neutral Belgium on the occasion of the 1914 conquest of Liège, is planning extremely limited celebrations for the anniversary. In 2014, the “International Newspaper Museum of the City of Aachen” will hold events to commemorate the war, whereas the city will primarily focus its attention on celebrations devoted to the 1200th anniversary of Charlemagne’s death. Beyond that, a World War commemoration ceremony will be organized in the Aachen Cathedral as part of the nationwide activities of the Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge association. These contributions can only be deemed very limited when we remember that this city lost more than 3,000 of its citizens as soldiers in the war.

Dying and Death in the “Great War”

As in the first global war, the First World War was not fought on the Europe’s battlefields alone; rather, it encompassed the colonies in Africa and East Asia, the Near East, and the world’s oceans. It was a war of unimaginable dimensions, involving Europe’s “Great Powers” at the beginning of the “Short Twentieth Century.” A war involving an intense arms race and major geo-political rivalries, it raged on for four long years. The soldiers died in skirmishes on as well as under the ocean on fronts that spanned the entire world. They found death in the skies, they died of poison gas, machine gun fire and artillery attacks. For contemporaries and later generations alike, this war would come to be known in collective memory as the Great War, der Große Krieg, or la Grande Guerre. On the Western Front in particular, the war was remembered as characterized by immobile attrition and murderous battlefields resembling wastelands, with enormous costs to both man and material. After only a few months it became clear that the war would in no way be the brief and decisive conflict that many at the time thought it would be, one whose ultimate aim was to secure “a place in the sun” for Germany. Instead, it stood as an unparalleled example of technical modernization and “total war.” Never before had so many soldiers been mobilized – more than sixty million from five continents marched over the course of the war – nor so many people killed: there were seventeen million casualties. These included nearly ten million soldiers and almost seven million civilians killed. As a ‘total war’ – the first of its kind – the First World War tore a swath of demographic destruction throughout the European states. For the German Empire, military losses amounted to some two million soldiers lost or 15% of the 13.2 million men who served, and over five million soldiers who suffered permanent disability (Bihl 2010, 298; Beckett 2007, 438–440; Overmans 2003, 664–665).

Efforts to come to grips with the mass death of soldiers in this boundless war, which has come to be called “the great seminal catastrophe of the twentieth century,” stands at the center of this paper. The mass grief that followed in the wake of mass death transformed European societies into societies of mourning (Janz 2002, 554). We will examine the reactions to the war death, often euphemistically referred to as “the sacrificial death” (Opfertod), or as “hero’s death” (Heldentod), which implied that death was never viewed as senseless, but rather as a necessary part of an important and successful attack (Janz 2009, 79). Death was therefore significant, as it would inspire further heroic actions among the survivors (Janz 2009, 80).

This brings us back to the question of how this grief played out in city communities. It is likewise important to determine whether there were qualitative differences in displays of private (for example, obituaries by relatives) versus public (for example, in the inauguration of memorials to war casualties) grief.

This question will be dealt with by taking an approach that looks at a regionally delimited example. As Germany’s westernmost large city, Aachen is in many respects ideally suited for the purpose: it sheltered a garrison of the Prussian-German army – the Lützow Infantry Regiment – and was the first site of a military hospital in the Reich which could be reached from the northern part of the Western Front. The first German soldiers of the war died directly west of the city in an attack on nearby Liège. Aachen thus was relatively early forced to find rituals and coping mechanisms in order to come to terms with the war dead, in both the private and public spheres. And what was true for Aachen was true for the rest of the Reich over the course of the war – grieving was now to take place in the absence of corpses or physical remains of the deceased, which almost always remained at the front. For most family members of the fallen, this represented death at a distance and led to a heightened need to represent and communicate the events verbally (Janz 2009, 71).

Our analysis of the transformation of private and public mourning practices of a city community torn between the emotional and psychological needs of the surviving family members and the requirements of the state, which valued nothing more than morale and perseverance, can be summed up as follows:

1. Analyzing the obituaries published in Aachen’s local press during the First World War. The processing of and coming to terms with the war dead was dictated by the public will to persevere. Private grief was limited to a narrow field. In the foreground stood the purpose of the soldiers’ death for the “emperor and fatherland,” though this was undermined by the endless number of death notices.
2. Employing memorial books, convocations and commemorative events dating from the postwar period, which was shaped by social and mental transformations. These were especially prominent in Germany due to the defeat, the war guilt clause, reparations and the military occupation of parts of the country, and caused the German efforts to overcome their war trauma to manifest themselves through (memory) repression and political activism (Krumeich 2002, 7).
3. Investigating Aachen’s cemeteries and memorials relating to the years 1914–1918. The first cemeteries date back to the wartime period. In Aachen, the construction of memorials was still underway in 1933 when the Nazis seized power. This event marked a further transformation in the mourning of casualties from the First World War. The culture of mourning was placed fully into the service of preparations for war.
4. Analyzing programs of memorial services from the 1920s and 1930s.


The culture of mourning is easily identified in public spaces by the presence of war monuments and cemeteries which, alongside commemorative events and celebrations, figured among the most significant testaments to the fallen after the war. These collective and public forms of war remembrance are among the most cited in contemporary research, whereas individual and private expressions of grief within urban communities (excepting Europe’s major capitals) have scarcely been examined.

The sources analyzed for this study are all found in Aachen’s city archive. The monuments, which up to the present day have offered proof of the human costs of the Great War, are described in the pages of the Heimatblätter des Landkreises Aachen, as well as in the journal of the Aachen Historical Society (Zeitschrift des Aachener Geschichtsvereins). Information on the origins and development of the cemetery of honor are to be found in the administrative records of the city. Also analyzed are publications commemorating regimental reunions among units stationed in Aachen (though available only for the Nazi period), as well as local organizations and the university.

In order to capture the sentiment behind private mourning rituals, we consulted 2,500 private and semi-public obituaries in the local newspapers (e.g. Echo der Gegenwart, Politisches Tagesblatt, Volksfreund; see Öffentliche Bibliothek 2006) which were published during the war. These obituaries were published at the behest of family members and friends, but also of employers, organizations, or military units.

Aachen in the First World War

In the First World War, the old imperial city played no special military role. However, the northern part of the Western Front had to be provisioned from Aachen, and the city’s industry profited from the production of armaments. The military and organizational structure within Aachen changed; the number and size of military hospitals and garrisons increased significantly. At the end of the war, in November 1918, Aachen was occupied by French and Belgian troops. The French had withdrawn their troops by 1920, but the Belgian occupation lasted eleven years. Although the years between 1914 and 1918 marked a major transformation in world history, this period’s impact on Aachen has seldom been researched and is lacking in both comprehensive large-scale surveys as well as detailed individual studies of the social, economic, and political cataclysms characteristic of the period.


I. Obituaries

City obituaries

During the four years of the conflict, written regimental reports of the city of Aachen included “plaques of honor,” which honored city workers who served and died during the war as conscripts. The plaques for these men were symbolically adorned with the iron cross. In the first year of the war, thirty-six men died, “a hero’s death for the fatherland. [...] The city of Aachen will forever preserve these fallen heroes’ honored memory.” (Bericht über die Verwaltung 1915). The second “plaque of honor” from the year 1916 honored sixteen city workers – here, however, reference to a “hero’s death” is absent. It is only the word “fatherland” which is mentioned (Bericht über die Verwaltung 1916, 5). In 1917, fifteen men died as “heroes who secured our abiding remembrance” (Bericht über die Verwaltung 1917, 5). In 1918 seven men fell, for whom the exhortation read: “honor their memory!” (Bericht über die Verwaltung 1918, 5).

The “hero’s death” was utterly fraught with political meaning and served to motivate both soldiers and German society to carry on the struggle (Janz 2009, 79–80). The individual’s death seemed to retreat into the background. On other “plaques of honor,” the city found itself repeating phrases, especially “On the field of honor, our regiment lost...” (Garde-Kameradschaft Aachen 1937, 21). Here, an honorable death was implied which was seen as requiring suitable tribute and gratitude from those at home. The human loss and the oftentimes barbarous and undignified circumstances in which death occurred at the front were ignored.

City obituaries generally had the purpose of transmitting the homeland’s support and the identification of the public sphere with the war, its causes and its consequences. It was all about patriotic, unreflective, uncritical grief, which became ever more impersonal, in as much any kind of information (apart from name and date of birth/death) regarding the fallen was completely absent.

Semi public and private obituaries

An important element for the culture of mourning during the war was the publication of obituaries provided by families, employers and social circles – for example, clubs or associations. For the city of Aachen, there exists a considerable collection of such sources from the time of the First World War. The majority of obituaries pertained to the inhabitants of Aachen who had lived in the city before the outbreak of the war. However, there were also death notices for people who did not live in the city themselves, but whose immediate family members were inhabitants of Aachen. Finally, there were obituaries in the local papers for people – mostly those of high social rank – who had at one time called Aachen home but no longer resided there.

It should be noted that the obituaries followed established patterns that had emerged in peacetime for private obituaries (cf. Zeck 2001). In most instances, they are colored by a clearly Catholic character, as revealed through references to saints or masses for the dead. This is to be expected, given Aachen’s Catholic majority (about 91% of the population) (Kühl 2011, 29). Distinct Protestant notices are nowhere to be found, and only one obituary commissioned by a Jewish organization and devoted to a deceased fellow-believer who died in an Aachen military hospital stands out. There is a particularly strict, militaristic mode of expression that emerges in a large portion of the obituaries (Capdevila & Voldman 2006, 119): they are often adorned with an Iron Cross that serves to denote military service. Inscriptions bearing the rank of the deceased often figure prominently. In contrast to those who died in peacetime, soldiers did not die in their homeland; as a result, obituaries contain rough mention of the place of their demise, often only whether the soldier died on the Western or Eastern front. Deviations from this formula were seldom seen. In a few select cases, the time of the funeral was provided – this was only possible if the deceased passed away in an Aachen military hospital or if family members had arranged for the transport of his body back to Aachen from the front.

The obituaries generally fall into one of two groups: 1) private expressions of grief from relatives and friends and 2) those stemming from employers, organizations, or military units. Both groups kept the nobility of the “hero’s death” at the forefront by emphasizing his death in service of the fatherland, and less commonly, for fatherland and king. This way of making sense of the soldier’s death is true for the whole period under investigation.

1. Most private obituaries reveal the society‘s widespread expectation of the “silent and steadfast” mourner. Particularly dominant was the romanticization of the hero, especially in evidence amid the boundless elation that accompanied the first year of the war (1914). Obituaries often claim that the last words of the deceased were, “but we were victorious” (obituary of 29 August 1914) while in other cases they were invested with even more positive meaning: “(He) died the most beautiful death a man possibly can.” However, the elation of the war hero was not an obligation, as shown by the example of a 1918 obituary involving two brothers. The first brother’s obituary was just being written when the news of the other brother’s death reached the family. In this case, the myth of the “hero’s death” is completely absent. In fact, the family spoke of “horrible tidings” that had reached them. In a few other cases (n=3) – likewise towards the end of the war (1918) – the expression “victim of the war” (Opfer des Krieges) is used in place of the notion of the ‘hero’s death’ (Heldentod), which still remained very frequent. In these cases, affected family members were distancing themselves from the invariably strong patriotic attitudes of society. Nevertheless, the term “victim of the war” was used in less than 1% of obituaries and was limited to private ones. In fact, it only emerged in 1918. Over the course of the war, the numbers of those who had lost more than one family member increased. This became apparent for the public through private obituaries in which references to the repeated loss of the family became more and more frequent. The death of successive family members was perceived as a multiplication of the sorrow already experienced.

Throughout the entire war, obituaries contained surprisingly frank and graphic descriptions of the circumstances surrounding soldiers’ deaths. It is true that there were occasions in which the suffering on the front was portrayed in romanticized terms; for example, when death was recounted as occurring amid a “circle of comrades” or there was mention of the grave prepared for the deceased by his comrades. A comforting picture of death in the field was painted on the home front through these descriptions, often in stark contrast to the reality. Nevertheless, entombments and day-long suffering from deathly injuries and gassings were also reported. In this way, the horror of the war crept into the mourning culture at home in small doses.

2. Obituaries by organizations and employers are clearly more formulaic. This is particularly the case of obituaries commissioned by the Erholungs- Gesellschaft Aachen (a social club which still exists today), which differed solely in the names of the deceased. Obituaries from employers often indicated the significance of the loss for the company and listed the credentials of the fallen employee. Organizations, on the other hand, often included the number of their dead in the obituaries (“Of the thirteen comrades who have served in the field to fight for Germany’s rights and honor, the second from our ranks who has died a hero’s death in France in the name of king and country is...”). School obituaries proved especially eager to celebrate the virtuous and exemplary character of their dead heroes, particularly in the first two years of the war. This presumably had the express purpose of encouraging other young men to enlist for military service, an incomprehensible didactic approach from today’s perspective.

Obituaries that were commissioned on behalf of organizations or companies that had no family relationship to the fallen played a clearer role within society than privately commissioned obituaries. They showed sympathy despite lacking any kinship to the deceased and owed a considerable debt to mourning rituals prevalent in times of peace from before the war. Even when semi-public obituaries contained actual expressions of grief, these sentiments took on a more distanced and formulaic guise compared to those appearing in private obituaries. Obituaries commissioned by comrades clearly represent an exception, as the number of these obituaries is very small. In the case of dead soldiers of higher rank in particular, one finds obituaries commissioned by their units in which the fallen are praised for their heroic courage and model character. In addition, poems dedicated to the dead penned by comrades were printed as obituaries in Aachen newspapers. They represented a link between mourning family members and grieving comrades, between the front and homeland. Nevertheless, in most cases the public and private spheres of mourning remained clearly separate. In conclusion, our analysis reveals that obituaries took the kinds of forms we might expect. Patriotic displays, which declined over the course of the war – though they never disappeared entirely – were present throughout. Given the prevailing censorship of the time, the most remarkable obituaries were those which clearly distanced themselves from a patriotic interpretation of death, as well as those in which there was a clear description of the circumstances of death: they set themselves apart from most obituaries, in which a quick, painless death is described in reassuring standard phrases.

II. Commemorative Books, Events and Celebrations

In the wake of the war, numerous organizations and social groups of the most varied sort celebrated their anniversaries and issued celebratory pamphlets for the occasion. These publications hovered somewhere between the public and socially influenced culture of mourning, with elements of personal inflection mixed in. All these groups were affected by the war and suffered losses. Was an anniversary the right occasion to commemorate the war dead, or was the memory of tragic death pushed aside to celebrate joyfully? A glance at the reports of RWTH Aachen University, of sporting organizations, shooting and hiking clubs, as well as fraternities, reveals that they all honored their dead. The range and scope of these commemorations, however, varied greatly: While certain organizations only mentioned their losses while discussing limited club activities, the RWTH – and above all, the student associations – devoted much more attention to the war dead. Nevertheless, our source base revealed that the majority of commemorative groups seldom dedicated more than a single page to their dead, in most cases numbering mere paragraphs or short chapters. Next to the names, the rank of the fallen was sometimes given. On the other hand, the Aachen gymnastics club printed photographs of its fallen members – a measure which was not taken elsewhere.

This marginal, somewhat distanced approach to mourning within groups not part of the inner family circle was disrupted by direct queries for missing soldiers from those left behind. A 1938 celebratory report commemorating the 125th anniversary of the former von Lützow infantry regiment contained two such queries for missing soldiers, and this more than twenty years after the end of the war. Relatives searched for more information about their fallen family members, such as descriptions of the circumstances surrounding their deaths. Information that the widows could provide included the name and rank of the soldier, the regiment number, as well as the date the soldier went missing, was wounded, or died. They were trying to locate eyewitnesses (comrades) who might be able to provide details that went beyond the formulaic military letters of condolence:

Seeking comrades who served together with (P. D.) in the 11th Company. The above-named fell on 9–19–1914. Can someone please provide information about the circumstances surrounding his death and where he is buried? Contact Mrs. (E. D., maiden name D.) at Aachen, Pontstraße 101. (Inf.-Reg. Lützow 1938, 11)

This was an attempt to bring death that had occurred on the battlefields or in military hospitals back into the private sphere. For the deceased’s relatives, death generally happened (geographically) far away, violently, and very suddenly, in a public space, in circumstances of total anonymity, and outside of the family’s reach. Eyewitness accounts made it possible for those left behind to participate emotionally in the death of those dear to them (Janz 2009, 72). In the extant sources, only one query for a missing soldier appeared.

It is important to note that the majority of organizations and groups did, in fact, make mention of their dead, but only to a certain extent can this even be defined as an explicit culture of mourning. The dead were scarcely granted a hearing. Reflections on the meaning of their deaths are scarce.

These commemorative depictions, which mention war deaths only in passing and position them outside the center of the analysis, stand in contrast to books whose only purpose was to honor the fallen. Of particular interest was the depiction of the Catholic Aachen student association Franconia (Hurck 1923). They honored their war dead with a small publication with general depictions of the war, the role of fraternities, and stories surrounding the individual fates of the fallen. In spite of all the war euphoria, the association did not shrink from showing pictures of the severe costs of war. Readers were spared neither the indescribably painful circumstances surrounding soldiers’ deaths, nor gruesome stories – like one about a corpse that had lay tangled in barbed wire behind enemy lines for three weeks. Still, they also functioned as an example of “proud grief ” that left no doubt about the significance of the soldier’s death and his model character. The depictions of Franconia and other student organizations included in the RWTH anniversary pamphlet show that cultures of mourning within organized student groups in the 1920s were already being used to serve the mobilization of a new war (Gast 1921).

III. Cemeteries and monuments

In 1907, a ten-meter-high monument in the form of a stylized “B” was dedicated in the Aachen Forest. On top of the monument sat a princely crown and orb, the entrance was emblazoned with a bust of Bismarck. The “Bismarck tower” paid tribute to the “Iron Chancellor” and founder of the Empire who had lived in Aachen during his tenure as a government intern (Aachener Stadtgeschichte, 2012). Originally conceived by his architects as a nationalist project and used by the citizens of Aachen as a landmark lookout tower, it acquired new significance as part of the “cemetery of heroes” (Ropertz 2011, 83). The Bismarck Tower was a favorite excursion site for the citizens of Aachen, which was perhaps one of the reasons for the erection of a cemetery in that place: the war dead would thereby somehow remain a part of the society through the presence of visitors, instead of being excluded from the city community, as would have happened had the cemetery been placed in a remote location.

The construction of a cemetery was indispensable for the city of Aachen after the first soldiers from the western front died in Aachen infirmaries in August 1914, or, as one source put it, here “death relieved them of their suffering” (Bericht über die Verwaltung 1914, 44–45). As a result, a resolution was passed to set aside a parcel of land in the Aachen Forest behind the Bismarck Tower that would serve as a “cemetery of honor” for all who had taken part in the war and died in Aachen. German, Austrian, and even foreign soldiers found their final resting place in this cemetery. Its function was, as the city put it, “to honor those who gave their lives for the fatherland and to secure heartfelt appreciation from all of posterity” (Bericht über die Verwaltung 1914, 45).

The soldiers’ cemetery in Aachen was modest in appearance and laid out in rows with graves marked by simple wooden crosses. It was designed in the austere form found throughout the Reich: burial plots were to be harmoniously arranged and enclosed within the untamed, primordial natural surroundings (Fig. 1). Its simple modesty and undifferentiated character symbolized the fallen who were all equal in death but whose own position was elevated by their separation from civilian burial sites (Ropertz 2011, 73; Latzel 1988, 77). The natural surroundings of the soldiers’ cemeteries show the Germans’ special attachment to nature compared to other nations (Mosse 1993, 108) – an attachment which became even more pronounced under National Socialism in the form of the “heroes’ groves” (Heldenhainen), and which remains characteristic to this day (Poschardt 2013; Palzer 2010).

The first twenty Germans were interred in the cemetery of honor in Aachen Forest in August 1914 (Bericht über die Verwaltung 1914). The commemorative book of the Harmonia men’s singing group describes how members of the organization provided musical accompaniment to the funeral ceremonies. Here, one sees how the civilian population became involved, if only to a limited degree, in the grieving process, one that acquired a military quality due to the absence of family members (mgv 1924).

Only one year after its construction, the city council agreed to extend the cemetery. Additional expansion followed in 1917, deemed necessary due to the “large number of victims claimed by the long war” (Bericht über die Verwaltung 1915, 46; Bericht über die Verwaltung 1917, 52).

From the beginning of the war through to the end of 1920, 2,848 people directly involved in the war were interred in the Aachen cemetery (2,164 Germans, two Austrians, one Hungarian, one Turk, and 676 people from other nations, as well as four nurses), making it the largest soldiers’ cemetery in the area surrounding Aachen (Bericht über die Verwaltung 1920, 5 & 64). Apparently, the grave site continued to be used during the Third Reich: a city report mentioned the solemn burial of 91 people in April 1944 (Ropertz 2011, 74). 2,623 more were buried during the Second World War. There were no observable differences in the manner of burial when comparing the two wars. A 1965 law conferred eternal peace unto the war dead.

In the first years following World War I, few Germans could visit burial sites located in other countries; as a result, monuments in Germany had to serve as the primary sites for those working through the grieving process. The repatriation of bodies back to Germany was a rare occurrence (Brandt 2002, 243). At the same time, soldiers were often not given a proper burial when they perished abroad, with about 25% designated as “missing in action” (Brandt 2004, 204).

It was remarkable that Germans had created monuments to their dead for a war that they had lost. Monuments typically serve to commemorate victories and successes: “If such misfortunes inspire the building of commemorative symbols then it is because the death of citizens as a consequence of a failed military or political action is very much in need of some sort of justification” (von Looz-Corswarem 2004, 213).

The construction of memorials during the Great War was subject to these severe restrictions. Politicians were convinced that war memorials undermined the perseverance of the German people, so that the majority of the structures in honor of the fallen were erected many years after the end of the war in 1918 (Weigand 2001, 213–214).

In Aachen, in the aftermath of the First World War, only two war monuments were built: 1) the “Ehrenmal” (memorial) in the city center and 2) the Rothe Erde war monument. Today, both monuments serve to honor the memories of those who died in the First and Second World Wars.

1. In August 1933, a little more than six months following the Nazi “Seizure of Power,” the “monument of honor” at the Marienburg, a tower built in 1512 outside the city walls of Aachen, was dedicated (Figs. 2 & 3). Various regiments were honored in the treasured commemorative books, notably the Lützower Infantry Regiment, which was defiantly remembered as “unbeaten in battle.” The tower at Marienburg was seen as a former defensive site and an emblem of the glory days in the history of the city that produced the “proud” Regiment. At the same time, it was seen as a future place of remembrance and gratitude. The monument was not only to serve as a means to grieve “our casualties in the war,” but rather as a reminder of the “living strength and right to life of our German sons in the borderlands” (Festschrift Inf.-Reg. Lützow 1933, 25). The Christian theme of eternal life was secularized and reinterpreted: the soldier sacrificed his life, and the nation was held as the highest benchmark of worldly transcendence (Janz 2002, 565). Suffering in the name of the Volk and the fatherland reached its culmination point, according to the interpretation of monument constructors, in the newly restored militarism, in the new Reich of renewed vigor and strength (Festschrift Bundesführer 1935). As he visited the monument, the visitor could look towards the horizon, “where, during the storming of Liège, for the first time ever German military power shone brightly, and further on, towards the blood-soaked battlefields of Belgium and France, where for years our troops used their bodies to throw up an impregnable wall against an entire world of our enemies” (Festschrift Bundesführer 1935). The theme of the supposedly undefeated German troops of World War I, which formed the basis of the later myth of the “stab in the back,” along with the antagonistic superiority of Germany’s enemies, were widely cited by contemporary observers and found reflection in a number of popular fixed expressions. These could be put into service by National Socialism in order both to mobilize society in readiness for the “coming war” and to call for revenge against Germany’s enemies (Weigand 2001, 217). The exact causes of the war were depicted in a distorted fashion and portrayed as actions necessary for defending Germany’s borders. The “worth” of the Volk was measured by its willingness to militarize; that it was “ready to serve the fatherland with property and blood [...]. We believed in this in 1914 and believe in it today, and we will believe in this forevermore” (Festschrift Bundesführer 1935). The grief and the vast human losses were absent from the general discourse, one was rather proud of the victims “who died for the homeland and the empire.” (Festschrift Bundesführer 1935) It was thus a duty of the survivors and future generations to achieve the (alleged) goals for which the soldiers had died (Brandt 2004, 202). The architectural style of the monument, the circumstances of its formal dedication, as well as the speeches declared during the official ceremony show the strongly militarized lens through which the dead were remembered at the end of the Weimar Republic and the beginning of the Third Reich. Death was viewed as a duty and suggested a renewed readiness to fall victim to the war and sacrifice in the name of the people’s community (Volksgemeinschaft). There was, however, no such thing as “victims,” only “heroes.”

2. The Rothe Erde war memorial was built “by the parish of St. Barbara for its fallen heroes who perished in the World War of 1914–1918” (Fig. 4). Not even the Aachen Office for the Preservation of Historical Monuments has the year of construction in its files, a fact that speaks volumes about the minor value of these aspects of remembrance among present-day Aacheners. Presumably, the monument dates back to the 1920s. It is composed of white stone and adorned with a simple iron cross and two mourning women in prayer. The names of the war dead from World War I were perhaps once inscribed in the middle of the monument, though today a commemorative plaque hangs there instead, to honor the victims of both world wars (Rothe Erde 2010). In contrast to the first monument, this one is devoid of any pathos. Its function was not to serve as a military monument, but rather to depict the grief and sorrow of those left behind through the gestures of the female figures. As sources from the city archive reveal, this intention was made clear from the outset in the inauguration of the monument, which was accompanied by religious fanfare, rather than military pathos and military music. In this way, it stands apart from the “monument of honor” whose later dedication had a clearly military character and showed the government’s efforts to mobilize the country for another war.

IV. Commemorative Celebrations

The festival programs which emerged out of the reunions of regiments and associations that came to Aachen date back to the 1930s and, as such, clearly already bear traces of National Socialism. Festival day programs consisted of a wreath-laying ceremony at the cemeteries and monuments alongside commemorative celebrations and marches through the city. This was followed by officer addresses, toasts, the bestowing of awards, and musical tributes, often concluded with ceremonial artillery salvos. Speeches sung the praises of soldiers’ chivalry. One of particular interest was given in Aachen in 1933 by (retired) General Major von Friedrich on the occasion of the reunion of the Landwehr Infantry Regiment 28: “strong in will, courageous in deeds, brave in victory, loyal to the death. So will live the 28th in our memory forever” (Lndwehr-Inf.-Reg. 1933). Here, death received an expected form – as the heroization of death above all else, appealing to and making recurrent use of the active semantics and self-image of manly military virtue (Janz 2002, 563). Loyalty and belief in Germany was emphasized again and again, as was the model character of the fallen and the “fiery hearts” with which they served in the war, whose duration and severity could scarcely have been believed at the outset (Inf.-Reg. Lützow 1938, 9). Family members received no attention, as opposed to the fraternal community, which continued to exist. The regiments made their presence felt throughout the city: in their marching from monument to monument, in their gatherings in the central marketplace, and in their paying of respects at commemorative events and war cemeteries, not only in Aachen but at cemeteries in neighboring Belgium as well (Inf.-Reg. Lützow 1938, 2; Inf.-Reg. Lützow 1933, 7). For this reason, Mosse’s observation rings true: soldiers’ cemeteries after the war functioned as places of national meditation and pilgrimage (Mosse 1993, 115).

Continuity between the wars was present, the celebrations were organized not only “in honor of those fallen in the First World War.” Among those honored were also the soldiers who died during the wars of unification, as well as the “fallen heroes”(!) of the Third Reich (Inf.-Reg. Lützow 1938, 2; Garde-Kameradschaft Aachen 1937, 15). The “losers” of 1918 were part of the same tradition, standing alongside the “winners” of 1871 and 1933. As Janz has rightly put it, a politicized cult of the dead was established in the interwar period, populated by a range of organizations and institutions (Janz 2002, 556).

Remarkably, the presence of religious services or holy masses among the festivities is conspicuous in its absence (Inf.-Reg. Lützow 1938, 2; Garde- Kameradschaft Aachen 1937, 15; Inf.-Reg 1933, 7; Festschrift Bundesführer 1935). The presumed reason for this has to do with the fact that state-prescribed mourning rituals did not carry an explicitly religious connotation. Rather, they were often confessionally and politically neutral affairs which focused on paying tribute to the soldiers (Brandt 2002, 249). There is, in fact, only one festival (from 1937) whose Sunday program began with a religious celebration: starting at 8 am “every hour a mass was read in all the churches throughout the city for Catholic soldiers, ending with the one at 11:30 am in the Kaiserdom. For Protestant comrades, an 8:00 am service was led in Christ’s Church on Martin Luther Street” (Garde-Kameradschaft Aachen 1937, 15). Particular emphasis was placed on the preponderance of Catholic soldiers in the overwhelmingly Catholic city of Aachen.


Mourning culture vis-à-vis the war dead of 1914–1918 in Aachen was, as we have seen, multi-layered. There were diverse efforts to adequately pay homage to the dead, from obituaries and commemorative books to celebrations and monuments. The sources used in this paper show what the differences were between the private culture of mourning in the city community, which this study illustrates mostly with examples from the war period, and the official culture of mourning, which continued to a larger extent after the war.

The obituaries published during the war clearly show the personal, intimate grief of family members. These obituaries are marked by pain, but they nevertheless show the heroization of death in public. In only a few cases a critical perspective can be found, which shows – only to a rudimentary degree – how enthusiasm began to wane towards the end of the war. Aside from references to masses for the dead, one finds no evidence of strong Catholic influence. A religious connotation of death is missing; grieving, as presented in newspapers, was solely permeated by a national, patriotic aura.

The culture of mourning the war dead of 1914–18 in Aachen was complex. Obituaries, commemorative pamphlets, celebrations and monuments were all part of the society’s effort to commemorate the fallen. The sources used in this paper date mostly from the war period itself, and underline how differently the society mourned the dead compared to the ‘official’ culture of mourning, prescribed much later by politicians and parties.

The obituaries published during the war clearly show how intimate and personal the grief of family members really was: even though their pain was obvious, their grieving was still characterized by a heroization of death, at least on the surface. Only in a few cases is a critical undertone noticeable, which revealed how the spirit in Germany was changing towards the end of the war. Apart from masses, there is no mention of Catholic elements. The religious connotation of death is missing: it only resonated in a nationalistic and patriotic way, or so the sources indicate.

This paper is an effort to break new ground in its analysis of this specific period and region. It can therefore only represent a first glimpse into the culture of mourning in Aachen during the Great War. Further research is necessary, and it would be recommended to extend the range of sources to include funeral sermons, more commemorative texts that refer to the region, and private commemorative events and books.


Jens Lohmeier. Studied History and Politics at the RWTH Aachen University. He has published studies on social aspects of military history in the 20th century. He is currently working on his doctoral thesis on health policy in the National Socialist daily press.

Stephanie Kaiser. Studied History and Literature at the University of Mainz and Auckland. She works at the Institute of History, Theory and Ethics in Medicine at the RWTH Aachen University. She is an assistant in the “Transmortality” research project – funded by the Volkswagen Foundation. The topic of her doctoral thesis is body procurement for anatomical institutes in the Third Reich.




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Photo of the publication Memory in the Digital Age: First World War and Its Representation on the Web
Aleksandra Pawliczek

Memory in the Digital Age: First World War and Its Representation on the Web

20 August 2014
  • Great War
  • First World War
  • World War I
  • digitalization
  • digital resources


In preparation for the centenary of 1914, a great deal of new sources and new information are being made available online as part of various projects. The selection of materials reflects the importance of the war for the national or regional remembrance and self-understanding. The materials as such are still fragmented and research through digital methods is possible only to a limited extent. The importance attached to the online availability of sources varies substantially between countries. The idea, on the one hand, that historical knowledge is ubiquitous in the digital era, and the amount of information available on the other hand, distort our perception of the value of the preserved materials, their actual relevance, and their geographical and institutional distribution.

The increasing digitization being carried out in various disciplines by individuals and institutions has contributed to the intensification and visualization of numerous historical discourses in recent years. As the centenary of the outbreak of World War I is about to be celebrated, the focus of research and the public attention has been particularly on this war, which entered the cultural memory of Europe and the world as the “Great War” and the “great seminal catastrophe” of the twentieth century (George F. Kennan). Memory of the first great war has changed over the past century. However, War World I has not lost its relevance to the individual and collective sphere of memories, as shown by the ongoing lively discussion on particular aspects and the general phenomenon of the war. This is partly due to media dissemination and availability. It is especially visual content, such as movies and photographs which easily lodges in the cultural memory, because of its direct visual impact. This process is also facilitated by the digital format of the materials available on the Internet, sometimes as materials in the public domain. Other forms of sources which pertain to the important events in the national and international context of 1914–1918 are being increasingly digitized, and the choice of materials and events for remembering indicates the self-images of those who remember.

In preparation for the centenary of 1914, a variety of new (source) information is being made available online as part of various national, European, and global projects, in the form of digitized materials or documents (EFG, EFG1914, 2013–07–15), virtual museum galleries, compilations of historical and socio-historical data, or selections of pre-existing archival material (IWM1914, 2013–05–16). A number of institutions and associations of institutions are mobilizing their workforces to provide researchers and the general public with access to condensed and interconnected information on the state of research and to sources related to World War I, using existing digital methods and practices, all on theme-based sites (CENDARI, FWWS, 2013–05–30). Numerous archives, libraries and museums are digitizing their collections and making them available (KS1914–1918, 2013–07–13). New virtual research communities are being created, becoming very active in publishing online articles, reports, and blogs about individual aspects of First World War research and offering links to other websites (GrandeGuerre; Calenda; WW1Centenary, 2013–07–21).

Information and sources

It is hardly possible to provide an overview of the past, present, and planned activities. Numerous conferences are to be held in the coming years, and there are a great number of publications and new research projects in progress. Hence, the visibility of individual initiatives might decrease. A systematic overview is not conceivable at the moment, though preparations for summer 2014 and the following years are now going full speed. We can, however, reflect on the developments so far, which have enhanced – or even initiated – the increase in online information resources relevant to research, the culture of memory, and remembrance policy. In this context, it is the secondary information on historical sources – and the digitized historical sources themselves – whose online publication is particularly worth analyzing. The online presence and visibility of remembrance might allow the regional cultures of memory to be considered (e.g. the case of Australians and New Zealanders, but also that of British and German officials). On the other hand, online publications might result in a (new) imbalance in the knowledge and understanding of the existing historical sources relating to World War I. This could, as implied by the principle “on the Internet – in the world,” result in determining and limiting research focuses and interests and, consequently, lead to a narrowing of “collective memory” (Moller 2010; Erll 2011, 5f, 41ff.). A one-sided visibility creates an imbalance: aspects and historical sources relevant to the memory of events remain unseen as they find no representation on the Internet. It should be noted here that the presence and the activities of specific “communicators of memory” largely depend on the financial and human resources at their disposal, and more resources might be allocated when the events – or War World I in this case – play a central role in the “collective memory.”

The memory (memories) of World War I

What kind of a war do we remember? This question is directly related to how we remember and document past events and, consequently, it is particularly relevant in the context of the digital sources. The national narratives of the Great War differ, depending on the war experience and its consequences (White 1990, 1ff., 27ff.; Reimann 2004). Therefore it makes sense to have at least a cursory look at the preparations for the 1914 anniversary from a regional, national, and international perspective. This will make it possible to see how current research approaches relate to the range of digitized primary and secondary sources, and to use this knowledge to comment on the preparations.

The duration of World War I differed in various regions, and so did the impact of the war, both in terms of the army and the civilians. The moments and sites of memory which have been created reflect this imbalance. In many national narratives, the “great seminal catastrophe” of the twentieth century tends to be perceived as a “seminal event,” an event that triggered developments, or as an identity-building turn in the historical reorientation process. The collective experience did not result in a collective narration: the war experience preserved its specific regional or national character. The battles of attrition in France, the infringement of Belgium’s neutrality, the mobilization of Commonwealth forces from Australia, New Zealand, or Canada for a geographically distant war overseas – all this shaped the general perception of the event and produced the central issues for the public memory in a given country, which often correspond to the private identity. The problem begins with the differences in defining the dates of World War I. The assassination in Sarajevo is, admittedly, generally accepted as the direct cause of the conflict. However, the Balkan Wars of 1912–13 might also be perceived, depending on one’s point of view, as a directly related historical context and the origin of the global conflict (Becker und Kutbay 2013). In some countries, 11 November 1918 is commemorated as the Armistice Day, whereas in the United Kingdom it is celebrated as Remembrance Day. On the other hand, it is ANZAC Day on 25 April that is observed in Australia, New Zealand, and Tonga. This day of remembrance, a national holiday since as early as 1927, commemorates the landing at Gallipoli and the battle of 1915 which inflicted heavy losses. In Poland, on the other hand, since 1937/1989 11 November has been celebrated as National Independence Day, the anniversary of the restoration of the Polish state, even though it was not until 1921, after the end of the Polish-Soviet War, that Poland’s eastern borders were established by the Peace of Riga. For Germany, the armistice of Compiègne was seen as a huge failure – and one which the Germans did not consider to be their fault for many years. However, the memory of Compiègne faded after 1945, supplanted by World War II (Mommsen 2004, 200ff). In the Soviet Union, the end of the war was not commemorated after the Treaty of Brest-Litowsk of 1917. Instead, it was the victorious revolution which was celebrated for many years, though it took some time to deal with the vision of the revolution as a “conspiracy” (RussiaWW1, 2013–07–29). Similarly, it was neither the long years of hardship nor the loss of the status of a major power that became the cornerstone for the Turkish national remembrance policy after the end of the Ottoman Empire. Instead, the remembrance policy would focus on the war of liberation of 1919–1923, also called a revolutionary war, which later developed into “elitist Kemalism,” while still claiming and preserving the power to interpret and construct memory (Plaggenborg 2012, 69ff.; Akin 2013; NAQ 2013). Furthermore, it is well known that the genocide of the Armenians has had a special status in the official narrative (Akçam 2012, 227ff. 373ff.). This list of historical narratives could be extended to describe the specific situations of the Baltic States, Ukraine, Greece, Belgium, Sweden, and the United States. The multiplicity of narratives concerning the significance of World War I finds its reflection in historiography, and new moments of memory may be created in the process of historical research. The general perception of the war and, consequently, its public image and interpretation, have undergone fundamental changes. This is even more true now, when eyewitnesses are no longer among us, and World War I is gradually becoming a thing of the past, a closed series of events. The narratives are fairly constant, yet not inflexible. The “war enthusiasm,” the Augusterlebnis (“August experience”), and the “Spirit of 1914” have already been deconstructed in many countries (Becker 1977; Kruse 1991, 73f.; Verhey 2000; Pennell 2012). In Germany in particular, dealing with “the question of responsibility for the war” resulted in a heated debate and the famous “Fischer controversy” of the 1960s (Fischer 2000 [1961]; Große Kracht 2005, 47ff.; Große Kracht 2004). New research questions emerged that refuted the image of Germany as an innocent participant in the war, which had previously been generally accepted among the Germans.

National and European remembrance

Though some researchers adapt comparative approaches and focus on world relations and interdependences in experiencing and coming to terms with phenomena, the hermeneutic approach to the culture of memory of World War I continues to exist (Krammeritsch 2009, 1f, 6f.). The narratives can be most easily contextualized if they are presented in the traditional way, which by no means meets the demands of “transnationality” or “globality.” Memory of World War I is still fragmented, mostly at the national level, but also in regional terms, and the provision of information is, in most cases, limited to nations, and to institutions as well, as the fragmentation results not only from the multiplicity of national narratives, but also from administrative responsibilities. Nevertheless, such institutional, political, or conceptual limitations can be overcome through virtual links, which allow them to complement, extend, and transnationalize information. The question therefore arises as to whether the new “digital history” will create the necessary preconditions for national memory to acquire a European, or even a global dimension. Will it allow or facilitate access to other lines of research and, most importantly, to other historical sources?

There is no shortage of initiatives created to pursue this approach. Besides the above-mentioned scientific, private, and public sites, making it possible for the community of professional or amateur historians to exchange information, there are projects that seek to create platforms for working together to make primary information available beyond state and institutional borders. Even though World War I is not always in the focus, all the projects still contribute to the digitization and the on-line publication process of sources relevant to this topic. The projects are of limited duration and their future is often unclear. A lasting solution to the problem of the long-term preservation of digital information is yet to be found, but every project gives us hope that we are getting closer. At the European level, three main aggregator projects of great public impact can be identified, all three of which seek to contribute to transnationality and to the public or open access to archival data: Europeana Collections, European Film Gateway EFG1914, and Archives Portal Europe (APEx).

The Europeana Collections 1914–18 project (as opposed to Europeana 1914– 1918, focusing on family memorabilia from World War I) aims to present digital war collections from ten European libraries in 2014. This means making around 400,000 “sources” available to the public, including books and diaries, newspapers, maps, children’s literature, photographs, posters, pamphlets, and leaflets (EC1914–1918, 2013–07–26). These are partly archival materials, even though archival institutions as such do not participate in this subproject. The whole process is voluntary and it is the libraries which decide on the choice of materials for digitization. The collections of the National Library of Serbia, presented in the form of a virtual exhibition, with a great variety of visual materials and fewer texts, are a good example here (SNB, 2013–07–18).

EFG1914, on the other hand, presently includes as many as around 780 documents available on-line: newsreels, documentaries, and feature films relating to World War I, as well as film-related written materials, hailing from twenty-one European (film) archives in fifteen European countries, including Denmark, Belgium, Austria, Germany, Poland, Romania, the United Kingdom, Italy, and Estonia (EFG1914, 2013–07–15). The list of the movies available on-line can be found on the website of the project (EFG1914-Titles, 2013–07–26). All in all, it is a great repository, a veritable treasure trove which opens up the very much neglected medium of film for researchers and for all those interested, and also provides the users with contextual metadata. Still, EFG1914 is far from presenting all the relevant materials and important historical information. Once again, it is the institutions themselves which decide on participation in the project and the choice of materials to be made available.

The goal of APEx is quite different: first of all, the project is not devoted to World War I. Secondly, it defines itself as a “single access point” for European archival research. In the light of cooperation with national archives from twenty-eight European states, this appears justifiable (APEx, APEnet, 2013–07–18; Jeller 2013, 96f). Like other initiatives, the project strives to extend its cooperation, both in the geographical and the institutional sense, which should lead to an increase in the amount of information available. In compliance with the archival standards for cataloguing and accessibility, the portal offers access to source guides and finding aids, along with both simple and hierarchical search functions with respect to individual countries, institutions, as well as specific funds and collections. Those users who are familiar with how the archive materials are structured will be able to find materials relating to World War I in the categories. If need be, one can also consult the dates of files; at the moment, the Archives Portal Europe includes no audio-visual materials.

These are only a few projects out of many. Numerous institutions – archives, libraries, and museums – have already put information about their collections online, either individually or in cooperation with other institutions (from the same country or region), or they are working on the presentation of war-related archival materials at the moment. Here we might mention only a few projects of this kind. The US National Archives and Records Administration, for instance, works in cooperation with regional archives and other institutions from the Washington D. C. area (ARC, 2013–07–18). Several years ago, Belgian archivists created a comprehensive inventory of relevant funds and collections of nearly all the Belgian institutions and published it as a PDF file (Vanden Bosch et. al., 2010). The Imperial War Museum from the UK set up online galleries which include not only descriptions of the items (documents, movies, photographs), but also excerpts from audio-visual materials. Moreover, in cooperation with JISC and the Wellcome Trust the museum published a list of war-related collections in British institutions (JISC-WW1, 2013–07–25). The Austrian National Library, on the other hand, works on digitizing numerous newspapers and magazines, including those published in 1914–18. Digital copies of many issues are now fully available on-line (ANNO, 2013–07–17). A similar project has been initiated by the National Library of Poland in cooperation with the Warsaw University Library. The number of digitized Polish magazines is not large yet, but it is on the rise (E-KCP, 2013–07–17). The Arbeitsgemeinschaft deutscher Regionalbibliotheken (a working group in the German Library Association dbv, concerned specifically with regional libraries) aims to publish their “war collections” by 2014. These include not only war literature, but also “field and trench newspapers from the front area, prints from military hospitals and prison camps, newspapers from occupied areas and the “homeland press” published by communities, associations, schools, companies or congregations for front-line soldiers,” as well as “war maps, posters and leaflets, photographs, letters and diaries from the front, remains of the war economy such as emergency money and food ration cards,” along with “vivat ribbons, postcards, commemorative coins, postmarks and porcelain pieces with war motifs” (BLB, 2013–07–18). Archives are compiling lists of their war-related sources in the form of thematic guides and inventories (LA-NRW, 2013–07–29; Menzel 2013). General information on World War I has also been published in Germany as part of a special scientific web site (Clio, 2013–07–16).

Once again we find a great deal of digital information in various forms and implementations, a fragmented, regionally-oriented mass of data in which no transnational systematization can be identified whatsoever: isolated, manageable collections, visually attractive materials, along with archival systems and inventories. All of this information offers numerous possibilities for linking and complementing at the regional, national, and international level, at the public or official level, or for private use and processing. How to introduce links and cross-references, and whether they will be introduced at all – this is yet to be decided.

Private and the public remembrance

The topic of online sources relating to World War I is still far from being exhausted. On the one hand, some archival sources are made available for private purposes, such as genealogy and family history, but also the history of everyday life (Alltagsgeschichte). Lists of the fallen, soldiers, and war prisoners can be found, for instance, on the websites of British, Australian, and New Zealand national institutions (IWMLives; NA-OC; NA-YA; NAA; ANZ; CWGC, 2013–07–17), or the website of the In Flanders Fields Museum in Belgium (IFF, 2013–07–17). Furthermore, private documents are published on rather well-ordered, institutionally run sites or, at least, on public domain websites, which are reasonably clear and verifiable, and offer critical analyses of sources. Once again, we have to make a clear distinction. On the one hand, there are initiatives run by archives such as the US National Archives, which provide clear information on the origin and license of the ‘crowdsourced’ materials (NARA, 2013–07–18). On the other hand, we can find sites which apply the same methodology to the publication of highly diverse and fragmented materials in the public domain, as exemplified by the above-mentioned Europeana 1914–1918 project (World War I in everyday documents; Europeana 1914–1918, 2013–07–18) and the Great War Archive, where anyone interested can share their family stories, along with documents which illustrate them (GWA, 2013–07–19). Here we should also mention the considerable (audio)visual resources of Wikimedia Commons, which, according to their own information, consist of over 17 million data files, including thematic collections on topics such as “World War I” or “Russian Revolution,” published either in the public domain with no copyright restrictions, or under various free licenses (WikiMedia, 2013–07–19). Nevertheless, the use of these online collections can be extremely problematic, as the conflict with the German Federal Archives in Koblenz has shown. In 2010, after numerous cases of copyright violation of photographs from their collections, the Federal Archives parted ways with the site (Kilb 2011).

The discussion about this kind of public history, which “considers the public as a reference to its practice” and tries to function as “a bridge between the process of dealing with the past in the society, the academic way of producing historical knowledge, and the politically motivated reinforcement of collective stories” (Tomann et. al. 2011, 11f.), has already started among experts who, however, have not placed particular emphasis on the digital aggravation of the problem. In the context of World War I, the attempt to engage the general public in the historical work, to preserve the authoritative power of interpretation belonging to memory institutions and to provide an academically sound methodological and theoretical basis for the general participation in cultural remembrance activities take on a particular importance. The temporal distance paired with the lasting public impact of World War I make it a remarkable case for applied history and for questions related to the way private and public memories are handled and produced. The protection periods of the archived materials have mostly expired, especially in terms of personal data protection. The issues of copyrights and rights of exploitation can also be usually solved beyond any doubt. Private genealogical research is booming and bringing new needs into play. The undying interest in the history of everyday life, “the history of ordinary people,” that of veterans and invalids, of the home front in general or the role of women in particular, contributes to the process of reselecting and reevaluating available sources. Therefore, the documents presented often take into account the current popularity and development of specialist and amateur history. The recorded memory acts as a link between what was experienced, what was handed down, and what was constructed. It prescinds from national or even global perspectives and breaks down major events to private memories and sources.

Rudimentary metadata on the provenance and the item at least to some extent provides a methodological approach. However, more and more databanks and fora are being created as a result of private initiatives. These include, most importantly, genealogical source collections, but family stories are also made public by means of private documents (e.g. ICEM; Fourteeneighteen; LLT; Iten; Ancestry, 2013–07–21). Private materials often create vivid impressions of “the war behind the great war” and offer sources that cannot be found in any archives, as they are stored in private cases and photo albums. The critical evaluation of these sources seems, however, to pose a problem, not least because of their eclectic randomness, which is difficult to grasp with scientific methods: it is by no means a representative selection, and its usability for research purposes remains questionable (Stahlgewitter, 2013–07–19).

The reliability of this kind of sources, regardless of whether they belong to institutional or private collections, is limited also in another respect. Although digital files do not replace the original documents or movies, and the material sources stored in archival institutions can compensate for the unverifiability of digital sources, the constant data migration, which often results in a loss of information, makes it more difficult to provide references to specific sources. Links function only for a limited period of time, references to sources used become obsolete after several years. Digital technology is in a constant state of development, and proprietary formats with no built- in solutions for sustainability are used. Their usability depends on the will and existence of the companies that control and maintain them. This adds to the instability of available information and reduces its reference value.

However, the popularity of digital information is relevant, especially now, when the celebration of the centenary of the outbreak of World War I begins. The existence and diversity of digital information indicates the interdependency between the use of historical material on the one hand, and its availability or dissemination on the other. The increasing demand for specific types of sources correlates with their priority in various digitization projects; at the same time, however, the digital availability of these types of sources may result in their increased visibility (Hettling and Echterkamp 2013, 11ff; Terzieva 2013).

Availability vs. unavailability, or mass vs. quality

In this digital dialectic, narratives of memory meet sources of memory. It would be an oversimplification to interpret official digital information resources on the Internet as just a service for the interested public. On the other hand, digital resources are often in compliance with some of the official precepts of remembrance policy, which in turn are shaped by public opinion, research, and politics, with all the upswings and downturns, and the whole restructuring process that has taken place in recent decades. Creating a comprehensive system is desirable, yet not viable for the time being, neither at the national nor the transnational level. Identifying priorities by means of more or less transparent selection criteria is therefore a must if we want to have at least a basic overview of existing materials. Despite the fragmentation, such an overview would reflect the range and diversity of the historical material relevant to World War I. The context of the available fragments of memories is, however, not always evident. It is not rare for projects and institutions to publish information about the share of digitized collection items in the entire archive contents. The National Archives in the UK have digitized about 5% of its contents so far (NA-OR, 2013–07–14), the German Federal Archives claim to have a “representative selection of over 200,000 pictures” out of the total number of eleven million (BA-DB, 2013–07–29). Details of the written materials are not provided. In Poland, seven million scans of documents from all the Polish archives have been recently put into one central state archive, the National Digital Archives, and another set of two million scans is scheduled for 2013 (NAC; Szukaj, 2013–07–24). The website of the initiative features a sample of around 200,000 documents, mostly photographs, which, at the moment, translates into a bit more than 1% of the entire archive contents, with a tendency toward growth (NAC-online, 2013–07–24). Nevertheless, the data usually lack topic-related specifications, and users cannot determine how much material relating to World War I is actually available. Moreover, the material included in the digital collections varies considerably, and includes not only the actual digitized items, such as documents or photographs, but also digitized finding aids and inventories, i.e. lists with titles of files or photographs, without the respective content in a digital form.

The information that seventeen million data files can be found on Wiki- Commons is also very confusing and deprived of any context, as it does not allow us to draw any conclusions as to how many millions of items have yet to be digitized. Analogously, the participation of ten national libraries in the Europeana Collections project allows us only to determine and narrow down the integrated information, but it does not give any overview on those collections which have not been included in the project.

It not infrequently happens that large amounts of information conceal the fact that all the relevant data cannot be found online. There is so much material available (despite its fragmentation) that it has already become unmanageable, and because of the numerous parallel research possibilities we already have, it is easy to overlook what has yet to be published. In other words, you see such a massive amount of data that you no longer notice what you cannot see.

The unavailability of information on relevant materials means that we face the danger of considering whatever is available in digital form as conclusive. The selection of relevant information may reflect certain valid political or scientific criteria, which thus reproduce themselves and reduce room for innovation, new questions, and research. National images are perpetuated, valid theories and methods are applied and reinforced. The selection and structure of available materials depend on the relevance of the World War for the regional and national historiography.

Therefore, the question must be asked which criteria we adopt, and what significance we attach to respective archival sources when deciding on the digitization and publication of materials. It is also important to discuss the gaps and to indicate clearly the context of online collections, not only in the historical and critical sense, but also simply by means of numbers and statistics. Digital information does not replace the war-related physical material which is stored on the shelves of archives, waiting for someone to discover, interpret, digitize, and publish it – material existing in such quantities that achieving full digital availability in the national and international context might be impossible.

It should be mentioned that these gaps of unavailability are of a diverse nature. On the one hand, there are “perfectly normal” gaps caused by war, destruction, theft, and other disasters. Historical research must be able to come to terms with the gaps of this kind, and has indeed learned how to do this; they are part of the discipline. On the other hand, we have gaps in the presentation of digital information. It is true that archives and other institutions are not allowed to put online materials which generally cannot be published – partially or in full – due to their legal status, i.e. because they contain personal or copyright-protected data. However, as various portals offer the chance to see how various items relate to each other, it seems highly relevant to include the information about the items which are part of a given collection or a set of data but have not been made available.

In terms of the materials relating to World War I, the legal restrictions, at least concerning archival protection periods, are limited. Due to the time that has elapsed since their creation, written records related to individuals have become freely accessible. Questions of copyrights, rights of exploitation and use, which apply especially to audio and visual materials, are more difficult to examine.1

Finally, there is yet another kind of gap: digitization gaps, which may be the easiest ones to fill by means of technology, but at the same time they require the greatest amount of time, and human and financial resources. For legal reasons institutions are allowed to digitize only on their own, as outsourcing could, depending on the contract with a proprietary company, result in the loss of rights to the digital version, or even to the material as such. Archives and libraries are not authorized to make such decisions, and it cannot be in their interest to lose control over archival information as a result.

In view of the large amounts of stored materials, the comprehensive and systematic digitization and publication of all archival sources, with or without thematic profiles, at the institutional or at the national level, can hardly be seen as a goal. It is necessary to make a selection. Anniversaries offer at least a starting point for the selection. Still, the digitization of archival materials involves the digitization of context materials, i.e. metadata. It is mostly about presenting classifications, special hierarchical lists (Tektonikbäume), and finding aids for respective collections, which include the information about the origin, creators (creating institutions), content, and titles of items (e.g. files). Thematic guides and inventories which show whether the existing collections are relevant to World War I – like the above-mentioned Belgian project or the inventory of the Westphalia branch in the archives in North Rhine-Westphalia – already reveal how extensive each of the thematic compilations is supposed to be. In nearly all collections which include items dating back to 1914–1918 (or 1912–1913/1919–1921), we can find historical materials relating to World War I, its causes and consequences. These might be useful depending on our research interests and questions, as well as trends in historiography, which we can hardly anticipate. If we know where we can find the material we need, it obviously adds to its visibility and usability. However, behind each and every title in all the finding guides and inventories of all institutions there is a document or, often enough, a set of documents, a specific administrative file which describes a specific administrative process. The file may comprise several hundred pages – and every page would be an object of digitization. This simple calculation makes it clear that most documents, files, reports, letters, and orders will still be available for examination and intellectual work exclusively on-site, and not on the ubiquitous Internet. The availability of isolated digital versions of representative written materials, declarations of war and peace treaties, only proves this rule, and the digitization process of this material is not free of redundancies, not least because it is multilingual.

Therefore, in the digitization process of single archival items the preference has been given so far to visual media (Europeana 1914–1918; LOC-WW1; NLS; BfZ, BA-PD, 2013–07–25). No matter how high its resolution is, a three-hundred-page file, which makes you click over and over again to open one digitized page after another, is no competition for the kind of direct visual availability that posters, photographs, maps, plans, or movies offer. Besides their quantitative manageability, these historical items bring yet another advantage: they appear to be immediately accessible, even though they cannot, by definition, be treated as information separate from the context description: the time or place of creation, other details of origin, and the content. The authentication of these items, a task carried out traditionally by archives, has been made even more difficult due to digital processing. There is no need to discuss the possibility of manipulating digital images here. At any rate, visual materials rely much less on textuality, whereas the multilingual nature of written sources determines – and will always determine – their usability.

Searching and finding on the Internet

It is clear that all fora, portals and digital collections offer only what is already available as digital information. Some countries take active part in the digitization and publication process, whereas others have, at least so far, been somewhat reluctant. The costs are huge, and the financial participation of different institutions and countries varies tremendously, depending both on economic considerations and the general cultural or political status of the event known as “World War I” and the related archive material in the public eye.

Therefore, (at least) two questions must be posed. The first one is: What do we actually find online, and how much of all the data is available? Or, in other words, what can we do in order to remember all the material that is not available online, but can be accessed otherwise? And the second question is: What searching possibilities can we introduce to the existing material so that, in the mass of information, we can find what we are looking for – and maybe also what we are not looking for? This is also, implicitly, a question of old and new orders of knowledge, as different domains of knowledge meet in digital space, representing different “logics” of cataloguing and browsing: archive and library, historians and humanities scholars, technicians or computer scientists, laymen and experts.

As in the case of the analogue organization of information, digital information services can only be as good as the recorded and searchable information, as good as material indexing and the range and granularity of the metadata produced. Information linking, connecting published data to authority files, with controlled vocabularies and existing thematic ontologies, obviously make the data more visible at the transinstitutional and transnational levels, and consequently, raise their value – and we can indeed observe such a tendency. At least, we are exploring the possibilities of how “allied material,” stored in other places and in other countries, may be indexed, and how we can bring digital technologies to archives’ daily work (ICARUS; EnArC, 2013–05–12). Nevertheless, the processes of making digital information available usually still run parallel and in isolation. The creation of associations and common catalogues of associated institutions, practiced by libraries for decades, once played a different role for archives. Due to the singularity of collected archival holdings, no synergy of cooperative search catalogues was to be expected (SEZAM, 2013–07–12; Archivschule, 2013–07–30). However, global linking not only increases the visibility of the archive’s own material, it also improves the chances of integrating and contextualizing the unique historical material, and, consequently, the chances of its reproduction and linking, as well as, to a certain extent, the chances of achieving “transcendence” of the knowledge contained in documents.

For the time being, digital archive information is ordered in the same way as its analogue equivalent. The hierarchical structure of the general classification (described as Beständetektonik by German archivists) preserves the context in which the material was created and, consequently, its historical authenticity and contextuality. For those scientists who are familiar with how archives are organized, this kind of structure saves a lot of work. Other users need to learn the archival methods in order to use available digital aids.

The traditional ways of ordering and searching correspond to the logic of archives, but not to the logic of the World Wide Web, through which the information is supposed to be accessible. The nearly endless mass of unorganized information online has led to the use of computer-generated full-text databases and search engines for browsing. The full-text search has become the customary way of acquiring information on the Internet. We are affected by the “Google syndrome.” Search engines are able to deliver results for almost all queries. Nevertheless, the completeness of results, and the results as such, cannot be verified (Haber 2011, 73ff.).

At this point we should discuss an aspect which is particularly important to the full-text search. The available digital information on historical materials, as well as the digitized materials themselves, are machine-readable only to a limited extent. Therefore, they are mostly invisible to search engines. The information does not use of the constitutive elements of the World Wide Web, such as hyperlinks or hypertextualization. Optical Character Recognition (OCR) is not used for most documents, so the textual data on the Internet are not processed. The information is static and to a certain extent analogue, despite its apparent digital format.

This means that if you want to find a specific piece of information, you have to know where to look for it, i.e. on which pages. This is a severe restriction, which does not make it any easier to browse through documents. You are provided only with the search results whose existence you have at least presupposed. Moreover, the information, particularly in the form of a text, often cannot be found, which is due to the large differences in access options, i.e. the diverse keyword indexing, which is sometimes less than systematic and does not comply with authority files. The indices used by institutions are usually based on original expressions from the document: If we search for “World War I” in archive data banks (regardless of the language we use) we find hardly any World War I documents in the results. This hardly comes as a surprise, for when the war started, it was not yet referred to as “World War I.” In archival practice it is the original titles of documents that are used for reference. Furthermore, the additional title information in institutional databanks can only be searched by keywords, which are, as we have mentioned above, still very much unorganized (LOCSH, 2013–07–29).

Of course, the Google principle also brings unexpected, lucky finds – but search engine research is only as good as keyword indexing and information linking, quite apart from the (in)completeness discussed above. Hence, we have two scenarios, which seem contradictory. On the one hand, we have the targeted search for clearly defined information on websites that can be considered to be informative and authoritative. On the other hand, there is randomness, which may – or may not – lead to unexpected discoveries. In both the cases of the eclecticism and the “white noise” of lucky finds, further investigation aiming at a lasting scientific approach and authenticity is needed.

Advantages and disadvantages of digital source research

It is a pipe dream to imagine that it will ever be possible to create a system that would comprise all the available online materials and show every piece of the existing information in the context of related data. It is probably just as naïve to believe that we could ever achieve a completeness of information, so that all the global knowledge would find equal and full digital representation. Similarly, we will never make the information available and verifiable in its entirety (Haber 2011, 75ff.).

In the end, the historian is left to deal with the problem by himself. He has to rely on the scientific methods at his disposal, including the source-critical method. The scientific eclecticism that may and does emerge from the ample supply of war-related sources and secondary information available online, from the information compiled with the help of algorithmic randomized calculations, is prone to reinforce the existing lines of research and, sometimes, to serve the opaque interests of information providers. A critical approach is therefore necessary, so that the Google principle does not undermine the established scientific instruments used in historical sciences, and so that we can benefit – using such instruments – from the massive amount of available information, which is able to and indeed does create new digital structures of knowledge. Traditional methods of scientific verification are more in demand than ever. The fragmentation, or even atomization of knowledge about World War I suggests the need to relearn online search methods, and to ensure, once again, their validity, in order to filter out the scientifically relevant information from the unsystematic and unorganized masses of data. The more difficult it becomes for the user – the historian – to synthesize data, the more important this need is. “Hybrid information research,” which draws equally upon analogue and digital sources, is a viable path for the moment (Haber 2011, 91ff).

Searching historical online resources is still time-consuming if we do not want to use the Google principle. The extensive range of fragmented information leaves us with an impression of information overload, which makes it extremely difficult to integrate and evaluate individual fragments. Nevertheless, information is not tantamount to knowledge when presented and processed outside of any context. The context is mostly still stored in analogue form, and due to the diversity and the amount of archival sources relating to World War I, this will not change in the foreseeable future. Paleographic or linguistic knowledge remains crucial to source work, whereas problems of authentication and data integrity require methodological development.

Despite all these concerns, the immense research activity relating to World War I is an enormous advantage for the international community of historians. On the one hand, it allows them to reflect on their own working methods in the digital era, which in turn leads to increased exchange between the specialist and the public domain. On the other hand, the open access projects, portals, and other initiatives on the World Wide Web described above allow for stronger networking and participation, getting involved in discussion fora, conferences, lines of research, new research questions and perspectives. We have achieved unprecedented transparency of globally active communities and individual researchers. The utopia of free knowledge and free access to historical resources emerges here, for the ongoing process must be seen as a process, as a way toward an as-yet-unknown goal. In theory, everyone can take part in charting the course. In this way, a public space, an “endless archive,” the ultimate site of memory in historical remembrance would be created in a utopian absoluteness of (re)presented knowledge, providing a basis for nearly all research paths and interests. As it stands, everyone can serve as a source or produce new sources.

Nevertheless, the digitization of information brings also other, more pragmatic advantages. Materials can be accessed from anywhere, which also means saving time. The knowledge of what you can find and what you cannot find somewhere makes it easier to decide whether you want to embark on a journey to see other materials stored in the archives. Furthermore, the randomness, which results from the lack of systematic structure, may, from time to time, render precisely the “right” results and provide us with a completely new research perspective. Within the incompleteness, a lot of historical work is possible and conceivable.

Digital archives and the memory of World War I

This concludes our brief overview of the digital activities just before the centenary of the outbreak of World War I. The structure of the paper reflects the attempt to analyze various digital resources with respect to certain problems of particular relevance to historiography. A more comprehensive approach, involving individual verification of national sources, but also of the commercial and password-protected sources, has yet to be slated (as of 2013). This kind of presentation would suffer from the problems that are the focus of this article: gaps and discrepancies in the visibility of existing, but not always digitized information.

The selection of material, based on its relevance to the research or to the public, primarily reflects the selection criteria, and not the existing material as such. On the one hand, the digitization boom increases the importance of archival material types often neglected in historical research: elusive audio files are being rescued from oblivion, the visual media of film and photography are becoming increasingly important. This increases the imbalance between the visual and audio material on the one hand, and the textual material on the other. Text is less attractive, as text sources and their contextualization may require more work.

The more important the Internet is for the world and communities of experts, the more non-digitized materials – and also those materials that have been made available in digital format – become invisible or impossible to find, and the greater the risk of interpreting existing materials as conclusive. In this context, the question of material and financial resources only increases.

On the other hand, we have also observed a regional and national imbalance. Whereas in some countries we have observed a real digital “frenzy” in relation to World War I, large parts of Europe and the world have (so far) remained indifferent. The reasons for this situation vary: of course, finances play a fundamental role. But is it possible to look at the situation from the reverse point of view, and to draw – from the lack of financial resources – conclusions about the importance of World War I in the political and public awareness?

Certainly, we can observe an accumulation of project and archive work in English-speaking countries, with the British at the forefront, followed by New Zealanders, Canadians, and Australians. At the moment, it is still unclear whether (and to what extent) some activities are intended mostly for the “Decade of Commemoration,” and will not be continued afterwards (e.g. IrelandWW1, 2013–07–29). In the case of British historiography, Stephen Heathorn even speaks of a “mnemonic turn,” which consists in the historicization of World War I in the changing memory and, consequently, the confirmation of the great impact that the war has had on public perception (Heathorn 2005; Todman 2012). The centenary of World War I is also being given striking prominence in the German-speaking countries, manifesting itself in information-aggregating platforms and numerous conferences, but also in the private domain. We find no similar number of projects in Eastern and Southern European countries, nor in the territories of the former Ottoman and Russian empires. In World War I research these countries, as well as those in the Middle East or Africa, are seen from the point of view of international narratives, influenced by the West-European or Anglo-Saxon perceptions. Will the histories of these countries, along with its national interpretation, lose their visibility? Will their cultural memory be reduced to a research subject? Or perhaps, intensive activities, possibly non-institutional ones, will soon be initiated in these countries to complement and influence the national and international remembrance discourse on World War I? This remains to be seen.


Aleksandra Pawliczek. She studied modern and recent history, political science, as well as journalism and communication studies in Göttingen, Bristol and Berlin, followed by a doctorate from Humboldt University of Berlin on Jewish scientists in the German Empire and the Weimar Republic. During her doctoral studies, she also completed an archival training at the Prussian Secret State Archives in Berlin (Ausbildung für den höheren Archivdienst am Geheimen Staatsarchiv PK). She is a qualified scientific archivist for the Secret State Archives and the Federal Commissioner for the Stasi Archives. Since 2012 she has worked as a coordinator of the EUfunded CENDARI (Collaborative European Digital Archival Infrastructure) project at the Free University of Berlin.


1 Different archive laws in Germany, Europe and all over the world provide different protection periods for personal archive data. These end ca. 100 years after the birth or ca. 10 years after the death of the persons in question. Similarly, there are differences in the protection periods related to the copyrights and rights of exploitation and use.

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Photo of the publication From the East German Holiday in Hungary and the Paneuropean Picnic to the German Re-Unification
Constantin Schmidt

From the East German Holiday in Hungary and the Paneuropean Picnic to the German Re-Unification

19 August 2014
  • Hungary
  • 20th century history
  • German Reunification
  • East Germany
  • GDR
  • End of Communism


Today the Pan-European Picnic can be seen as one of the important events which lead to the German Reunification. This article will show what the conditions of the picnic were and how it was used by East Germans as mass escape. Further, the following text details the way from the East German mass escape to the peaceful revolution to the German re-unification. The article will also show how different actor (tourists, refugees, politician, border guards, dissidents and protesters) worked together in different places in several countries (especially East Germany and Hungary) to overthrow the German division.


Hungary –from East German Tourist Paradise to a starting Point for Mass Flight

About eight hundred thousand East German tourists travelled to Hungary in 1989. Mostly, they stayed at private holiday houses and camping grounds which were built around lake Balaton. Others resided in Budapest or were invited by West German relatives to hotels. The tourists bought Western style products in Hungary and could enjoy a form freedom they did not have at home. While the tourists were relaxing on the shores of Balaton, visiting the baths of Heviz or driving on a steamboat around the island of Tihany, the Hungarian political system was changing.

Since the beginning of the year 1989 a small group of reformists, Pozsgay, Nemeth and Horn, forced the transformation from a single party system to a multi-party system. To broadcast this change to the world Hungary started to dismantle the Hungarian-Austrian border installation in May 1989, because the border installation were unwanted for ideological, technical and political reasons, as Nemeth stated frequently. On June 27th 1989 the Hungarian and Austrian ministers of foreign affairs, Mock and Horn, met at the border near Sopron to cut through the wires of the fences. The pictures of this event went around the world and there were even broadcast in East Germany.

But that year East Germans did not only come to spend their holiday in Hungary but rather to find an option to cross the border. In June and July the West German embassy in Vienna registered about 850 East Germans after their successful flight. But the Hungarian border patrol stopped nearly 2000 East Germans at the border because of a special contract with the GDR. They were deported back to East Germany, when the Hungarian Government decided to join the convention of Geneve. But could Hungary send these people back to the GDR, even if they would be punished there as political refugees? Hungarian opposition groups demanded that the East Germans should stay in Hungary because their situation was similar to the Romanians who were leafing their country after the destruction of their villages.

The Paneuropean Picnic and the beginning of the East German mass exodus.

In June the Hungarian dissident Mészáros met Otto Habsburg (successor to the Austrian throne) during an event in Debrecen. They discussed the Berlin Wall and Iron Curtain, which prevented Europeans from free travel and exchange. They concluded that their talk should be continued during an upcoming picnic near the Hungarian-Austrian border. The Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF), the Alliance of Free Democrats and FIDESZ prepared the picnic with a three hours long border opening. Moreover, they invited Imre Pozsgay (Hungarian prime minister), who had supported the MDF since its foundation and Otto Habsburg to the picnic. But they rejected the invitation, because they were afraid of the political consequence since Hungary was still a socialist country.

The so-called Pan-European Picnic took place on August 19. But 15 minutes before the border gate should have been officially opened for the Austrians and Hungarians, East Germans who had waited in the surrounding area stormed through the gate until they arrived in Austria. When smaller groups of East Germans crossed the border quickly, the Hungarian border guards stood with their backs to them. Even lieutenant Bella could not stop them because he would not use force so as to avoid panic. While this border crossing happened the other guests simply ate their Hungarian stew.

How was this illegal mass escape of the East Germans possible? A lot of frustrated East Germans who could not flee successfully looked for every possibility to cross the border. So some thousands hoped to get into the West German embassy to secure their exit to West Germany. Others lived on the streets around the embassy or in the refugee camp next to Kozma´s church. At this places they received the information to cross the border during the picnic. Even the European media reported in advance about the picnic. Others believed that it would be a trap set by the East German secret police, which was observing the situation in Budapest and around lake Balaton.

How did the Hungarian government intervene in this refugee crisis? At first Horn (Hungarian minister of foreign affairs) organized an airplane which brought the refugees waiting in the West German embassy to Austria, because the refugees got passports of the Red Cross to prevent the violation of the East German citizenship and travel regulations. Moreover, the Hungarian government used and endorsed the picnic to test how the Soviet Union would have reacted if the border would have been opened for East Germans. Last but not least Horn and Nemeth met Kohl and Genscher at Schloss Gymnich in Germany on August 25th1989, to fix a date for the exit of the East Germans. But even the protest of the GDR could not prevent Hungary from ending the contract about travel regulations with the GDR and from the opening of the border.

Did the border opening have an impact on the situation in the GDR?

On September 10th1989 Horn opened the Hungarian-Austrian borders. This decision caused a mass emigration of 60.000 East Germans. A lot of them who did not get a travel permit tried to swim across the river between Hungary and Czechoslovakia. The refugees thought they should take these opportunity to flee, because they did not know how long it would be possible. Others who could cross the river tried to occupy the West German embassy in Prague or in Warsaw. On October 3rd1989 the government of the GDR closed the border to Czechoslovakia due to the 40thjubilee of the GDR´s foundation.

This mass emigration across the Hungarian-Austrian border dramatically showed that the politics of the East German government went wrong. So the East German opposition founded groups like the “New Forum”, “Democracy Now” and other organisations to show that the “communication between the party and the people” was disturbed. Beside this the people of Leipzig met every Monday at the church of St. Nicolai to demonstrate for changes when they shouted “We stay here! Were are the people”. The situation in the GDR became worse, because the people who left their country were missing from their places of work. That is why a lot of services did not work well which in turn frustrated the people even more.

While the people in the GDR became politically active, the East German refugees were still waiting in the embassies in Prague and Warsaw until West Germany negotiated their exit with the GDR. Therefore trains going through the GDR´s territory brought the refugees to West Germany. When the trains from Prague arrived in Dresden a lot of people tried to get on the train. Those people became aggressive and Dresden main station had to be protected by the police. From the first moment on the struggle was violent and virulent. So, on October 7thdemonstrators marched on the palace of the republic in Berlin, where Gorbatschow and the leadership of the GDR celebrated their 40thyear of existence. The people outside shouted “Gorbi! Gorbi” to symbolize their demands for change until the police detoured the demonstration and arrested hundreds.

On October 9th70.000 people went to the church of St. Nicolai to demonstrate in Leipzig. After they crossed the inner city circle the political leadership had to decide whether to crush the demonstration or not. The leadership did not use violence to end that demonstration because local ranks of the police rejected force against the demonstrators due to the political sympathy with their demands. There were changes in the leadership of the government, Krenz and other members of the politburo allied against the leader of the state Honecker. After Honecker´s government collapsed they aimed on a dialogue with the opposition. But the number of protesters grew up to more than 500000 at the Alexanderplatz-demonstration on November 4th1989.

From the success of this revolution to the German Re-Unification

The success of this peaceful revolution showed that the leadership lost their legitimacy. 5 days later the Berlin Wall was opened to thousands of people who were waiting at the wall. This situation was caused by a misunderstanding. In a now famous speech Schabowski explained the new travel regulations and thereby accidentally opening the border. The West German government interpreted the beginning of German-German travel as a wish for reunification. The German chancellor Kohl offered an idea for the reunification with his 10 points. When the East Germans favored this idea, the opposition groups which wanted to reform the socialist state lost their influence. The East German leadership had lost their power over the people and the opposition. So they restructured the secret police as political measure to keep on power.

This strategy failed so that the government announced free elections. In the early beginnings of the year 1990 the opposition founded a lot of new parties, which were supported by West German party cadres. When the elections were held on March 18th1990 the Alliance for Germany, which consisted of the Democratic Awakening, Christian Democratic Union and German Social Union, won the elections. The new government began to negotiate the conditions about a German-German currency union with West Germany which came into force on July 1st1990. Moreover, the partners concluded a contract about the unification which came into force on the October 3rd1990. The joining of the five East German countries (Sachsen, Brandenburg, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Thüringen and Sachsen-Anhalt) with the Federal Republic of Germany were celebrated on the same day.

Ever since that day, the day of the German unification is celebrated every year. In early talks November 9thwas seen as a potential date for a national holiday, because on this date the Berlin Wall was opened and this event became part of collective memory. But this date was not chosen as national holiday, because it was connected to the Night of Broken Glass. Today there are different celebrations to show which events were important on the route to German Re-Unification. In addition to the national holiday on October 3rd, there are celebrations on the date of the picnic, the border opening, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the protests in Leipzig ever year.

For further reading:

Haase, Jürgen/ Togay, János Can (Hrsg.): Deutsche Einheit am Balaton. Die private Geschichte der deutsch-deutschen Einheit. Berlin 2009.

Gyarmati, György: Prelude to Demolishing the Iron Curtain. Pan-European Picnic, Sopron 19 August 1989. Sopron/ Budapest 2012.

Hirschman, Albert O.: Exit, Voice and the Fate of the German Democratic Republic. An Essay in Conceptual History, in: World Politics 45 (1993), pp. 173 –202.

Jarausch, Konrad H.: Die unverhoffte Einheit. 1989 –1990 (Edition Suhrkamp. Neue Folge 877). Frankfurt am Main 1995.

Kaiser, Hans: Grenzdurchbruch bei Sopron –Weg nach Europa. 20 Jahre Paneuropäisches Picknick. Budapest 2012.

Kurz, Friedrich: Ungarn 89, in: Grosser, Dieter/ Bierling, Stephan/ Kurz, Friedrich: Die Sieben Mythen der Wiedervereinigung. München 1991, pp. 68 -122.

Nagy, László: Das Paneuropäische Picknick in Sopron 1989, in: Deutschland Archiv 34 (2001), pp. 943 –955.

Oplatka, Andreas: Der erste Riss in der Mauer. September 1989 –Ungarn öffnet seine Grenze. Wien 2009.

Pollack, Detlef: Der Zusammenbruch der DDR als Verkettung getrennter Handlungslinien, in: Jarausch, Konrad H./Sabrow, Martin, (eds.): Weg in den Untergang. Der innere Zerfall der DDR. Göttingen 1999, pp. 41 –81.

Schmidt –Schweizer, Andreas: Motive im Vorfeld der Demontage des „Eisernen Vorhangs“ 1987 –1989, in: Haslinger, Peter: Grenze im Kopf. Beiträge zur Geschichte der Grenze in Ostmitteleuropa. Wien 1999, pp. 127 –139.

Schützsack, Axel: Exodus in die Einheit. Die Massenflucht aus der DDR 1989. Melle 1990.

Photo of the publication From the Autumn of Nations to the Assault on Nations: Eastern Europe between Empire and Fascism
Alexander J. Motyl

From the Autumn of Nations to the Assault on Nations: Eastern Europe between Empire and Fascism

19 August 2014
  • 1989
  • freedom express
  • Ukraine
  • Russia
  • Autumn of Nations
  • Crimea

Two concepts—empire and fascism—are central to understanding the Autumn of Nations of 1989 and its mirror image, the Assault on Nations, which took place 20-25 years later when Russia invaded Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014. The Autumn of Nations began the collapse of the Soviet Russian empire; Russia’s Anschluss of Crimea marks Vladimir Putin’s most serious attempt to revive a post-Soviet Russian empire. Separating these world-historical events was Russia’s transformation from a Weimar-type democracy to a fascist regime. The obvious historical parallel is imperial Germany’s collapse in 1918, the transformation of Weimar Germany into Nazi Germany, and Adolf Hitler’s first stabs at reviving empire by annexing Austria and the Sudetenland in 1938.


In taking place at the end of the USSR’s existence, the Autumn of Nations capped a process of Soviet Russian empire building that began in 1918-1922 with expansion into most of the non-Russian nations that declared independence in 1917-1918, continued in 1939-1940 with the annexation of eastern Poland and the Baltic states, and ended in the 1940s with the inclusion of the satellite states of Eastern Europe. The collapse of the Soviet Russian empire in 1989-1991 appeared to herald the “end of history” and the “end of geopolitics” in Europe; in reality, it began a two-decade long process of imperial revival by post-Soviet Russia. The ongoing attempt at reimperialization will fail, however, and possibly produce the Putin regime’s collapse. A second Autumn of Nations could then occur.


The Autumn of Nations—the domino-like collapse of Communist regimes in Eastern Europe in the second half of 1989 that culminated, symbolically, in the breaching of the Berlin Wall on November 9—was the direct product of three developments. First, Communist totalitarianism in both Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union had gone into terminal decline by the 1970s. Second, civil society forces—as best represented by Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia and Solidarity in Poland—took advantage of totalitarian decay to construct parallel societies throughout the region. Third, Mikhail Gorbachev’s relentless pursuit of glasnost and perestroika, as well as his attack on Communist Party primacy and encouragement of Popular Fronts in the non-Russian republics, eviscerated totalitarianism, weakened the center’s control of the periphery, and unleashed powerful centrifugal forces. As the Soviet Russian empire grew weaker, the Eastern Europeans were able to replace puppet Communist regimes with democracies. In turn, the empire’s partial dismantling further weakened totalitarianism within the USSR, thereby enabling the non-Russians to take advantage of the failed August 2001 coup to declare independence and then, with Russia’s connivance, to bury the Soviet Union in December.

Imperial Germany collapsed in 1918 as a result of defeat in war. In contrast, the Soviet Russian empire collapsed in peacetime as a result of Gorbachev’s attempt to reform totalitarianism. Because both empires collapsed rapidly, suddenly, and comprehensively, they did not undergo the progressive territorial decay that declining empires usually experience. New states emerged, but the many economic, cultural, and social ties that bound them to the imperial core remained. No less important, the suddenness of imperial collapse produced economic collapse in former imperial cores and peripheries, while generating shock, humiliation, and resentment among the former imperial nations and creating pockets of “abandoned brethren”—co-nationals of the core nation residing in the former colonies or in adjacent territories.

The chaotic period of Boris Yeltsin’s presidency in the 1990s proved to be similar to Weimar Germany in the 1920s. In both cases, imperial collapse, economic hardship, and political humiliation were blamed on democracy. And Vladimir Putin turned out to be Russia’s version of Adolf Hitler. Both came to power legally, developed cults of the personality, dismantled democracy, revived the economies, employed chauvinism and neo-imperialism to legitimize their rule, remilitarized their states and promised to make them great powers again, and made it their mission to in-gather abandoned brethren.

Like Hitler, Putin constructed a regime that may legitimately be called fascist, and not just authoritarian. Fascism is a non-democratic, non-socialist political system with a domineering party, a supreme leader, a hyper-masculine leader cult, a hyper-nationalist, statist ideology, and an enthusiastically supportive population. Like authoritarian systems, fascist systems lack meaningful parliaments, judiciaries, parties, and elections; are highly centralized; give pride of place to soldiers and policemen; have a domineering party; restrict freedom of the press, speech, and assembly; and repress the opposition. But unlike authoritarian systems, fascist systems always have supreme leaders enjoying cult-like status, exuding vigor, youthfulness, and manliness. And unlike authoritarian leaders, fascist leaders are charismatic individuals who promote a hyper-nationalist vision that promises the population, and especially the young, a grand and glorious future in exchange for their subservience. Unsurprisingly, full-blown fascist systems, being the instruments of charismatic one-man rule, tend to be more violent than average authoritarian states.


Central to the reimperialization projects in both Nazi Germany and Putin Russia was the fact that both leaders could draw on already existing imperial ideologies to justify their claims and legitimize their rule. Most interwar Germans to the right of the Communists continued to view their country’s place in Europe in terms of two Wilhelmine leitmotifs, Weltpolitik and Lebensraum. Weltpolitik justified economic imperialism, while Lebensraum promoted eastern colonialism by German farmer migrants. Both concepts amounted to an imperial Zeitgeist that facilitated popular acceptance of Nazi propaganda by identifying abandoned brethren in those German-speaking parts of the former Habsburg empire that remained unclaimed by a plausible post-Habsburg imperial ideology, as well as in western Poland, Prussia, Danzig, and among the Volksdeutsche of Eastern Europe. The Nazi variant of the ideology could logically claim that Anschluss was the only viable solution to the plight of the brethren.

In post-Soviet Russia, almost all Russian elites adopted the neoimperial language and logic of Russian greatness, historical destiny, and geopolitical primacy. Russian elites did not have far to look for an ideology bursting with imperial content. Although official Communist ideology had disintegrated during perestroika, many of its tenets survived, especially those resonating with the great power dimensions of Russian political culture. In particular, these were the “leading role” of the Great Russian people, the primacy of the Russian language as a “vehicle of inter-nationality communication,” the “friendship of peoples,” the continuity between Russian imperial and Soviet history, and “proletarian internationalism.” Inasmuch as the ethnic Russian communities in the non-Russian successor states were identified as abandoned brethren pining for the motherland, Russian policymakers and publicists invented a “near abroad” populated by “blood relatives” and developed elaborate schemes for protecting their rights. In particular, the necessity, desirability, and inevitability of some form of “integration,” as a means of simultaneously promoting Russia’s strategic interests and defending the abandoned brethren, became a central theme of Russian political discourse. All these ideological tropes became formal components of the self-legitimating neo-imperial ideology developed by the Putin regime.


The soldiers and policemen (Putin’s siloviki) who run fascist states have a natural proclivity to toughness and weaponry. The hyper-nationalism, state fetishes, and cult of hyper-masculinity incline fascist states to see enemies everywhere. The cult-like status of leaders encourages them to pound their chests with abandon. And the population’s implication in its own repression leads it to balance its self-humiliation with attempts to humiliate others. Unsurprisingly, imperial rhetoric preceded imperialist behavior in both Hitler Germany and Putin Russia. At first, they relentlessly asserted their “rightful” place in the sun and the need to right the alleged wrongs wrought by imperial collapse. After a few years of discursive saber-rattling, they engaged in actual territorial claims. Hitler’s attempt at reimperialization started with the annexation of the Sudetenland and Austria, continued with the dismemberment of Poland, culminated in history’s most destructive war, and ended in abject failure. By war’s end, Germany lay in ruins and was soon to be divided into two hostile states for four decades.

Putin’s attempt at reimperialization started with the dismemberment of Georgia and—as of this writing—culminated in the annexation of Crimea. The timing of his invasion was very much determined by the collapse on February 21, 2014 of the authoritarian Yanukovych regime in Kyiv and the triumph of the Ukrainian “Revolution of Dignity” that began in late November 2013. “People power” was a direct threat to Putin’s fascism and had to be stopped. Invading Crimea by claiming that its Russian population was under threat from Kyiv was the ideologically mandated rationale that Putin chose for his expansionist goals.

Greatly facilitating Putin’s reimperialization effort in both Georgia and Ukraine was a development that, paradoxically, hindered it elsewhere: NATO and European Union expansion to Eastern Europe and the Baltic. NATO and EU expansion wrenched these states from Russian’s sphere of influence and, at least formally, provided them with security guarantees. In addition, expansion enmeshed these states in a wide range of institutional practices that only deepened the political, cultural, and economic divide between them and Russia. But expansion also left Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova—as well as such westward-leaning countries as Georgia—in a security no-man’s land and in an institutional vacuum. Their vulnerability to Russia’s possible imperial predations and their isolation from the West and the world only increased. Ironically, the Eastern Europeans’ full integration in the West pretty much guaranteed that Putin’s attempted reimperialization would be directed at the countries in the no-man’s land: having been transformed by NATO and EU expansion into a buffer zone between Russia and the West, they were deemed by Moscow to be vital to Russia’s security.

Will Putin go further than Crimea and try to annex southeastern Ukraine, all of Ukraine, or the Russian-populated territories of such states as Estonia, Latvia, and Kazakhstan? It is at this point that the analogy with Nazi Germany appears to break down. Nazi Germany was an economic and military powerhouse with the capacity to start and win any one-front war. Hitler’s mistake was to embark on a two-front war by attacking the USSR. Putin Russia, in contrast, is a corrupt and inefficient petro-state with an underdeveloped economy experiencing secular decline and a military that, despite recent budgetary infusions, performed poorly in the North Caucasus and has yet to prove itself in a full-scale war and a long-term occupation. Russia is also highly dependent on the West for its economic growth—a fact that provides both sides with leverage over the other. Hitler could start World War II with the rational expectation of victory. It is not at all clear that a rationally thinking Putin would want to start a land war with Ukraine.

After all, the Crimean campaign was a grand and glorious little war that raised Putin’s popularity with the hyper-nationalist masses in Russia, cost no lives, and transpired quickly and inexpensively. It also turned Russia into a rogue state and mobilized the West against it, but Putin could reasonably argue that “Russian glory” was worth that price. In contrast, a full-scale assault on all of Ukraine—or even on Kyiv—would be extremely risky and costly, while offering no immediate tangible benefits to Putin or to Russia. The Ukrainians army, newly formed National Guard, and militias would fight in defense of their homeland. A subsequent occupation would entail the deployment of several hundred thousand Russian troops, who would be the targets of a popularly supported resistance movement. The West would probably provide military assistance to the Ukrainian partisans, and it would certainly impose ruinous sanctions on the Russian economy. Russian casualties would likely number in the thousands, and the hyper-nationalist hysteria in Russia would diminish as body bags arrive and Putin’s supporters realize that a devastated Ukraine and a war-weary Russian army are less appealing then a glorious little war in Crimea.


Regardless of what Putin does with respect to Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia, Kazakhstan, or other states with large numbers of Russian abandoned brethren, annexing Crimea, unleashing hyper-nationalist war hysteria, alienating Ukraine and the West, and isolating Russia may prove to be his undoing. As powerful as it was, Hitler Germany overreached only after starting a two-front war. Being significantly weaker, Putin may have already overreached by annexing Crimea. In any case, any further adventures in Ukraine or elsewhere will definitely overextend Russia’s capacities and produce the functional or genuine equivalent of defeat in war. If so, Putin’s brand of fascism is likely to collapse as well, and Russia could then experience a democratic revival. Fascist hyper-nationalism is, thus, a self-fulfilling prophecy—effectively creating the very mortal threats it invokes as the reasons for its justification.

If the ongoing Assault on Nations results in the collapse of Putin’s attempt at imperial revival, geopolitics will receive a powerful blow in Europe and all the nations of the former Soviet Russian empire—from Vladivostok to Berlin—may finally be poised to develop in the permanent absence of imperial hegemony. No less important, just as the Autumn of Nations created a powerful myth of democratic self-assertion, so too the failure of Putin’s reimperialization and the heroism of Ukraine’s “Revolution of Dignity” are likely to generate new myths of popular self-empowerment in the quest for human autonomy. The European project can only benefit from such developments.




Alexander J. Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University, a specialist on Ukraine, Russia, and the USSR; the author of Imperial Ends: The Decline, Collapse, and Revival of Empires, 2001; “Russland: Volk, Staat und Führer: Elemente eines faschistischen Systems,” Osteuropa, January 2009; “Post-Weimar Russia,” Internationale Politik, Fall 2007; “Why Empires Reemerge: Imperial Collapse and Imperial Revival in Comparative Perspective,” Comparative Politics, January 1999.

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.