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

Paweł Jaworski

Review: The Stockholm “Solidarity” Memoirs

20 August 2014
  • Solidarity
  • book review
  • Sweden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Sabine Stadler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Every federal state in Austria has its own organization.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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


Przemysław Furgacz

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

20 August 2014
  • Russia
  • book review
  • spies


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Małgorzata Popiołek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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


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

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 .

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


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.

* * *

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


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 .

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

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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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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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.

List of References

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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.

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.

Robert Brier

From Dissidence to Neoliberalism? Reflections on the Human Rights Legacy of 1989

19 August 2014
  • 1989
  • communism
  • dissidents
  • human rights


International respect for individual rights experienced a tremendous boost from the revolutions of 1989. Many of the revolutions’ protagonists – the so-called “dissidents” – had been involved in a broader human rights revolution since the late 1960s. Is respect for human rights thus a legacy of their struggle and of 1989? To answer this question, the essay seeks to reconstruct the specific meanings human rights acquired in the writings of East-Central European and Soviet dissidents and contrasts it with the social “imaginaire” underpinning the human rights culture of our time. The article is thus a contribution to a new historiography of human rights which understands them as a contested notion.


It is now clear that the “events of 1989” ushered in fundamental changes in European affairs and world politics. Chief among them is an unprecedented proliferation of human rights norms. The end of the Cold War, the expansion of international human rights treaties, the democratization of many post-communist countries and their later EU accession have all dramatically increased the respect and protection of individual liberties in Europe and worldwide. Concepts like “humanitarian intervention” or “responsibility to protect” describe a very robust interpretation of this “extension of international law from the exclusive rights of sovereign states towards recognizing the rights of all individuals by virtue of their common humanity” (Dunne 2007, 44). But the collapse of state socialism and the Soviet withdrawal from East-Central Europe not only paved the way for this proliferation of human rights; some of the main protagonists of the annus mirabilis, the so-called dissidents of the Soviet bloc1, were simultaneously protagonists of an international human rights revolution in itself. In the late 1960s, when human rights were still the domain of obscure organizations and international lawyers, they began to challenge their governments by taking international human rights treaties seriously. Thus, they partook in a rather sudden breakthrough of human rights activism in the 1970s and 1980s (Moyn 2010, ch. 4; Eckel and Moyn 2013).

But what are human rights? Which grievances should be framed as universal rights claims and which should be left to the democratic deliberations of national societies? In our own time, with more and more people invoking human rights for their diverse goals, this has become an increasingly difficult question. For many dissidents, this does not seem to have been a major issue. One of dissidence’s iconic texts – Czechoslovakia’s Charter 77 – was, as Jonathan Bolton (2012, 153) notes, written in an uninspiring language – a choice that seems to have been deliberate. Many dissidents had experienced directly what a painful and fundamental impact the ideas found in “intricate and abstruse books of philosophy” (Miłosz 1953, 3) could have on the lives of entire societies; many dissidents had also once been adherents of such ideas. In Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, therefore, the turn towards human rights was a turn away from explicit ideologies. Against the elaborate social blueprints of the “age of ideologies”, the dissidents did not propose a utopian vision of their own, but the apparently simple idea that everyone, everywhere is entitled to a minimal protection of his or her liberty. The dry, almost bureaucratic language of Charter 77 was intended to convey a selfevident moral message by letting injustice speak for itself (Bolton 2012, 193).

The transnational community of human rights activists, too, eschewed debates about political philosophy or ideological program. Amnesty International, for instance, declared that the precise reasons for political repression were not relevant to its work, merely the fact of repression itself. This antipolitical interpretation of human rights was reinforced in 1989 when western observers were trying to make sense of what went on in Warsaw, Prague, or Leipzig. Jürgen Habermas or Ralf Dahrendorf saw little revolutionary in what was happening in Europe’s east at the time. The demonstrations seemed completely devoid of innovative political ideas. The people in the state socialist countries, it seemed, did not want a new experiment but to catch up with processes already under way in the West. The fall of Communism, Habermas thus wrote, was merely a “rectifying revolution” – the East’s return onto a universal path of progress embodied by the West (Habermas 1990; Dahrendorf 1990). Some dissidents subscribed to this view. “We did not invent this pursuit of liberty,” Ludmila Alekseeva wrote; “we reinvented it for ourselves and our country. [...] We were ignorant about the West, where such ideas had been around for centuries” (quoted in Nathans 2007, 633).

My central thesis in this article is that we will be unable to assess and understand the human rights legacy of 1989 if we adopt this apolitical and naturalizing language. In this essay, I therefore seek to historicize this reading of human rights and of 1989 by bringing out the multiple meanings human rights could have in East and West. My interpretation is thus an attempt to contribute to an emergent historiography of human rights which, as Johannes Paulmann (2013, 336) writes, “highlights ruptures rather than continuities, in which human rights emerge as a historically fluid, highly contested concept rather than as a fixed doctrine.”2

Firstly, such an approach can reveal how innovative dissident activism really was. Alexeeva is correct that the term “human rights” had been around for some time. The idea, however, that such rights can be claimed against one’s own state had not had much traction until it was picked up by, among others, an isolated band of intellectuals in the Soviet Union (Eckel and Moyn 2013). Secondly, it will demonstrate that the dryness of the dissidents’ human rights conceals how the emergence of dissidence resulted from and was accompanied by very intense debates about democracy and totalitarianism, philosophy and religion, literature and national culture. Like the strings on a guitar, human rights claims needed these debates as the corpus or sounding board which amplified them and provided them with social meaning. Thirdly, the legalist language of human rights leaves one puzzled as to how human rights emerged from the obscure texts of international law to become a rallying cry for global activism. The language of human rights may be that of international law, but human rights campaigns were driven by solidarity and political identification. The question of how human rights transformed international politics, then, is also the question of why human rights made certain political claims resonate with distant audiences (Eckel 2009; Eckel 2011).

If human rights need such a “sound board” of political commitments, they can mean different things to different people. Soviet bloc dissent did not witness today’s elaborate discussions about the scope of human rights; most dissidents, moreover, preferred an activism focused on political and individual rights. Programs to implement social and economic rights, they feared, would reintroduce the very utopian projects the dissidents had come to reject. And yet, they translated the abstract language of human rights into their specific discourses and thus gave them a specific meaning. Even political rights can be based on different understandings of the “selves” or subjects that are the bearers of rights, of their relations to other people and to the wider social world; they also imply specific ideas about those who suffer persecution and those who are called upon to help them. It is only by assessing this context of human rights activism in the Soviet bloc and by reconstructing the specific meanings which human rights thus acquired that we can answer the question as to whether the human rights regime of our own time is a legacy of 1989.

The Literature on Human Rights during the Cold War

The literature on human rights during the Cold War overwhelmingly focuses on the consequences of the Final Act of the Conference on Security of Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), a major success of East–West détente, signed in Helsinki on 1 August 1975 by the Soviet Union and its allies, by the members of NATO, as well as by the non-aligned European states. Crucially, the Final Act defined respect for individual rights as a pillar of a cooperative framework of international relations. It thus not only connected human rights to détente, a policy the Soviet bloc was vitally interested in, but also introduced periodic review conferences that monitored the implementation of the Final Act’s provisions. This way, dissidents in the Soviet bloc were given a forum where they could expose how their governments violated the human rights section of the Final Act. Using this approach, private individuals from Eastern Europe turned human rights into a central issue of East–West relations and tied it to the gains Moscow hoped to reap from the CSCE process (Thomas 2001; Snyder 2011; Peterson 2011).

In any account of dissent, thus, the “Helsinki effect” will play a major role. Yet the overwhelming attention it receives – especially together with attempts to explain the end of the Cold War – has two very problematic consequences. First, by indiscriminately labeling a wide array of dissent initiatives as “Helsinki inspired” or even as “Helsinki watch groups” these studies create the impression as though the CSCE somehow “created” Soviet bloc human rights movements (Thomas 2001, ch. 5; Snyder 2011, ch. 3; Eichwede 2010). This is false. Dissent originated in the mid-1960s when the Russian mathematician Aleksandr Volpin had the seemingly paradoxical idea that the best way to sustain some degree of individual liberty in the USSR was to demand that the Soviet authorities respect their own constitution and laws. 1968 became an important year for this movement of “rights defenders”: The United Nations had declared it an international year of human rights to commemorate the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Moscow had signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights along with the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. This prompted the “rights defenders” to shift their focus to international treaties and appeal to the international community for support. The Chronicle of Current Events, the Soviet Union’s most important samizdat periodical to document human rights abuses, was founded in 1968 and was initially called “An International Year of Human Rights” and each of its issues featured article 19 of the Universal Declaration on its cover.3 The first Soviet human rights group, the Initiative Group to Defend Human Rights, was founded in 1969 by the signatories of a petition to the U. N. Human Rights Commission; a year later, a more organized Committee on Human Rights was formed in Moscow. These groups also began to establish international contacts. They would befriend western journalists and establish a Soviet section of Amnesty International (Horvath 2005; Voronkov and Wielgohs 2004; Nathans 2007; Nathans 2013; Metger 2013; Walker 2010).

This kind of activism was an important inspiration for other non-conformist intellectuals in the Soviet bloc. Poland had witnessed nationwide student protests in 1968. The authorities had reacted with police repression and by orchestrating an anti-Semitic campaign to purge the Community party and Warsaw University of revisionist intellectuals and student radicals. During the early 1970s, after they had been released from prison, these non-conformist groups sought new ways of broadening the sphere of individual liberties in Poland. Completely disillusioned with the possibility of reforming Sovietstyle communism, they perceived the Soviet rights defenders as a model they wanted to adapt to their own situation. A second, rather unlikely inspiration came from the Catholic intelligentsia in Poland which, under the influence of personalist philosophy and the Second Vatican Council, had come to perceive human rights as a possible common ground with post-Marxist intellectuals.4 The event that electrified these groups in 1975 was not the signing of the Helsinki Final Act, but the Nobel Peace Prize for Andrei Sakharov, the leading exponent of the Soviet human rights movement (Friszke 2011, 79–81). It took another year until these activists founded Poland’s first opposition organization in the communist period, but this had nothing to do with the CSCE. Instead it was domestic labor unrest that prompted them to create the Workers Defense Committee. Though human rights language featured prominently in this activism, the Final Act was only marginally important as a source of inspiration being usually overshadowed by the covenants of 1966 which came into force in 1976 (Mazowiecki 1978, 143–144; Jarząbek 2013).

Even with Charter 77, the initiative which can most clearly be related to Helsinki, the situation is much more difficult than the idea of a “Helsinki effect” suggests. Here, as in Poland, the direct reason to form an initiative was domestic: a government crackdown on Prague’s musical underground.5 The decision to invoke international human rights documents came only after the decision to draft a note of protest to the government. Charter 77, moreover, referenced the final act only indirectly as confirming the human rights covenant of 1966 (Bolton 2012, c. 5, esp. 143–144).

None of this is to say that the Helsinki Final Act was unimportant. It strengthened and focused existing groups, especially in the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia. The Soviet “rights defenders” reconstituted their movement as Helsinki monitoring groups and one of the first spokespersons of Charter 77, Jiří Hájek, considered the CSCE a tremendous opportunity (Domnitz 2013). The emergent transnational Helsinki network was also an important medium to internationalize the dissidents’ cause, as Sarah Snyder (2011) has demonstrated. But, important though it was, the Final Act itself did not create anything in the Soviet bloc. The CSCE process, moreover, provided much less protection than is often assumed. When the second CSCE review meeting, held in Madrid, closed in 1983, the Moscow Helsinki network had been crushed and all leading figures of East-bloc human rights activism were either in exile or in prison.

The Helsinki narrative has another problematic aspect. By tracing the rise of human rights activism to an international document, it overlooks the complex processes in which activists in Eastern Europe appropriated the new vernacular of rights in their specific cultures. The focus on the “Helsinki effect” supports the very naturalizing tendency I seek to criticize in this article. The next section is therefore devoted to tracing these processes.

Truth, Dignity, Community: Human Rights in the Soviet Union and East-Central Europe

To what extent can we actually speak of a common or similar way in which human rights were understood by non-conformist circles in the Soviet bloc? The terms “dissent” or “dissidence” were labels introduced by western journalists and many of those thus labeled disliked these monikers (Havel 1985). The movements subsumed under the term “dissent,” moreover, had a very diverse membership. The physicist and secular liberal Andrei Sakharov and the mysticist and Russian nationalist Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, the reform communist Zdeněk Mlynář and the existentialist playwright Vaclav Hável, the former student radical Adam Michnik and the devout Catholic Lech Wałęsa – all these diverse people were labeled dissidents. The political realities of state-socialism made communication between these diverse groups very difficult. Direct contacts were sporadic, mail would be intercepted, and telephones were bugged. Does it then make sense to look for the common outlines of the human rights concept of dissident intellectuals in Eastern Europe?6

Dissent certainly never was a transnational movement comparable to, say, nineteenth century worker internationalism. However, non-conformist intellectuals did share similar experiences of life in a Soviet-style society. Even before the creation of the Helsinki Network, moreover, these intellectuals were in touch with ethnic diaspora groups in the West, professional Cold Warriors, correspondents, and human rights activists. These exchanges were intensified when many prominent dissidents – Jiří Pelikán from Czechoslovakia, Leszek Kołakowski from Poland, Natalia Gorbanevskaya from the Soviet Union – were forced to emigrate to the West. Émigré journals, which were smuggled into Eastern Europe, as well as the programs of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, would provide information about developments in the Soviet bloc and thus foster the circulation of ideas among intellectuals from different parts of the Eastern bloc. In the late 1970s, there were even direct meetings between dissidents group, especially Polish and Czechoslovak (Vilímek 2013; Kind-Kovács and Labov 2013; Friszke 2011, 423–433).

Two seminal texts: dissident Adam Michnik’s essay “The New Evolutionism” and Vaclav Havel’s “The Power of the Powerless,” were actually products of such transnational exchanges. Michnik’s essay was based on a presentation he gave at a conference held in 1976 in Paris to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the Hungarian uprising. Western intellectuals, scholars, activists, and politicians, veterans of the East European and Russian émigré circles were attending, as well as prominent recent political exiles from behind the Iron Curtain (Ostrowska 1976). “The Power of the Powerless” was written for a Polish-Czechoslovak seminar on human rights activism to take place during clandestine meetings on the Polish-Czechoslovak border (Keane 1999, 268). While these meetings did not come to pass and while the essay itself bears the unmistakable philosophical imprint of its author, “The Power of the Powerless” nevertheless betrays its transnational origins; in fact, it reads like a summary of discussions that had been held in, as well as between, different parts of the Soviet bloc over the previous ten years or so.

The similar themes discussed by dissident intellectuals and their similar form of activism, then, are strong evidence for the existence of a transnational Verstehensgemeinschaft or “epistemic community” (Haas 1992) based on shared normative beliefs, a common way of understanding life in state-socialist societies, and the joint political project of increasing respect for human rights by the paradoxical strategy of “radical civil obedience” (Nathans 2007, 630; see especially Falk 2003).

What were the central ideas of this Verstehensgemeinschaft? One of them was truth. From Kołakowski’s “Theses on Hope and Hopelessness” (1971) to Solzhenitsyn’s “Live not by Lies” (1974) to Michnik’s “New Evolutionism” (1985, originally published in 1976) and Havel’s “Power of the Powerless” (1985, originally published in 1978) or “Politics and Conscience” (1984), there seems to have been a consensus among these authors that the power of the socialist systems rested on their ability to saturate public life with ritualized ideological lies. This point was made most famously and most elaborately in Havel’s allegory of a greengrocer who put the slogan “Workers of the world unite!” into his shop window. The greengrocer, Havel explained, was not stating his ideological beliefs; indeed, he was indifferent as to the slogan’s meaning. What he communicated, instead, was his subordination to the authorities: “I, the greengrocer XY, live here and I know what I must do. I behave in the manner expected of me. I can be depended upon and am beyond reproach. I am obedient and therefore I have the right to be left in peace” (Havel 1985, 27–28). Though the greengrocer would not have put up the slogan himself, its ideological content had an important function nonetheless: it cloaked the greengrocer’s obedience in a statement of lofty principles and thus spared him the embarrassment of openly displaying his submission. The fact that public life in state-socialism was plastered with slogans no one read or cared about convinced the greengrocer that he was merely doing what everyone else did and it showed that everyone contemplating dissent from this practice faced the threat of social exclusion.

One consequence of this analysis was a strong commitment to individual autonomy and a complete rejection of all things ideological. Any social blueprint or political program that would restrict individual liberty for the sake of a radiant future or some collective ideals was discarded. This current was particularly strong among Polish intellectuals like Michnik or Jacek Kuroń, who had a past of Marxist activism. “[...] we had already experienced the adventure of a utopian faith,” Seweryn Blumsztajn, a close friend and political companion of Michnik and Kuroń, said, “that it was possible to create an ideal society, and had learnt that the final social result would always be unjust. So this time we were not interested in any ‘final’ aim or idea. Instead, we sensed that we were by-products of the failure of ideology – of the entire 50-year communist experiment” (quoted in Luxmoore and Babiuch 1995, 79; Gawin 2013).

This rejection of ideologies, of what we would now call “metanarratives,” did not turn the dissidents into post-modernists avant la letter. On the contrary, their quest for individual autonomy and liberty was not a quest to live any kind of life; by refusing to put up phony slogans, Havel’s greengrocer “discovers once more his suppressed identity and dignity. He gives his freedom a concrete significance. His revolt is an attempt to live within the truth” (Havel 1985, 39). Havel’s allegorical greengrocer stood for the conviction that the citizens of the Soviet bloc, by perpetuating a ruling ideology and thus “living in a lie”, were complacent in their own oppression. “[...] we lie to ourselves for assurance,” Solzhenitsyn wrote. Thus, “[...] it is not they [the authorities] who are to blame for everything – we ourselves, only we.” The first step to both one’s own self-liberation and the liberation of society, therefore, was not a retreat into the privacy of one’s idiosyncratic beliefs but a commitment to truth. “If we did not paste together the dead bones and scales of ideology, if we did not sew together the rotting rags, we would be astonished how quickly the lies would be rendered helpless and subside. That which should be naked would then really appear naked before the whole world” (Solzhenitsyn 1974).7

Given, on the one hand, the dissidents’ rejection of ideology and, at times, even of positivism and, on the other hand, their commitment to objective truth, their writings often had strongly religious connotations. This is most obvious in the case of Solzhenitsyn or of Catholic activists like Tadeusz Mazowiecki in Poland or Václav Benda in Czechoslovakia. But even an intellectual like Kuroń, a former Communist and lifelong non-believer, discovered religion as a conceptual grounding in a social world characterized by state arbitrariness and the pressure to publicly conform to obvious nonsense (Gawin 2013, 218–223). Havel, too, never considered himself Christian and only very reluctantly, if at all, used the word “God” in his philosophical essays (Hipp 1995, 323–325); yet his writings have clear religious references. In “Politics and Conscience,” he compared totalitarianism to a smokestack he had seen as a boy. This “‘soiling of the heavens’ offended me spontaneously. It seemed to me that, in it, humans [...] destroy something important, arbitrarily disrupting the natural order of things, and that such things cannot go unpunished.”8 He felt his revulsion so deeply because, as a boy, he was still deeply rooted in “‘the natural world,’ or Lebenswelt ” 9, that is, the world of one’s “direct personal experience” and a world that “functions and is generally possible at all only because there is something beyond its horizon, something beyond or above it that might escape our understanding and our grasp but, for just that reason, firmly grounds this world, bestows upon it its order and measure, and is the hidden source of all the rules, customs, commandments, prohibitions, and norms that hold within it.” It thus “bears within it the presupposition of the absolute which [...] we can only quietly respect.” For Havel, the crime of totalitarianism was that it denied this wider horizon in the name of a pseudo-scientific ideology and therefore colonized the “natural world” submitting it to “the irrational momentum of anonymous, impersonal, and inhuman power – the power of ideologies, systems, apparatus, bureaucracy, artificial languages, and political slogans.” Resistance to totalitarianism thus meant to “honor with the humility of the wise the limits of that natural world and the mystery which lies beyond them, admitting that there is something in the order of being which evidently exceeds all our competence. We must relate to the absolute horizon of our existence which, if we but will, we shall constantly rediscover and experience” (Havel 1984).

This (quasi-)religious approach also provided the framework for the dissident interpretation of human rights. In a comment on Charter 77 that was hugely influential in Czechoslovakia, Havel’s philosophical mentor Jan Patočka wrote that

The concept of human rights is nothing other than the conviction that states, too, and all of society are placed under the supremacy of moral feeling; that they recognize something unconditioned, above them, something weighty and sacrosanct (untouchable) even for them; and that, by their own powers with which they create and secure legal norms, they intend to contribute to this goal. (quoted in Bolton 2012, 155–156)

In Poland, Kuroń wrote that what he took away from his dialogue with Catholic intellectuals was the idea of “transcendent Moral Law. This gave a new, deeper meaning to our traditional left-wing belief in human freedom within a just social order – the most important value. Now our starting point was the sovereignty of the human person and from that point of view we reassessed the values of our vision of a just and free order” (Kuroń 2011, 378).

The writings of Kuroń not only show how dissidents sought a transcendent, even divine grounding of their human rights activism – the “sovereignty of the human person” is a term from the Catholic philosophy of personalism, which was widely used by Cracow’s then archbishop Karol Wojtyła (Porter-Szűcs 2011, 149–151). Kuroń’s texts also highlight the dissidents’ clear preference for individual rights and political freedoms. The linchpin of the transcendent order was human dignity, the absolute value of every individual human being which had to be defended against totalitarian attempts to submit it to ideological or collectivist projects. What united the diverse groups in the Polish opposition movement, Kuroń wrote, was the emphasis they all put on the ‘value of the individual, on inalienable human rights’ (Kuroń 2010, 45). For Kuroń, the main axis of political conflict in Poland did not revolve around the dichotomy “left vs. right” but “totalitarianism vs. democracy” (Gawin 2013, 334).

In acknowledging this dichotomy it is important to avoid a misunderstanding. Though using a term like “totalitarianism” and focusing on individual rights, few dissidents adopted classically liberal ideas, let alone a Cold War mentality. The post-totalitarian world inhabited by Havel’s allegoric greengrocer differed from George Orwell’s dystopian vision of Nineteen-Eighty Four, where Winston Smith, the novel’s main character, could escape “Big Brother’s” all-encompassing gaze only by hiding in an alcove in his apartment. Havel’s fictional greengrocer, in contrast, could have easily retreated to the relative liberty of his privacy by playing the system’s game, but he thus would have left the system’s fundament intact. In Havel’s analysis, then, totalitarianism enslaved the individual by colonizing social life. The individual choice to begin “living within the truth” became a political act only if it was made public through the refusal to participate in the system’s rituals. By ceasing to put phony ideological slogans into his shop display, by publicly manifesting his dissent from the system’s ideology, the greengrocer was sure to suffer repression, but he achieved a significant triumph nonetheless. He “shattered the world of appearances, the fundamental pillar of the system. He has shown everyone that it is possible to live within the truth”. With his example, the greengrocer could awaken among his fellow citizens what Havel considered a universal longing of human beings “for dignity and fundamental rights.”10 This longing was the “power of the powerless”; awakening it through a multitude of individual acts of defiance, Havel believed, could have corrosive consequences for the system.11

The struggle for individual rights was therefore a struggle to reclaim a public space. In both theory and practice, this aspect was brought out most clearly in Poland. The most promising strategy of the opposition, Michnik or Kuroń argued, was not the direct confrontation of the government but the self-organization of society. Beginning with small groups and milieus, an independent space of social communication was to be created where individuals could discuss and solve the problems that concerned them directly; gradually, the public space would be reclaimed from the system. Only by thus assuming a position of strength would society be enabled to lead meaningful negotiations with the government (Michnik 1985).

Here, we encounter an important difference from the individualism of classic liberalism. In dissident writing, individual autonomy was defined as against the state or the system, but not against society. Manifesting one’s individual autonomy from the state was, as Jerzy Szacki (1995, 85) has shown, “inseparable from the desire to participate in a community.” This community was often, though not exclusively, defined in national terms (cf. Ciżewska 2010; Kopeček 2012). This focus on the national community may seem paradoxical given the universality of human rights. In part, this reliance on national traditions was due to the necessity of translating abstract human rights claims into a language comprehensible for a larger group of people, as Michal Kopeček (2012) or Kacper Szulecki (2011) have shown. Yet it also followed from the very logic of dissident thought. As Kołakowski wrote, the power of a totalitarian system to colonize the public space rested on its ability to deform language and deprive it of its meaning. Words like “friendship” or “brotherhood” lost their meaning in public parlance because they were constantly used to describe Poland’s relationship to the Soviet Union. To reclaim the public sphere thus meant to reclaim language. Cultivating national language and culture was thus seen as a means of empowering the individual to confront totalitarianism; compared with the obvious non-sense of “newspeak”, the traditional language – which, of course, was constructed too – appeared “authentic”. The same impulse, then, to find a “pre-” or even “anti-political” sphere of “authentic social experience” that had led the dissidents to discover human rights may have led them to discover national culture (Gawin 2013, 317–326).

While the dissidents’ “collective individualism” (Szacki 1995, 84–92) was to some extent a result of the specific situation in post-Stalinist state socialism, many dissidents believed that their political thought could provide a general alternative to Western individualism. Kuroń, for instance, rejected the tolerance of “classic liberalism” which he saw as indifference to another person’s feelings or social situation (Kuroń 2010, 63). For Kuroń, in contrast, tolerance and respect for the autonomy of the human person was always intertwined with questions of solidarity and of love. Following a Marxist anthropology, Kuroń believed that all human beings create their world and thus themselves through their creative activity. Since humans could create their world only in cooperation with others, human identity was unthinkable in a social vacuum. Love in Kuroń’s understanding was “the desire to identify with another human being, to constantly overcome and constantly discover his distinctiveness.” Because this process was “endless, constantly fulfilling itself and unfulfillable,” love becomes ever “deeper, richer, fuller” (Kuroń 2010, 61). His anthropological credo was therefore that “to be human [żyć po ludzku] means to be creative [tworzyć] and to love and what is more they are in fact one and the same thing” (Kuroń 2010, 67).12

Though Kuroń would become an activist for the formal guarantee of individual rights and invoke international treaties, he had, in fact, a much “deeper” or “thicker” understanding of human liberty than the dry language of human rights activism suggests. For him, individual autonomy was thinkable only within a community of human persons and freedom meant the freedom to create the social world together with them. If Kuroń was no advocate for social or economic rights this was not because he had a preference for classical liberalism. Instead, he was concerned that this would increase the power of the state and thus reinforce the very social alienation he wanted to overcome (Kuroń 2010, 113). Politics, he insisted, had to come “from below”; they had to originate in the activity of human persons who jointly and in solidarity solved the problems that concerned them directly. Paradoxically, maybe, he declared the establishment of a parliamentary democracy to be his long-term goal and he defended this preference against western interlocutors who considered parliamentarianism an outdated system. Yet the formal guarantee of individual autonomy and the right to cast a ballot was only a precondition of human liberty, not liberty itself. “I declare,” Kuroń wrote, “that within a parliamentarian system I will join a movement for direct democracy. Without representative (parliamentarian) democracy, however, direct democracy is completely defenseless vis-á-vis the power of the state” (Kuroń 2010, 84). Formal representative institutions and the guarantee of rights, then, were to protect and enable citizens to come together in smaller or larger social associations in order to solve their collective affairs in creative ways.

Kuroń’s social vision thus went beyond the struggle with totalitarianism. In once again strikingly Marxist language, Kuroń argued that totalitarianism was not rooted in a specific ideology but in the modern human condition. “And, more precisely, in man’s loneliness and thus impotence toward powerful political and economic organizations – especially the state – which are the result of a far-reaching division of labor” (Kuroń 2011, 378). A very similar idea can be found in a more elaborate form in the writings of Havel. The two themes of his writings are the question of human identity and of human responsibility. Inspired by Patočka, Havel, too, believed that freedom could not be conceived and realized in abstraction from society. Responsibility, therefore, means the individual’s responsibility before the transcendent horizon of the “natural world” but also the responsibility for the freedom of others (Hipp 1995; Findlay 1999). Describing how Charter 77 was drafted in response to a crackdown on the musical underground in Prague, Havel defined freedom as something shared and lost by the human community:

Everyone understood that an attack on the Czech musical underground was an attack on a most elementary and important thing, something that in fact bound everyone together: it was an attack on the very notion of living within the truth, on the real aims of life. The freedom to play rock music was understood as a human freedom and thus as essentially the same as the freedom to engage in philosophical and political reflection, the freedom to write, the freedom to express and defend the various social and political interests of society. People were inspired to feel a genuine sense of solidarity with the young musicians and they came to realize that not standing up for the freedom of others, regardless of how remote their means of creativity or their attitude to life, meant surrendering one’s own freedom. (Havel 1985, 46–47)

Though the “natural world” or Lebenswelt Havel wanted to defend against totalitarianism was given in one’s individual experience, it was always a world shared with others.

If surrendering someone else’s freedom, however remote her political attitudes or geographical location, meant to forsake one’s own freedom, the relationship between the dissidents and their western sympathizers was not ‘asymmetrical’; the dissidents’ experience had a universal importance. For Havel, the chimneys he saw as a boy were “not just a technologically corrigible flaw of design, or a tax paid for a better consumerist tomorrow, but a symbol of a civilization which has renounced the absolute, which ignores the natural world and disdains its imperatives.” Totalitarianism, therefore, was “a convex mirror of all modern civilization and a harsh, perhaps final call for a global recasting of how that civilization understands itself.” Western generals drawing up plans to “dispatch [totalitarian] systems from the face of the earth” would be “no different from an ugly woman trying to get rid of her ugliness by smashing the mirror that reminds her of it.” Indeed, the arms race was a product of the same objectivism that tried to colonize the natural world. “Such a ‘final solution’ [of destroying totalitarianism militarily] is one of the typical dreams of impersonal reason – capable, as the term ‘final solution’ graphically reminds us, of transforming its dreams into reality and thereby reality into a nightmare” (Havel 1984).

Havel seems to have seen the western world even less as a political model than Kuroń. Western society, he wrote in “The Power of the Powerless”, could “only with great difficulty be imagined as the source of humanity’s rediscovery of itself ” given its “mass political parties releasing the citizen from all forms of concrete and personal responsibility,” its “complex focuses of capital accumulation engaged in secret manipulations and expansion” and “the omnipresent dictatorship of consumption, production, advertising, commerce, consumer culture.”13 He favored “anti-political politics” instead, “that is, politics not as the technology of power and manipulation, of cybernetic rule over humans or as the art of the utilitarian, but politics as one of the ways of seeking and achieving meaningful lives, of protecting them and saving them. I favor politics as practical morality, as service to the truth, as essentially human and humanly measured care for our fellow humans” (Havel 1984).

Before summarizing these observations and asking ourselves what the human rights legacy of dissent might be, it is important to underline a tension in dissident thought: The dissidents’ insistence on the collective context of liberty, the (quasi-)religious dimension of their thought, and the reliance on national traditions made their discourse susceptible to the very totalitarianism they sought to transcend. And indeed, there were authoritarian and nationalist tendencies in the dissident movements of the Soviet bloc. Examples are Solzhenitsyn’s conviction of Russian superiority or, more generally, the scare of “russophobia” that befell many former heroes of the Soviet dissident movement as well as nationalist and anti-Semitic currents in the Polish underground of the 1970s and 1980s. The writers discussed here were aware of that problem (Kuroń 2010, 123–128),14 but their thought is characterized by a tension between, on one hand, an almost post-modernist rejection of any meta-narrative or collectivist ideology and, on the other hand, the intellectual quest for an objective footing in religion or an authentic experience in national culture (Elshtain 1992). The latter, at any rate, were judged by their ability to protect and sustain individual human beings and to empower them to reclaim their Lebenswelt.

Which specific understanding of human rights emerges from this discussion of dissident thought? Four points seem most important: Firstly, dissident thought was characterized by a sharp focus on the individual, on the dignity and value of every human being. Following from this was a rejection of all kinds of systematic ideologies or utopian projects willing to sacrifice human freedom and individual autonomy for the sake of a national collective or radiant future. Secondly, many dissidents saw the individual embedded in a transcendent, even divine order of reality. On one hand, this meant that oppressing individual rights, stifling human autonomy was not merely the violation of a legal norm but of a natural order of reality. On the other hand, this idea of a transcendent order meant that liberty was bound to strong normative commitments – a commitment to choose truth over lies and a commitment to answer a call to responsibility for other human beings and the social world. Thirdly, liberty thus understood was possible only within a social community and in mutual solidarity. Freedom did not mean the freedom to retreat to the private sphere but the freedom to actively participate in public life and to shape, together with others, the public affairs of one’s community. Finally, though the dissidents would invoke international treaties, though they formed a transnational Verstehensgemeinschaft, and though they declared their solidarity with victims in other parts of the world, their activism remained focused on their immediate, local context. They did not differentiate between the struggle for rights and the struggle for self-determination; they made no distinction between civic and human rights, because, for them, claiming one’s universal rights meant to become a citizen – an active participant in social life.

The general “social imaginaire” which emerges from these four points was one in which human rights were supposed to empower individuals to become the agents of their own fate. The dissidents were usually grateful for international support and mobilizing it was an important aspect of their activism. But they did not want westerners to fight their struggles for them. Indeed, many believed that the dissidents’ experience had a wider significance and that the West could learn something from it.

The Fate of Dissident Thought in the 1980s

What is left of this specific way of thinking about human rights and of conducting human rights activism? To what extent has it left behind a legacy, that is, to what extent was it preserved in a distinguishable form and had a lasting influence on social life and international politics after 1989? This question is complicated by the fact that what we are dealing with here is a set of ideas and concepts whose meaning, as the preceding section should have shown, was never fixed. The process of appropriating dissidents’ ideas and thoughts for other contexts, moreover, began already during the 1970s. Though dissident activism was focused on the domestic context of individual countries, from its very beginning, it had a transnational horizon. When they were not in prison, many dissidents had to support themselves through badly paid unskilled jobs or were unemployed. For Havel, an important source of income was the publishing and staging of his plays in the West. But receiving western aid was not only a matter of supporting individuals: Funds were needed for the costly production of samizdat or to support the families of political prisoners; western correspondents had to be contacted to get one’s message onto the radio waves of the BBC or RFE (Radio Free Europe); western politicians and organizations had to be lobbied to put human rights onto the agenda of the CSCE or the U. N. (Bolton 2012, 103–104, 136, 148, 205; Brier 2011; Goddeeris 2010; Metger 2013; Snyder 2011; Szulecki 2011; Walker 2009, 377, 384–387; Walker 2010)

From the beginning of their activism, then, dissidents addressed audiences in the West. An important step in the development of Soviet dissent occurred in January 1968 when Pavel Litvinov and Larisa Bogoraz protested against a political trial by issuing an appeal that was not addressed to the Soviet authorities but to international public opinion (Horvath 2005, 56–57). The conference in Paris where Michnik gave his talk about the new evolutionism was not only intended for émigré groups but also garnered significant French and international attention (Ostrowska 1976). Havel’s “Politics and Conscience” was written as a speech on the occasion of his receiving an honorary doctoral degree from the University of Toulouse (Havel 1984). Such international awards ceremonies were a frequent forum to address international attention, though, like Havel in 1984 or Andrei Sakharov and Lech Wałęsa for their respective Nobel lectures, such speeches were usually read not by the recipients themselves. Jonathan Bolton (2012), then, is certainly correct that dissent was often misperceived; yet, as Julia Metger (2013) argues, it seems as though these misperceptions were actually an important part of the story of dissent.

How, then, was the dissidents’ message received internationally? The first appeals from the Soviet Union raised little interest in the West except for a small group of émigrés and Cold War Warriors. This would change rather radically a few years later. A key event was the publication of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago in 1973 and its author’s forced exile a year later. Paradoxically, the book’s impact was particularly deep in France, whose cultural life experienced a veritable “choc du Goulag.”15 The “Soviet dissident” became a celebrated figure of the French left-wing intelligentsia which shifted its sympathies from the anti-colonial liberation struggles in the 1960s to human rights activism and a “crusading anti-totalitarianism” in the 1970s and early 1980s. By the early 1980s, Marxism – once the Master Narrative of the French left – had fallen completely out of favor.

Two aspects of “l’affaire Sojlenitsyne” are particularly puzzling. Firstly, Solzhenitsyn’s work did not reveal anything fundamentally new. His panorama of the Soviet labor camps may have been particularly impressive and his indictment of the Soviet system particularly stringent, but there was little in his book that was not known in the West already. And yet, French intellectuals – few of whom were actually Soviet sympathizers – would indulge in self-criticism arguing that the Gulag Archipelago had opened their eyes to the “true nature” of communism. Secondly, Solzhenitsyn – whose reactionary views became increasingly apparent – was an unlikely hero for intellectuals with libertarian left-wing views and often a Trotskyite or Maoist past. Yet major public intellectuals and philosophers – such as André Glucksman or Claude Lefort – would compose entire books centered on Solzhenitsyn and his writings in order to sketch a new approach in left-wing politics.

The broad popularity, then, which non-conformist intellectuals from the Soviet bloc received rather suddenly in France had as much to do with French intellectual politics as with those intellectuals themselves. ‘L’affaire Sojlenitsyne ’ was less prompted by the publication of the Gulag Archipelago than by how the French Communist Party (PCF) criticized its author and a French libertarian left journal that defended him. Among libertarian left-wing intellectuals and former student radicals, these attacks exacerbated fears about what they saw as the authoritarian tendencies of the established Left. Since the events of May 1968, France’s libertarian left – the so-called “Second Left” or “deuxieme Gauche” – had grown critical of the traditionally state centered approach of France’s leftist establishment and its main political force, the PCF. Favoring grass-roots democracy and workers self-management, the Second Left believed that this etatist approach would lead to authoritarianism. When the PCF attacked Solzhenitsyn, his book could be read not only as a description of the Soviet past but also as a dark vision of a French future under the government of the French communists. The dissidents were popular, then, because of how they served as a powerful symbol for French intellectual life. As victims of the very revolutionary violence the PCF and its supporters had once considered legitimate, they condensed and focused the Second Left’s criticism of etatism and its authoritarian potential. As lonely intellectual figures braving a Marxist orthodoxy, the dissidents were also a symbol around which French intellectuals could fashion their own identities as newfound critics of Marxism.

This French “anti-totalitarian moment” (Christofferson 2004) reached its apogee in a broad wave of sympathy and support for the Polish Solidarity movement. The sheer breadth of this movement turned it into an international icon of non-violent resistance against communism – a process accentuated and reinforced by the 1983 Nobel Prize for Lech Wałęsa. Two examples demonstrate the surprisingly different uses to which this symbol was put. On 21 October 1983, the Ethics and Public Policy Center – a conservative think-tank from Washington, DC – bestowed its annual award for integrity and courage upon Lech Wałęsa. The award ceremony at New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel, which Wałęsa could not attend, featured a videotaped salute by President Ronald Reagan and was attended by a “who’s who” of the American foreign policy establishment. The evening’s keynote address, given by US Ambassador to the United Nations, Jeane Kirkpatrick, only touched upon Poland and Solidarity. In a talk entitled “We and They”, Kirkpatrick argued instead that the West needed to overcome its self-doubts and demoralization to confront what she saw as a “discouragingly familiar” pattern of Soviet expansionism (Ethics and Public Policy Center 1983; Kirkpatrick 1988, 35–41).

On the next day, some 6,000 km east of New York, another woman spoke to a major political gathering on a foreign policy question and, again, Poland’s Solidarity was a point of reference. Petra Kelly – a leading figure of the West German peace movement – addressed several hundred thousand people who had come to Bonn to demonstrate against the deployment of medium-range nuclear missiles. The demonstrations in Bonn and elsewhere, she said, were part of an international movement that transcended the competing political systems of the Cold War. “We now have the opportunity to live the beginnings of a society without violence,” she concluded. “[...] a Solidarność for peace, not only in Poland” (Kelly 1990). Two years later, she would even label dissident anti-politics an example for the Western left.

“Anti-politics” does not want power from above or share that power. That would be its very own contradiction. It already possesses power, but in a completely different moral and ethical sense. Through civil courage, through the capacity to endure suffering, but never inflicting it on others, through creative “disobedient” forces that range from Philip Berrigan and Liz McAlister and the US Pledge of Resistence to Vaclav Havel (Charta 77) to Adam Michnik (Solidarnosc) to Katja Havemann (Women for Peace)! (Kelly 1985)

These three examples – the French Second Left, U. S. neoconservatives, and West German peace activists – highlight the “thinness” of the human rights culture that would emerge in the late Cold War: The symbols and narratives of this culture are, as Kenneth Cmiel (1999, 1248–1249) noted, powerful not because they accurately convey a complex situation of political oppression, but because they evoke emotions. Images and pictures that “scream pathos or heroism [...] allow viewers to ignore any thicker, local context and to click on the phrase ‘human rights’ in their minds.” This culture turned social movements like Solidarity or exemplary individuals like Solzhenitsyn into “icons” – larger-than-life images which embody values like courage, defiance, integrity.

This “iconization” constitutes the appeal of human rights. At least apparently, Solzhenitsyn or Solidarity did not represent specific political views, but the universal right to express those views freely. But our three examples raise the question of how far this anti- or pre-political neutrality of human rights went. Individuals and groups in France, West Germany, and the U. S. did associate more particular political visions with the symbolic figures of human rights and the very “neutrality” of human rights culture may have enabled them to do so. In this culture, the specific features of dissident movements – such as the religious and national(ist) views of Solzhenitsyn or Solidarity’s character as a trade union – merely served to underline the universality of human rights, not to acquaint international audiences with the complex historical situation in which they were active. Mark Bradley (2012, 337) highlights how this culture thus tended to drain “the structural forces and local particulars that gave rise to [rights] violations” from such iconic cases. Yet an equally important aspect was how this culture, presenting local activists as victims of the violation of universal norms, drained from them their specific political aims and social visions. The terms these activists used to define their goals – “human rights” or “democracy” – may therefore have been given new meanings, and goals may have been ascribed to these activists which had not been originally theirs.

All three interpretations– the anti-totalitarian leftist, the neoconservative, and the pacifist – captured something correct about dissent. There were significant parallels between anti-politics and the direct democratic thinking of the French Second Left. Though anti-totalitarian and anti-statist, both French intellectuals and people like Havel or Kuroń remained committed to questions of social solidarity. Kelly, too, could point out significant similarities between her idea of an “Anti-Parteienpartei” and the political theory of Michnik or Havel. But by calling them peace activists, she also brushed aside important differences and conflicts. When she gave her speech in Amsterdam, a dialogue between western peace activists and representatives of Charter 77 had begun. This exchange, however, had been brought about by a major disagreement: the question of how to balance the goal of disarmament and that of protecting human rights in the Soviet bloc. Underpinning these debates were fundamentally different political lexicons; “totalitarianism” – one of the central terms of dissidence – was a concept most western peace activists considered an expression of a Cold War mentality. The dialogue between the peace activists and the dissidents thus remained fraught with conflict and misunderstanding. Havel even gave a votum seperatum in which he rejected the peace activists’ overwhelming focus on disarmament as lacking responsibility (Ziemann 2009, 368–370; Szulecki 2013).

The rhetoric of Ronald Reagan and Jeane Kirkpatrick – with its stark moral choices between liberty and tyranny, good and evil – resonated strongly with many dissidents, especially in Poland. This rhetoric, however, transported a larger social vision that was much further away from dissident thought than that of the French and West German left. For Havel, the arms race was an expression of the very technical civilization which was responsible for the crisis of modern society. The dissidents’ approach to human rights, moreover, was universal. “All totalitarian regimes are the enemy,” Michnik wrote in 1977, “whether capitalist or communist, Chile, the USSR, China or anyplace else where basic human rights are trampled upon and people are beaten down and oppressed in the name of higher ideals, religious or secular” (Michnik 1993, 192). As a political prisoner in the 1980s, he would speak out for Chilean rights activists and Solidarity repeated declared its solidarity with Chilean workers (Le Monde 1983). Reagan and Kirkpatrick, on the other hand, represented an approach to human rights activism which, under the name of “democracy promotion,” was willing to differentiate between authoritarian governments, where the focus should not be on human rights but the gradual building of democratic institutions, and totalitarian regimes (Kirkpatrick 1979; Bright 1990). This neoconservative approach to human rights was based on a specific social vision: Though anti-etatist, it understood society more as composed of isolated individuals who pursued their self-interest than the heavily embedded actors Havel or Kuroń saw as the bearers of human rights. Reagan finally was convinced the U. S. was the “city upon a hill” that embodied a fully democratic society (Reagan 1982). Havel’s sense of a universal crisis of modernity was completely alien to him.

This leads to a final aspect: Havel was, as noted, convinced that the relationship between, on one side, him and his fellow activists and, on the other side, their western supporters was not asymmetrical; the West could learn as much from the dissidents’ experience as the dissidents could learn from the West. In reality, however, the democratic transitions after 1989 were a very one-sided endeavor. Rather than rejuvenating democratic processes in Western Europe, the “post-communist” countries of Eastern Europe were forced to diligently meet criteria held up to them by the West in order to be allowed into the European Union. What many intellectuals in East-Central Europe had dreamed of in 1989 was a reunification of Europe – a meeting of equals, Smolar noted. Yet, “Instead of the dreamed-of union of equals, Central and East Europeans are faced with a laborious fulfillment of conditions from Brussels, a rigorous application of the EU’s commandments spelled out in 80,000 pages of regulations (the so-called acquis communautaire). European unification resembles the unification of Germany, except that in Europe as a whole the West lacks the same sense of profound ties with, and obligation toward, the East” (Smolar 2001, 12–13). 1 May 2004, the day when most post-communist states in East-Central Europe joined the EU is thus often seen as the completion of their transition to “normalcy.” “Democracy,” Havel had criticized already in 1994, “is seen less and less as an open system best able to respond to people’s basic needs, that is, as a set of possibilities that continually must be sought, redefined, and brought into being. Instead, democracy is seen as something given, finished, and complete as is, something that the more enlightened purchase and the less enlightened do not” (Havel 1995, 48).

Moreover, the “social imaginaire” underpinning the global human rights regime that came into being after 1989, with its dense network of NGOs, the International Criminal Court, and concepts like “humanitarian intervention” or at least the “responsibility to protect,” differs markedly from the “social imaginaire” of dissent. Both historians and political scientists have shown how, already in the 1970s but even more so after 1989, human rights campaigns are sometimes driven more by the needs and worldviews of NGOs and international institutions than by the actual victims of oppression. Which victims are able to make their voice heard depends as much on their ability to communicate with the gatekeepers of the world of transnational NGOs as on the repression of their suffering (Keys 2012; Simpson 2009; Bob 2005). Indeed the very term “victim” marks a move away from the discourse and thought of the dissidents who, though they certainly were victims, saw themselves rather as protesters and activists, as individuals who made moral choices and who claimed a universal right. The locus of agency, then, shifted from those opposing repression and struggling for self-determination to international actors and, paradoxically, governments (Cohen 2008; Guilhot 2005; Ingram 2008).

Human rights, it turns out, were no fixed set of norms the dissidents could invoke. As they began to oppose their governments and to address an imaginary “court of world opinion” they became participants in a process in which different actors in different parts of the world were competing over the meaning of human rights and of human rights activism. These debates turned the dissidents into international icons, but there was a price they would have to pay for this status. The richness of their debates on human rights and totalitarianism, on democracy and solidarity, on human agency and its ramifications, as well as the idiosyncrasies of these debates and their authoritarian potential, were stripped down to those aspects which tied in with aspects of western political struggles. As a result, the dissidents came to symbolize an understanding of human rights which differed fundamentally from their own vision of the 1970s. After 1989, democratization was defined as an imitative process where institutions were transferred from West to East rather than as a process of exchange where the West might learn from the East’s experience and the international protection. And human rights activism became the domain of transnational groups and governments, who protect victims, rather than a process driven by local practices and struggles of the victims themselves.

From Dissidence to Neoliberalism?

Was there a “human rights legacy” of 1989? Or were the dissidents a symbol which was hijacked for the project of a global neoliberal hegemony – with human rights activists serving as the latter’s “organic intellectuals,” as some writers indebted to Antonio Gramsci seem to suggest?16 Were human rights transformed from “weapons for the critique of power” into elements “of the arsenal of power”?17

This, too, seems to be an oversimplification. For all its thinness, human rights was a language of empowerment. French intellectuals, American neoconservatives, and peace activists competed over the meaning of human rights precisely because it had become a powerful source of international legitimacy. As international icons, the dissidents were valuable in these debates because, through their suffering and resistance, they embodied the ideas associated with human rights. This exposed them to clashing interpretations, but it also endowed them with moral authority and symbolic power. The dissidents were rarely shy to use this authority to make clear demands on their Western supporters. Challenging the West to live up to the values it had signed in Helsinki, then, they also challenged the West to define its identity.

Before the dissidents forced human rights onto the international agenda, all three western groups discussed above – the French Left, U. S. neoconservatives, the West German peace movement – had been indifferent or critical about human rights activism. This is most obvious in the case of France: As Claude Lefort observed in 1980 in a seminal article of the French human rights discourse: “The spread of Marxism throughout the whole of the French Left has long gone hand in hand with a devaluation of rights in general and with the vehement, ironic or “scientific” condemnation of the bourgeois notion of human rights.” It had only been after “the efforts of dissidents throughout the socialist states, availing themselves of the Helsinki Agreements in order to demand respect for human rights,” that individual rights “no longer seem to be formal, intended to conceal a system of domination; they are now seen to embody a real struggle against oppression” (Lefort 1986, 240–241). West German peace activists, too, had been critical about human rights activism in East–West relations. They feared it might exacerbate the Cold War but they also seemed to have submitted to an inverted Cold War thinking themselves. Seeing the U. S. as the main culprit in the arms race, they believed that supporting dissidents would simultaneously strengthen the U. S. Kelly’s approach signals a new attitude from a figurehead of the peace movement. She started to see peace and human rights as two sides of the same process and, in defending this approach, even argued that, in terms of their human rights record, western societies were superior to those of the Soviet bloc (Fischer et al. 1986).

Jeane Kirkpatrick or Ronald Reagan, finally, may have portrayed U. S. human rights policies as a simple continuation of the Cold War. In reality, however, both had been critical of human rights activism before Reagan came to office deeming it naïve and preventing Washington from fending off Soviet influences in Central America. One of Kirkpatrick’s most famous texts, in fact, is an article in which she rejected human rights activism’s universal approach outright and demanded different approaches for dictators in Latin America and in the Soviet bloc (Kirkpatrick 1979). Leading neoconservative intellectuals had little use for the activism of the dissidents or a social movement like Solidarity. They may have admired the dissidents and considered Solidarity’s suppression tragic, but seem to have believed that their fate had been inevitable anyway (Kahn and Podhoretz 2008; Krauthammer 1982).18

Even after 1989, dissidents could challenge and provoke western audiences. An emergent narrative may portray the expansion of the EU as a process in which West European countries shepherded “post-communist” societies into the democratic club. But the political scientist Frank Schimmelfennig (2001) has argued that EU enlargement ran counter to the interests of the majority of its members and there was, hence, little enthusiasm for it. In this situation, Czech President Havel used his iconic status as a former dissident and the EU’s public commitment to human rights to “shame” West Europeans into beginning the process of enlargement. While East European human rights activists certainly could not control the shape of the “liberal international order” that would emerge after the Cold War, they were not its passive victims either.


Robert Brier. Works as a research associate at the German Historical Institute in Warsaw. His research interests include the modern history of East-Central Europe, the history of the Cold War, of human rights, the intellectual and cultural history of the 1970s and 1980s, as well as the intellectual and international history of the late 19th Century. He is currently finishing a book manuscript in which he analyzes the history of the Solidarity movement as a case study of the international history of human rights. His most important recent publications include a special issue on the history and legacy of dissent of the journal East European Politics and Societies (co-edited with Paul Blokker) and an edited called Entangled Protest: Transnational Perspectives on the History of Dissent in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.



1 For my understanding of the problematic terms “dissent” and “dissidence” see Brier (2013), pp. 13–18.

2 Paulmann’s text is a review of Hoffmann (2012). Such an approach need not necessarily question the validity of human rights as demonstrated by Hans Joas (2013); Joas (2000). For the history of human rights see Eckel (2009); Moyn (2012); Pendas (2012); for major texts of this new approach see the contributions to the volume edited by Hoffmann as well as Eckel and Moyn (2013); Iriye, Goedde and Hitchcock (2012); Moyn (2010); Simpson (2009). For applications to Eastern Europe see Nathans (2007).

3 The English translations of the Chronicle are available online from Amnesty International at: http://www.amnesty.org/en/ai_search?title=chronicle+of+current+events. The Russian original is available from the homepage of Memorial, a Russian NGO that collects the documents of Soviet dissidents at: http://www.memo.ru/history/diss/chr/index.htm. (both accessed Jan. 2013).

4 For Catholicism’s mid-1960s about-face on human rights see Moyn (2011); Sutor (2008).

5 Snyder (2010, 69–70) tells this story the wrong way round emphasizing international causes and relegating the crackdown on Prague, the main reason for the creation of Charter 77, to a footnote.

6 The following account is based on my own research on Polish dissent as well as on Friszke (2010); Friszke (2011); Gawin (2013); Arndt (2013). My account of Charter 77 draws heavily on Bolton (2012) though, obviously, I come to different conclusions regarding the existence of a transnational dissident community. For the history of Soviet dissent see Nathans (2007); Nathans (2013); Luks (2010); Walker (2009); Walker (2010).

7 For references to Solzhenitsyn’s text see Kuroń (2010), p. 55; Havel (1984).

8 Quotations are from the unpaginated online edition of Havel’s text.

9 Havel adopted this term from his mentor Jan Patočka but used in a different way. Findlay (1999), pp. 420–421.

10 Havel (1985), pp. 39–40, 42.

11 Kuroń

12 Though Kuroń (2010, 8, 59) proceeded from Marxist ideas in this text, there are obvious parallels between this reasoning and the French personalist philosophy favored by Warsaw’s Catholic intelligentsia. On personalisim in general see Moyn (2011). For its relevance for the Polish opposition see Miller (1983).

13 Havel (1985), p. 91.

14 Another example is the book Genealogies of the Defiant [Rodowody Niepokornych] by the Catholic writer Bohdan Cywiński (1971). One of the most influential texts of early Polish dissent, it sketched human rights and national history as a field were Catholics and Marxist intellectuals could meet. Its account of Polish nationalism and Church history openly discussed and strongly condemned nationalism.

15 The following account is based on two competitive but ultimately complementary accounts of French post-war intellectual history Khilnani (1993); Christofferson (2004). See also Horvath (2007); Howard (2002); Johnstone (1984).

16 Stuart Shields, “Historicizing Transition: The Polish Political Economy in a Period of Global Structural Change – Eastern Central Europe’s Passive Revolution?,” International Politics vol 43, no. 4 (2006), pp. 474–499; Jarle Simensen, “The Global Context of 1989,” in Transnational Moments of Change. 1945 – 1968 – 1989, ed. Padraic Kenney and Gerd-Rainer Horn (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2004), pp. 157–172.

17 Nicolas Guilhot, The Democracy Makers: Human Rights & International Order (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), p. 5.

18 For the development of Reagan’s human rights policy see Bright (1990).


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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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Mark W. Clark

European Intellectuals at the Intersection of War, Memory and Social Responsibility [...]

18 August 2014
  • academic
  • world war ii
  • Great War
  • First World War
  • World War I
  • Germany
  • Second World War
  • Gaetano Salvemini
  • Thomas Mann
  • fascism
  • Italy


Scholars have written extensively about the efforts of intellectuals to shape the collective memory of the two World Wars in Europe. The Italian historian Gaetano Salvemini and the German novelist Thomas Mann were central to those efforts. Their theoretical and practical responses to the Great War caused them to become leading opponents of fascism, first in Europe and then in the United States. The resulting exile experience allowed them to offer some of the earliest, and most poignant post-war reflections on the second great European cataclysm. This essay examines their contributions to the scholarly and literary interpretation of the wars within a transnational and comparative perspective. It also places their work within the larger debate about the social responsibilities of intellectuals.


In the last twenty five years, historians have found fertile ground in the multifaceted attempts by European societies to memorialize the two World Wars. Indeed, there is a large and growing historical literature on memory, history, and identity. Almost as important has been the discussion about the role intellectuals played in interpreting those catastrophes, which is a subset of an ongoing debate about intellectual leadership in general. The cluster of issues that informs this debate, as well the criteria on which historians commonly judge intellectuals, emerged from the questions and responses of the generation to which the German novelist Thomas Mann and Italian historian and political journalist Gaetano Salvemini belonged. (Wohl 1979, 165, 167; Winter 2005, 21, 25) These men played a central role in shaping the memory not only of World War I but also of World War II. As they responded to and interpreted their own experience of World War I – and that of their countrymen – they also offered significant social leadership, first in Europe and then in the United States. Using a transnational and comparative approach, this essay examines the ways in which they helped to shape memories of both wars in their theoretical works and in their more practical leadership efforts on both sides of the Atlantic.

It was during the interwar period that intellectuals in Germany, Italy, and Europe more broadly, not only discussed the proper role for intellectuals but also sought to offer significant societal leadership. Perhaps the most famous statement by a European writer was that of Julien Benda in Treason of the Intellectuals (1928). Benda argued that intellectuals should not engage directly in politics or pursue material advantage, but rather should stand above the fray, searching for the truths and values through which humanity operated. Sometimes it was necessary to engage in public debate, but such engagement should always be the result of independent, rather than partisan, thought and should be based upon universal principles. Once they had proffered their ideas, intellectuals should return to their ivory towers, shaking the dust off of their sandals and leaving society to struggle as best it could with truth. To do otherwise was to commit intellectual treason – a crime of which many European intellectuals were guilty during and after World War I. According to Benda, writers such as Maurice Barrès, Charles Maurras, Gabrielle D’Annunzio, and virtually the entire German cultural elite, had become political partisans and nationalists and had fanned the flames of irrationalism. Benda, like so many others in the post-war period, was thus trying to explain and give meaning to the war and its attendant atrocities (Benda 1928).

Thomas Mann and Gaetano Salvemini had been partisans for their own countries during the war, and their experience of the war shaped their interpretation of the overall catastrophe in the aftermath. It also informed and reoriented their actions as public intellectuals. These two key figures became more explicitly political in defending democratic reform against attacks both from the traditional right and, subsequently, from the new violent, totalitarian political movements of fascism and Nazism. Even at great personal risk, they joined the effort to create and legitimize new understandings of the national community. Their opposition to Mussolini and Hitler, respectively, led to their exile from Italy and Germany to the United States, where they became the leading anti-fascist voices of the European émigrés. The exile experience, in turn, provided them with fresh insights and a new perspective as they sought to shape the memory of the Second World War after 1945, even as their earlier interpretations of World War I continued to inform their thinking in significant ways.

Salvemini was the oldest son of poor land holders in Apulia, and this modest background shaped his political and cultural values. Despite becoming an academic historian at the University of Florence and a leading political journalist, he was, according to his most recent biographer, “an intellectual never completely at ease among intellectuals.” (Killinger 2002, 5–6, 100) Early in his career, Salvemini also exhibited an intense political engagement, writing short articles and polemical pieces in left-leaning journals such as Critica Sociale, Avanti!, and La Voce, the leading avant-garde modernist journal in Italy at the turn of the twentieth century. He criticized the longstanding political process of transformismo, the Italian liberal system under Giovanni Giolitti, and even the weakness of the Italian Socialist party. In 1911, he formed his own cultural/political journal, L’Unità, which became the mouthpiece of young intellectuals seeking a third way between Marxist socialism and traditional liberalism.

When World War I began, Salvemini lobbied for his own country’s entry, but on the side of the more “egalitarian” Entente rather than the Triple Alliance. Even during immediate prewar years, he had campaigned against the Triplice not just because he opposed Germanic autocracy and militarism, but also because he wanted to keep the Austrians from expanding into the Balkans and further consolidating their control over ethnic Italians there. In fighting for democracy abroad, he believed, Italy would rediscover its own democratic roots. Salvemini thus “provided intellectual direction to the democratic forces who called for Italy to join the war in support of democratic principles.” (Killinger 2002, 89; Wohl 1979, 168) As a result, he came into conflict not only with the Italian Nationalist Party, which had much more far-reaching territorial aims, but also with the pacifists and the Socialists, who abjured any capitalist war fought for nationalist aims. Salvemini was already exhibiting the independent, critical voice that would characterize his public pronouncements throughout his long career.

Salvemini himself saw military action between 1915 and 1916 and then, in the last years of the conflict, he began to assess the war and its importance for Italy. There was no point in mythologizing the war; rather, Salvemini believed it was crucial to offer clear, critical historical analysis. Italy’s lack of democracy and economic reform, he argued, combined with the ineptitude of its statesmen, had led it into catastrophe. The short-sighted foreign policy followed first by the Marquis di San Guiliano and, after his death in 1914, by the intensely anti-democratic Sydney Sonnino, led to Italy’s disastrous war experience. Sonnino, in particular, wanted to use the war to realize the territorial aims of the Italian nationalists: the Trentino, Upper Adige, Venezia Giulia, the coast of Damatia, and Trieste. He played a double game with the Entente and the Central Powers, always seeking Italy’s advantage. Salvemini recognized that the more far-reaching territorial aims had been dangerously unrealistic from the outset, and he pointed out that “not one of [Sonnino’s] hopes was ever realized.” (Salvemini 1926, 302) It was no surprise to Salvemini that the British and French did not feel compelled at the end of the war to grant Italy all of its territorial demands. According to Salvemini, “Sonnino had bled his country to help win the victory, and he had freed his allies from any duties as regards the settlements of peace.” (Salvemini 1926, 307)

The greatest harm created by the policies of Sonnino and the nationalists, according to Salvemini, was a moral one: “they brought the Italian people away from the Peace Conference despised by others and dissatisfied with itself.” The Italian people thus came to believe they had been “robbed of the fruits of victory.” If intellectual and political disorder had been rampant in the post-war period, “the tactics of the Nationalists have been in large part responsible.” It could hardly be surprising, then, that “a people peacefully inclined,” but “forced into a grueling war” and then sent home “with the conviction that all its effort has been in vain... kicks over the traces and begins to rear around” (Salvemini 1926, 310). If it did not fit well either within the orthodox Socialist view or the fascist glorification of the conflict, this interpretation of Italy’s war experience nonetheless found wide resonance over time. There is little doubt that Italy, despite having been on the “winning” side of the conflict, came to consider itself a loser. The almost total lack of confidence in liberal institutions, statesmen, and politicians fostered an atmosphere in which a more radical solution was the likely outcome. Salvemini was seeking, unsuccessfully as it turned out, to offer an interpretation of the war that would lead to a new understanding of the national community.

For Salvemini, historical interpretation of the war and its origins was a crucial task, but no more so than his practical leadership efforts. At war’s end, he did his part to overcome the disorder – and bring about full democratization – by becoming still more overtly and formally political: he stood for and won election to the Italian parliament. Although he lost in the following election, he had in the meantime established himself as a great defender of the under classes by demanding housing, education, and infrastructure on their behalf (Rossi 1957, 27). After only a short term in parliament, Salvemini withdrew from direct political participation, though he can hardly be said to have repaired to his ivory tower. Indeed, he continued to engage in the public, political debate in Italy, and then abroad.

Salvemini was generally an astute observer of political dangers, but he was uncharacteristically slow to understand the threat posed by fascism. Like many in Italy, he initially saw Mussolini as the best person to translate the war experience into political renewal. As late as April 1922, he could write: “better Mussolini than Bonomi, Facta, Orlando, Salandra, Turati, Baldesi, D’Aragona, Nitti... Mussolini serves the useful function of crushing the old oligarchies” (Salvemini 1972, 163). Moreover, he tended to see fascism as little more than a reactionary movement, one that relied on traditional sources of support such as nationalists and industrialists, and thus unlikely to survive long as an independent force. After the murder of the socialist deputy Giacomo Matteotti in 1924, however, Salvemini became the most vocal leader of the anti-fascist opposition in Florence, a position to which he brought his full intellectual talents and, according to Eugenio Garin an “almost religious sense of a teacher’s mission [...] He considered the social duty of an intellectual [...] to show, at the risk of being always against everyone, what is fair [...] to exercise the right of criticism without which a man ceases to be human” (Garin 1959, 209).

Salvemini left Florence in June 1925 for Rome, where he was arrested for having collaborated in the anti-fascist paper Non Mollare (Don’t Give In). He was tried and, though not acquitted, granted “provisional liberty” (Origo 1984, 153). In August 1925, he escaped from his state-assigned guards and made his way through northern Italy into France; by December, he was in England, at which time the Italian government formally stripped him both of his academic post and his Italian citizenship. Ernesto Rossi, a student and friend, considered this “one of Mussolini’s gravest errors: he let slip through his hands his most decisive and intelligent adversary” (Salvemini 1925, 106; Rossi 1957, 2).

Salvemini responded by planning how best to reach a wide audience with his anti-fascist message. He began to warn that ousting Mussolini would not suffice. Those complicit with fascism – including the king and leading industrialists – would have to be removed as well. Although he continued to refine his historical interpretation of World War I throughout the interwar period, Salvemini largely abandoned his own professional writing in order to focus on his anti-fascist activities. He later told Iris Origo that he “would be ashamed to steal a single hour from his political activities, while in Italy his friends were fighting for the same cause at the risk of their lives” (Origo 1984, 159).

Oddly, exile offered Salvemini a “sense of freedom, of spiritual independence.” Rather than “exile” or “refugee,” he preferred the term fuoruscito, “a man who has chosen to leave his country to continue a resistance which had become impossible at home” (Salvemini 1960, 89–90). He and other fuorusciti began to arrive in the United States in the 1920s, bringing with them a clear anti-fascist agenda. Even those who were not political activists generally agreed in their opposition to the fascist regime. As such, the fuorusciti were almost all vocal opponents of Mussolini and fascism more generally. While a number of German émigrés, such as Mann, were staunch anti-fascists as well, many more fled primarily because of racial persecution. It was their intense commitment to anti-fascist activism that set the Italians apart from the larger group of European émigrés. They remained committed to the restoration of freedom in Italy, and this laser-sharp focus gave them a sense of purpose in the face of a prolonged exile.

In 1927, Salvemini embarked upon a lecture tour in the United States which, he hoped, would convince Italian-Americans to join the cause of anti-fascism. Fascism, Salvemini believed, could only be toppled by external force; Italy was not ready for the kind of revolution demanded by an internal conquest of fascism. America, he believed, was the best hope. In speeches, articles, and pamphlets, Salvemini thus played his part in an international campaign for anti-fascism by trying to win Italian-Americans, especially among the working class, to the cause. He did his best to demythologize Mussolini’s rise to power and to show clearly the demise of democracy in Italy in his speeches and his written work (Salvemini 1960, 234; Salvemini 1927).

In 1929, Salvemini, along with his former students Carlo and Nello Rosselli and Emilio Lussu, established a new anti-Fascist organization, Giustizia e Libertà (GL), focused in France. Its members rejected Marxism-Leninism as well as the liberal state, and pursued, instead, a free, democratic republic based on social justice (Salvemini 1960, 119–121). According to one of its members, Aldo Garosci, it was to be “a democratic, active, militant, aggressive movement, of the sort that existed in the first half of the nineteenth century, when political liberty was won by revolutionary methods.” GL included members of the pre-Fascist parties, which it rejected in favor of a “supraparty” movement of individuals (Garosci 1973, 170). Salvemini wrote that GL was “an anti-fascist organization in Italy which brings together... men from all left-wing parties, and those who do not belong to any party, on the sole condition that their ideas are democratic and republican.” The émigrés “should do abroad what could not be done by anti-fascists who were still in Italy: that is, help them to keep the democratic tradition alive, thus preventing the victory of dictatorship from becoming total and final.” Instead of trying “to organize revolutionary expeditions to Italy from abroad,” Giustizia e Libertà “summoned men in Italy [...] to active resistance against the dictatorship” (Salvemini 1960, 124).

After Hitler’s invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, Salvemini helped to create still another anti-fascist organization named after Giuseppe Mazzini. He and the other leaders launched a campaign to mobilize the American public and government against totalitarianism, monarchism, and clericalism, with a particular eye toward the postwar reconstruction of Italy. They correctly anticipated a strong U. S. role in determining the future of Italy and, fearing that Washington would tolerate Mussolini or an Italian kingdom governed by his fascist collaborators, wanted to convince the Allied forces to adopt their republican, secular Italian program. During the war years alone, Salvemini produced a stream of over 500 articles, or an average of two per week, on Italian politics for The New Republic, The Nation, and Italian language papers. The Italian historian thus became ever more the political crusader.

Mann’s activities in Germany and the US were much less explicitly political than Salvemini’s. A Bildungsbürger, he possessed the traditional attitudes of that class, including an aversion to “politics.” Mann believed it was his responsibility to promote and protect culture, to educate and guide the cultured middle classes. The true Bildungsbürger considered even politics from a “higher” standpoint. Unlike Salvemini, Mann thus never aspired to or held any political office, but he did gradually become more embroiled in public, and often explicitly political, debates. He understood that as a cultural leader in the mold of Goethe, a Dichter, a certain amount of political leadership was expected of him as well.

Mann’s first political statements came during World War I, when he took a conventionally patriotic, and, in contrast to Salvemini, conservative line by defending the war, the German cultural tradition, and even the monarchy. Although he never saw military action, he wanted to help “[spell] out, [ennoble], and [give] meaning to events” (Mann 1970, 69). He made his full-length statement on the War, politics, and German culture in Reflections of an Unpolitical Man, an essay about the conflict between “culture” and “civilization,” Germany and the West. Mann argued for a new Europe, reorganized around German culture. The idea of “world liberation” and progress through Western ideas was mere “superstition.” Instead, “progress, revolution, modernity, youth, and originality are all with Germany.” In contradistinction to Salvemini, Mann railed against “democratic doctrinaires and tyrannical schoolmasters of revolution” within Germany itself, especially “the literati, the ‘intellectuals’ par excellence, who claim ‘the spirit,’ while it is really lonely the literary spirit of bourgeois revolution that they mean and know” (Mann 1983, 78).

For Mann, politics was conterminous with democracy and ideology, and he believed that there was a “non-relationship” between the German citizen and political democracy. German high culture, in particular, “thoroughly resists being politicized. Indeed, the political element is lacking in the German concept of culture.” Mann derided “politics” and “democracy” which brought chaos, destroyed traditional values and threatened “complete leveling” and “vulgarization.” He wanted nothing to do “with the parliamentary and party economic system that causes the pollution of all national life with politics... I do not want politics.” He defended monarchy “because it alone guarantees political freedom, both in the intellectual and economic spheres” (Mann 1983, 187–88, 201, 189).

With Reflections, composed mostly during the war, Mann interpreted World War I in a somewhat idiosyncratically aesthetic way, but one that found many supporters among the conservatives and nationalists. Germany, even more than Italy, was struggling to create a new postwar identity in the wake of a humiliating defeat and peace treaty, and Mann was seeking to reaffirm and strengthen traditional German identity and political arrangements. The backward-looking Reflections were thus very attractive to conservative opponents of the new socialist regime. These same supporters, however, quickly became bitter opponents between 1919 and 1925 when Mann gradually moved to support the Weimar Republic.

By 1925, Mann came to believe that culture needed a democratic political framework for protection because the Bismarckian compromise between the middle classes and the aristocracy had failed. If World War I had brought an end to certain traditions, and the monarchy, it had also opened the way for democracy, which Mann now found to be the form of the body politic most suitable for the contemporary German nation and for the future of humanity. He thus sought to legitimize the new Weimar Republic and offer a different understanding of the national community, even in the face of significant opposition from the right.

Unlike Salvemini, Mann remained ambivalent about egalitarianism. He understood Democracy

[...] not so much as a demand for equality from below, but as goodness, justice and empathy from above. I do not consider it democratic when Mr. Smith or Little Mr. Johnson taps Beethoven on his shoulder and cries out: “How are you old man!” That is not democracy, but tactlessness and a lack of sense of distance. But when Beethoven sings: “Be embraced, millions, this kiss is for the whole world!,” that is democracy. For he could have said, “I am a great genius and something special, while people are a mob; I am much too delicate to embrace them.” Instead, he calls them all his brothers and the children of a father in the heavens whose son he is as well. That is democracy in its highest form. (Mann 1960, 933)

If he was not as fully egalitarian as Salvemini, Mann still could not stand silently by while the Republic foundered. Winning over the German educated middle classes, who always made up the core of his audience, was his greatest task, and this meant defending democracy and confronting various rightwing elements, including the Nazis. In his most important post-Reflections statement, “German Address: An Appeal to Reason,” (1930) he pinpointed National Socialism, rather than western democracy, as the greatest danger to German culture. He attacked Nazism as antithetical to everything that was innately German. It was hatred “not of the foreigner but of all Germans who do not believe in its methods, and whom it promise[s] to destroy” (Mann 1994, 150, 153, 157, 159). Mann was also sharply critical of the general development of fascism in works such as Mario and the Magician. Here he warned against human degradation and the willing submission to the power of dictators who had been proliferating in Europe during the 1920s. Mario was, he wrote, his “first act of war” against fascism (Mann 1969, 233).

Yet Mann’s decisive break with Germany did not come until 1933, after his speech “Leiden und Grösse Richard Wagners.” Here he pointed to Wagner’s unparalleled greatness as a synthesizer of musical styles and genres, but his criticisms of Wagner resulted in a signed letter of protest by the Munich cultural establishment. This “betrayal,” as he called it, was the beginning of Mann’s “national excommunication” (Mann 1933, 1). Mann’s former conservative supporters saw his reversal as political and intellectual treason, and they never forgave him for it.

By 1933, Mann had left Germany, initially for a lecture tour, and then, though he could not have known it, permanently. Mann at first was uncertain how to proceed, and he was unprepared to make a clean break. In 1936, however, he published an open letter attacking the Nazi regime as “directed against Europe and against loftier Germanism; [and] against the Christian and classical foundations of Western morality. It is the attempt to shake off the ties of civilization... [and] threatens to bring about a terrible alienation... between the land of Goethe and the rest of the world.” Convinced that nothing good could possibly come from the present German regime, he was compelled to shun the country in whose spiritual traditions he was deeply rooted (Mann 1970, 209).

Mann’s public attack on the Nazi regime also cost him his citizenship and most of his assets, but his open letter turned out to be an important step for him and the exiles. It reaffirmed the decision of many to fight Hitler and the Nazis from abroad. Moreover, it established Mann as the most recognizable leader of the emigration. Working first from Princeton, New Jersey and then from Pacific Palisades, California, Mann was able to maintain contact with Bruno Frank, Alfred Neumann, and Bruno Walter, all long-time companions from his Munich years, as well as with Franz Werfel, Wilhelm Dieterle, and Lion Feuchtwanger, the last of whom served as a reliable go-between with left-wing colleagues such as Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Bertolt Brecht (Frey 1976, 85). This collection of friends did not have the same cohesive political direction as the Italians surrounding Salvemini, but they were very influential in certain circles in the United States. Just as importantly, many would resume influential positions within divided Germany in the post-war years.

A vocal opponent of appeasement and isolationism, Mann agreed with Salvemini that outside force – American force – would be required for the defeat of world fascism, though he insisted that Germans must be part of the effort. Although his anti-fascist activities were not as far-reaching or as systematic as Salvemini’s, Mann often served as a spokesman and advocate for all anti-fascist refugees in the United States. His plea before the “Tolan Committee on Internal Migration” in March 1942 was one primary example (Prater 1995, 339). Mann also briefly participated in the “Free Germany Movement,” a group that had been meeting in New York since 1940 to plan for the new Germany. Yet Mann quickly distanced himself from such efforts, refusing to associate too closely with communists such as Brecht or to endanger his candidacy for American citizenship. He believed it was neither his responsibility nor his right as an exile to give America advice on its approach to Germany. Thus he first signed and then withdrew his endorsement of an August 1943 manifesto insisting that a clear distinction be made between Nazis and the German people (Prater 1995, 358). It was impossible in any case, he felt, to distinguish between “the Germans,” by which usually meant the Bildungsbürgertum, and their Nazi leaders. Indeed, Mann argued that the cultural elite had become complicit with Nazism, a theme he would pursue in both “Germany and the Germans” and Doctor Faustus.

In these two works, Mann offered his most definitive statement about the cultural crisis, Nazism, and World War II. He also directly connected previous German history, including World War I – and his own interpretation of it – to the second great conflict. Mann pointed out that other countries in Western Europe had experienced a cultural and political crisis that had led to World War I, the rise of fascism and World War II. However, Germany under Hitler and the National Socialists bore the primary responsibility for the overall catastrophe. The Nazis, he believed, had tapped into deep currents of German history including nationalism, anti-Semitism, and authoritarianism. He was particularly critical of the German conception of liberty, which “was always directed outward; it meant the right to be German, only German and nothing beyond that.” And this German conception of political liberty, which was both racial and anti-European, “behaved internally with an astonishing lack of freedom, of immaturity, of dull servility.” The German understanding of liberty was tantamount to inner enslavement because Germany had never experienced a revolution and had “never learned to combine the concept of the nation with the concept of liberty” (Mann 1973, 39).

At bottom, National Socialism had to do with cultural foundations as they emerged through German history, and the cultural elite, of which Mann had been so important a part, had played a leading role. The central idea of the Doctor Faustus, he wrote, was “the flight from the difficulties of the cultural crisis into the pact with the devil, the craving of a proud mind, threatened by sterility, from an unblocking of inhibitions at any cost, and the parallel between pernicious euphoria ending in collapse with the nationalist frenzy of Fascism” (Mann 1961, 40).

More specifically, Doctor Faustus was a criticism of the German intellectual elite and its political irresponsibility. This elite had attributed the highest social value to artistic and philosophical endeavors and thereby missed is mission of societal leadership. Mann insisted that “Hegel, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche contributed to the shaping of the German mind.” To deny the guilt of intellectual leaders would belittle “them, and we Germans today have every reason to be concerned with the ambiguous role of German thought and the German great man, and to ponder it.” (Mann 1970, 377) Because Mann himself had been an apolitical artist, had posited that Germany was unpolitical, and had been an enthusiastic nationalist during World War I, the novel was also a recognition of the part he himself had played in the catastrophe.

In short, Mann confronted Germans with the truth that National Socialism was not “without roots in our nature as a people,” and that it was not brought about by a small elite but rather by “hundreds of thousands of Germans.... [G]ood and evil, the beautiful and the ominous, are mixed in the most peculiar manner” (Mann 1960, 924–26). Germany’s sins had to be punished, because the nation as a whole was guilty. Perhaps the most painful truth Mann articulated was that the “ignominy” of the crimes committed would affect the perception of “all that is German – even German intellect, German thought, the German word. Whatever lived as German stands now as... the epitome of evil” (Mann 1997, 505–506).

Neither the full text of “Germany and the Germans” nor Doctor Faustus was available in Germany immediately after their publication, but in other speeches and interviews Mann continued to emphasize collective German responsibility for Nazism and its crimes against humanity. If there was “a general culpability” in the West for the catastrophe, Mann insisted that “the Germans have played a special, terribly authentic role in the drama” (Mann 1970, 350). He expected Germans to accept responsibility, and when they did not, he responded angrily. In one interview with Die Welt, he said that the Germans lacked “the insight that all the sorrows and misery are the final and necessary consequences of a collapse... and they themselves are responsible for their own misery and not some democracy or occupation troops.” Thus, they needed to understand and admit that they had “squandered their national power, the German intelligence, their spirit of inventiveness, courage and efficiency in the service of a mad regime” (Mann 1983, 33).

Such comments left a bitter taste and invited bitter recrimination, especially when taken in conjunction with Doctor Faustus. One interviewer noted in 1947 that it was easy to understand why Mann had so many enemies in Germany: “Mann has not yet forgiven and forgotten, and has, at the same time, rejected the position of intellectual in the old tone.” He had thus become “the chief of enemies in a land where the national socialistic resentment continues apace, almost unconsciously” (Mann 1947, 284).

Further complicating the reception of Mann’s post-war pronouncements was his refusal to return to Germany. Mann rejected repeated requests from the so-called “inner emigrants” to “come like a good physician” to “heal his land.” When he finally did visit Germany again in 1949 for the Goethejahr, he visited both the Federal Republic of Germany and German Democratic Republic. In a speech presented both in Frankfurt and Weimar, he argued that it would have been “disloyal” not to have visited both zones. Goethe, after all, belonged to all of Germany and he, along with Mann himself, offered something that could unite the two zones. Beyond the ideological, political, and economic differences, Eastern and Western Germany “have found each other on cultural grounds, and have awarded [...] their Goethe prizes to one and the same literary personality. [...] Who should stand for and represent this unity today if not an independent writer whose home, untouched by zonal divisions, is the German language” (Mann 1949, 20).

Mann’s efforts to bridge the cultural/political divide by pointing to his own cultural centrality did little to heal the wounds between him and his homeland(s). Mann exacerbated the problem upon his return to the United States: he publicly stated that the picture in the Germanys was very bleak. He noted the ineffectiveness of denazification and saw a resurgent nationalism. Furthermore, because of the Cold War realities, “East Germany is totalitarian; West Germany is reactionary and fascist. [...] One does not see how both parts can come together again” (Mann 1950). Although he continued to speak and write about Germany until his death in 1955, Mann’s reputation in West Germany – and especially his interpretation of the German catastrophe in Doctor Faustus – remained low until the 1960s when a new generation began to reflect critically upon the Nazi past.

Salvemini’s historical interpretation of the fascist era also met with significant resistance in Italy, even though he refused to indict his nation in the way that Mann had indicted Germany. The Italian historian was much less interested in long-term cultural trends than Mann, and he had little use for arguments based upon a supposed national character, or Volksgeist, or the irrationality of the epoch. Although he admitted that “at given moments each group of mankind presents given features of its own, not only physical but also psychological,” he did dispute that an historical development can be explained by “instinct or ‘Volksgeist’ of ‘national character’.” It was thus necessary to ascertain “why and how the Fascist movement arose in a given country, what social groups contributed to it, why and how the struggle between Fascists and anti-Fascists developed, and why and how the Fascists overcame their foes” (Salvemini 1942, 68).

Salvemini found the bacillus of fascism in Liberal Italy and the First World War, but also in the interwar period. In the fifty years after unification, Italians had made some progress toward democracy. Because “the lower classes had gradually raised themselves to a higher economic, intellectual, and moral level [...] they demanded and got an ever-increasing share of economic and political influence.” For all its strengths, however, the Italian parliamentary regime suffered from a serious disease: “the falsification that the government made of the will of the electorate every time there was need” (Salvemini 1942, 68, 73, 59, 85). Echoing themes he had developed in his interpretation of World War I, Salvemini argued that the Italian political system and the people it represented were particularly vulnerable to the radical challenge of fascism.

If Benito Mussolini bore the greatest responsibility for fascist Ventennio, however, there was culpability in all sectors of Italian life: the intelligentsia, the middle classes, the conservatives, and even the working classes (Salvemini 1942, 121, 127–8). Italians had proven too politically immature to resist fascism and its nationalist appeal. Ultimately, Mussolini’s doctrine of fascism was nothing more than the doctrine of the nationalists: “the Fascists took over wholesale the Nationalist doctrine” (Salvemini 1942, 74). In short, Salvemini’s interpretation of the advent of fascism emerged from his interpretation of the problems that had led Italy into World War I. To be sure, the fascist regime developed differently because it emerged from the botched peace and a political crisis, but its origins were to be found in the pre-1914 period. Salvemini’s solutions were not significantly different from those he proposed, and worked toward, in 1919: the restoration of individual freedoms, decentralization of power, provision of land, housing, and justice for peasants, and an end to the governmental role of the Monarchy and the Vatican (Salvemini 1942, 38–40, 88–90). These demands were based upon the belief, strengthened by Salvemini’s experience, that the major problems that had plagued Italy for its entire existence had helped lead it into fascism.

If Salvemini argued that Italy needed more democracy, however, his visit to his homeland in 1947 also convinced him that Italy first needed “a period of democratic pedagogy, based on theories of democratic elitism and democratic empiricism” (Tintori 2011, 140). Unlike Mann, he was guardedly optimistic about the future. The history of post-war Italy had not yet been written. Because “the malady” had been long, “the convalescence cannot be brief.” At least ten years would be needed to strengthen the new Republic and guard against a return of old conservative forces (Salvemini 1980, 747–762). In this way, Salvemini modified his earlier demands for immediate and full democracy. Combined with his conception of democratic competition and political participation, this made him an outsider in post-war Italy, polarized as it was into two competing ideological camps: the Communists and the Christian Democrats.

Like Mann, Salvemini refused at first to return permanently to his home country despite pleas from his friends and former colleagues. Of course, Salvemini had been absent almost ten years longer than Mann and had been at odds with the Italian government even before Mussolini. But he had been much less inclined to indict the entire Italian people and much more willing to point toward positive future development. For example, he believed that the Action Party, coming out of Giustizia e Libertà, could provide a Socialist- Republican coalition, which would be able to unite reformists and genuine democrats. During his trip, he met with many younger activists and became confident that they could be educated to adhere to such a third way.

The Cold War context closed off the possibility of Salvemini’s third way, and soon he found himself alienated even from many of his earlier anti-fascist colleagues and friends who adjusted themselves to the new reality. As Luca La Rovere has recently pointed out, even independent socialists and liberals – former associates of Salvemini – accepted the need to look beyond the brown past, including the long-hoped for third way, and move forward toward a new party democracy, even if, on some level, they were aware that old patterns of thinking remained unchanged (La Rovere 2008, 39–41). So, too, in Germany a confluence of events conspired to create a “conspiracy of silence,” and Mann’s interpretation of World War II was shunted to the side for a generation (Clark 2006, 119–124).

If the career trajectories and life experiences of Mann and Salvemini differed dramatically in many ways, they converged around a sustained anti-fascism during the 1920s, 1930s and early 1940s and the attempt to interpret the entire fascist epoch for contemporaries. Their former position as insiders, combined with their exile perspective, allowed them to offer some of the first significant theoretical reflections on fascism and World War II as well. As we have seen, these reflections were refracted through the lenses of their earlier interpretations of the First World War. Mann and Salvemini were among the first to articulate the meaning of both wars for their contemporaries and thus helped establish and define this role for intellectuals.

Neither Mann nor Salvemini ever managed to disengage from the mundane world of politics to lead from above the fray, though Mann came closer. Both sought, in some measure, to appeal to individuals and prescribed groups in their fights against fascism – the exile Salvemini turned to individuals rather than parties, while Mann, though disillusioned, retained some faith in the role of the non-political cultured citizen. For both, there was something inherent in each nation that permitted the success of fascism. From abroad, Salvemini looked to the working class to rise up against Italian fascism while Mann looked less to Germans within Germany than to a larger international audience. Both, however, were explicit in assigning blame for the success of fascism to the wider populace of their respective nations. Predictably, Mann took the more self-flagellatory role in accepting responsibility with the publication of Doctor Faustus; Salvemini recommended instruction –education – in democracy for Italy as a precursor to its embarking upon a republican path. While Salvemini tended to look to political history to explain the rise of Italian fascism, Mann, rather more tragically, placed responsibility for Nazism in the very German culture which lay at its heart.

To be sure, their practical and theoretical efforts were not altogether successful, especially in the post-1945 period, but there were always limits to what could be accomplished in this context. For reasons too complex to take up in this essay, there was a long period of silence about the fascist past in both countries until the 1960s, when the work of Mann and Salvemini again became important. Yet they had put forward new interpretive frameworks and articulated key issues for their home countries. Their work thus provided an important frame of reference for determining the meaning of catastrophic events, and for formulating responses to them in the generations to come.



Mark Clark. Kenneth Asbury Professor of History at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise. A European intellectual historian, Clark has published widely on German and Italian culture in the twentieth century. Clark’s most significant publications include a book on German cultural reconstruction after World War II – Beyond Catastrophe – as well as journal articles on various German and Italian intellectuals including Bertolt Brecht, Benedetto Croce, Karl Jaspers, Guido de Ruggiero, Thomas Mann, Friedrich Meinecke, and Gaetano Salvemini. His current major research project is a transnational and comparative study of German and Italian culture after World War II.



List of References

Benda, Julien (1928) The Treason of the Intellectual, trans. Richard Aldington (New York: William Morrow).

Clark, Mark (2006) Beyond Catastrophe: German Intellectuals and Cultural Renewal after World War II (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington).

Frey, Erich (2006) “Thomas Mann’s Exile Years in America,” Modern Language Studies. 6: 1, pp. 79–85.

Fussell, Paul (1975) The Great War and Modern Memory (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Garin, Eugenio (1959) “Gaetano Salvemini e la societa italiana dei suoi tempi,” in Ernesto Sestan et al. (ed) Gaetano Salvemini (Laterza: Bari), pp. 201–212.

Garosci, Aldo (1973) Vita di Carlo Rosselli (Florence: Vallecchi).

Killinger, Charles (2002) Gaetano Salvemini: A Biography (Westport: Praeger, 2002)

Lebow, Richard Ned, Wulf Kansteiner, and Caudio Fogu and Fogu, Claudio (2006) The Politics of Memory in Postwar Europe (Durham: Duke University Press).

Mann, Thomas (1994) “An Appeal to Reason,” in Anton Kaes et al. The Weimar Republic Sourcebook (Berkeley: University of California Press), pp. 150–159.

Mann, Thomas (1969) Blätter der Thomas-Mann-Gesellschaft (Zurich: Thomas-Mann-Gesellschaft).

Mann, Thomas (1963) Briefe 1937–1947 Erika Mann (ed.) (Frankfurt/M: S. Fischer Verlag).

Mann, Thomas (1997) Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn as told by a Friend John E. Woods (trans.) (New York: Vintage).

Mann, Thomas (1973) “Germany and the Germans,” in Literary Lectures Presented at the Library of Congress (Washington: Library of Congress).

Mann, Thomas (1983) Frage und Antwort: Interviews mit Thomas Mann 1949–1955, Volkmar Hansen and Gert Hene (eds.) (Hamburg: Albrecht Knaus Verlag).

Mann, Thomas (1970) Letters of Thomas Mann, 1889–1955, Richard and Clara Winston (eds.) (Berkeley: University of California Press).

Mann, Thomas (1960) Reden und Aufsätze IV, Gesammelte Werke XII (Frankfurt/M: S. Fischer Verlag).

Mann, Thomas (1983) Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man, Walter D. Morris (ed.) (New York: Fredrick Ungar Publishing).

Mann, Thomas (1961) The Story of a Novel: The Genesis of Doctor Faustus, trans. Richard and Clara Winston (New York: Alfred Knopf).

Mann, Thomas (1950) “Thomas Mann sieht schwarz,” Der Kurier, May 4, p. 16.

Mann, Thomas (1933) “Thomas Mann verteidigt sich: Mißverständnisse um Richard Wagner,” Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung, April 22, p. 1.

Origo, Iris (1984) A Need to Testify: Portraits of Lauro de Bosis, Ruth Draper, Gaetano Salvemini, Ignazio Silone and an Essay on Biography (San Diego and New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich).

Prater, Ronald (1995) Thomas Mann: A Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Rossi, Ernesto (1957) “Salvemini il non-conformista,” Il Mondo, February 19, pp. 21–27

La Rovere, Luca (2008) L’eridita del Fascismo: Gli intellettuali, i giovani, e la transizione al postfascismo 1943–1948 (Bollati Boringhieri: Torino).

Salvemini, Gaetano (1927) The Fascist Dictatorship in Italy (New York: Holt).

Salvemini, Gaetano (1926) “Italian Diplomacy during the World War,” Foreign Affairs 4:2, pp. 294–310.

Salvemini, Gaetano and George La Piana (1943) What To Do with Italy (New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce).

Salvemini, Gaetano (1960) Memorie di un Fuoruscito (Milano: Feltrinelli).

Salvemini, Gaetano (1980) Opere VIII (Milano: Feltrinelli).

Tintori, Guido (2011) “An outsider’s vision: Gaetano Salvemini and the 1948 elections in Italy,” Modern Italy 16:2, pp. 139–157.

Winter, Jay (2006) Remembering War (New Haven: Yale University Press).

Winter, Jay (1995) Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European cultural History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Wohl, Robert (1979) The Generation of 1914 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press).


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


Dominik Pick

Conference Report: European Remembrance. Europe between War and Peace 1914-2014

18 August 2014
  • 1989
  • communism
  • First World War
  • World War I
  • 20th century history
  • European Remembrance Symposium
  • conference report
  • Second World War

European Remembrance. European Year of History. Turning Points in the 20th Century European History. Europe between War and Peace 1914-2014

Date and place: Prague, April 9–11, 2014

Organizer: European Network Remembrance and Solidarity, European Commission


The third International Symposium „European Remembrance” was held in Prague in the building of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic on April 9–11, 2014. It was organized in co-operation with European Commission, along with the fourth meeting of institutions involved in activities pertaining to remembrance which are supported by the Europe for Citizens Programme. The main objective of the symposium was to reflect upon the turning points in European history in connection with numerous anniversaries celebrated in 2014: the 100th anniversary of the First World War; the 75th anniversary of the Second World War; the 25th anniversary of the collapse of Communism in Central and Eastern Europe; and the 10th anniversary of the accession of Central European countries to the European Union. The theme of the symposium was the question about the common European experience of dictatorships and wars.

Over 200 participants from 29 European countries, the USA and Israel took part in the symposium. They represented almost 150 institutions: museums, universities, scientific institutes, non-profit organizations, international associations and research groups. The full list of institutions taking part in the symposium is available online: www.europeanremembrance.enrs.eu.

The symposium was organized by European Network Remembrance and Solidarity; Federal Foundation for Reappraisal of the Socialist Unity Party Dictatorship; European Solidarity Centre; and Institute of Contemporary History of the Czech Academy of Sciences; in co-operation with European Commission.

On the first day participants were greeted by Jan Bondy, Director of the Department of Public Diplomacy, who spoke on behalf of the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic. A speech by Małgorzata Omilanowska, State Secretary in the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage of Poland followed. She indicated the importance of the symposium for discussion on memory and remembrance in Europe, as well as for the interest in this subject among the institutions involved in historical research and publishing on history. She most aptly characterized the objective of international discussions on remembrance: „What we need is an open dialogue held with respect for other interpretations of history and different sensitivities and also based on solid grounds of scientific knowledge. A dialogue in which we will not avoid difficult and painful issues.” Omilanowska presented the European Network Remembrance and Solidarity as a model solution to the challenges present in the sphere of discussion on remembrance. The next speaker was Jiří Drahoš, Chairman of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic which had taken patronage over the 2014 Symposium. Drahoš concentrated on showing that this year’s anniversaries celebrate events which were both tragic and positive and opened the way for freedom. Using as an example the history of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, Drahoš argued that in the twentieth century scientific investigations had been influenced by, among others, wars; expulsions; concentration camps; Communist regimes; and 1968 revolution. Then the participants were greeted by Sophie Beernaerts, Head of Unit of Europe for Citizens Programme, who spoke on behalf of the European Commission. She stated that the past is never too distant and it keeps having impact on our lives as well as triggering conflicts among different historical narrations. This is the reason why Beernaerts recognizes the series of symposia devoted to remembrance as extremely important. Finally, Jan Rydel, Chair of the Steering Committee of European Network Remembrance and Solidarity, greeted the participants on behalf of the main organizers of the Symposium. He pointed out how differently the anniversaries which were to be discussed are understood in various countries of the region and how difficult it is to talk together about some of them. He put emphasis on the significance of pluralism in the dialogue about the history of the twentieth century.

In the opening lecture, Marci Shore (Yale Univeristy) quoted Tadeusz Borowski who said “The history of Europe in the twentieth century is unbearable” and pointed out how difficult and complicated the Central European history is. While characterizing the Central European debates on remembrance, Shore showed how complicated and ambiguous they are. The question about the guilt and assessment of choices enforced by the totalitarian regimes is raised and discussed again and again; and the nations of Central and Eastern Europe find it difficult to escape from the legacy inherited from Communism. Referring to the first words of the Communist Manifesto Shore said: “The specter of communism is still haunting Europe but it is a specter from the past.” She referred to Milan Kundera, Lesław Maleszka and the Jedwabne pogrom and showed how problematic it is to formulate judgments about the past and to understand the choices made by people living in the times of dictatorships. While asking questions about the causes and assessment of getting entangled in the activities of the totalitarian regimes, collaboration and co-guilt, Shore pointed out that nowadays, 25 years after the collapse of Communism, these issues still divide Central European societies. At the same time these issues constitute the fundamental questions about human nature and as such are subject to constant debate.

A panel discussion “Turning Points of European Remembrance. Different approaches” between James Mark (University of Exeter, UK); Heidemarie Uhl (Austrian Academy of Sciences); and Włodzimierz Borodziej (Warsaw University/University of Jena) followed. Heidemarie Uhl referred to the unique anniversary of the First World War. She put emphasis on the fact that different historical narrations not only cause differences between nations but are also the cause for conflicts within particular nations or social groups. Discussions about how to remember past events and how to look upon history take part not only on a national level. Uhl pointed to the troublesome tendency to exclude the problematic aspects of history from the national discourse. James Mark concentrated on two questions: 1) who creates the turning points in history and 2) who is responsible for placing them in the historical narration. He also made an attempt at showing European remembrance in a global perspective. Mark stated that remembrance about the turning points in history depends on the point of reference. Giving the example of Polish remembrance about the year 1989 he indicated the lack of consensus on the national level and the existence of contradictory narrations. At the same time there exists, in his opinion, a high consistence in narration about the events of the year 1989 in Poland on the international level. According to Mark, by finding common elements in historical narration we can speak of regionalization of remembrance. Włodzimierz Borodziej, on the other hand, used the example of the remembrance about the Ribbentrop–Molotov Pact of August 23 in 1989 to argue that there is no common historical narration in Central European countries. The memory of historical events in the countries of the region is selective and totally diversified. Borodziej referred to Norman Davies, stating that there exists no theory which would prove the existence of a phenomenon such as European remembrance.

At the end of the first day of the symposium Anna Kaminsky, Director of the Federal Foundation for Reappraisal of the SED Dictatorship, opened the exhibition “Dictatorship and Democracy in the Age of Extremes: Spotlights on the History of Europe in the Twentieth Century.”

The second day of the symposium began with Basil Kersky’s presentation of the European Solidarity Center and Oldrich Tuma’s presentation of the Institute of Contemporary History of the Czech Academy of Sciences. These presentations were followed by a panel discussion entitled “The collapse of Communism and its aftermath. Legacy of the Cold War period in Europe.” Laure Neumayer (University of Sorbonne, Paris) pointed to the existence of diverse interpretations of 1989 and the fact that there is no consensus about the assessment of the Communist past in post-communist countries: “There is a huge diversity of interpretations of 1989 and there is no post-communist country which reached a consensus about the Communist past.” She stated that in the field of remembrance many actors are active and they promote various historical interpretations. At the same time however, paradoxically, this pluralism of opinions and lack of unity may be perceived as an achievement of the 1989 transformation. Neumayer also emphasized the significance of the Cold War for remembrance on the European level and pointed at the still huge difference in the interpretation of the twentieth century in the East and in the West of Europe. Łukasz Kamiński (Institute of National Remembrance, Warsaw) claimed that the events of 1989 are best described by the phrase “anti-Communist revolution”. In Kamiński’s opinion in 1989 there existed no such phenomenon as a community of Central European countries and the only common element was the rejection of Communism and a wish for freedom and a life that was better in economic terms. There existed no positive transformation program. Kamiński explained that the disappointment with the democratic transformations in Central European countries is so big because in 1989 expectations were too great. Kamiński also emphasized that there is no predominating historical narration in Europe. On the contrary, we can see a sort of victim competition between various countries also in the area of the history of the Communist period. Michal Kopeček (Institute of Contemporary History, Czech Republic) presented a slightly different point of view. He claimed that interpretations of the events of 1989 are a part of identity both on national level and on the level of particular communities. He pointed to the diversity of interpretations and visions that fight each other; and also to the criticism on the part of groups which consider 1989 to be an unfinished revolution. In reference to Łukasz Kamiński’s speech, Kopeček pointed out that even though there is no dominating narration, the narration framework is formed primarily by the liberal-democratic views. However, this framework is constantly attacked by competing narrations. Hence the policy of remembrance gains unusual significance in Cental and Eastern Europe. Kopeček emphasized that it is much easier to achieve consensus about remembrance of the 1989 events on the international level than on the national level.

The second panel discussion entitled “The next generation. New interpretations of recent European history” was an exchange of opinions between Zofia Wóycicka (House of European History, Brussels); Irit Dekel (Humboldt University, Germany); Lenka Koprivova (Post Bellum, Czech Republic); and Sandra Vokk (Unitas Foundation, Estonia). Irit Dekel pointed out that there is no one memory but there exist various actors and various roles which have influence on the shape of remembrance of the past. Memory is selective and takes different shapes in different social groups. She criticized the German way of remembering the past and pointed out that it is rather a kind of lament and not an active memory. It does not encourage greater openness to the challenges of the contemporary world. Lenka Koprivova (Post Bellum, Czech Republic), pointed out that teaching history is more than teaching about the facts; it is also teaching skills such as critical thinking, ability to compare etc. She claimed that we should not focus on seeking one European remembrance but we should discuss various views on history: „European culture of memory is not about one narration but it is mainly the effort to understand different views and perspectives.” Sandra Vokk (Unitas Foundation, Estonia) suggested the use of more innovative and modern ways of teaching history. She pointed out that in teaching history, not only pure knowledge (what one reads and writes about past events) but also the experience of history are important. Today the younger generations use new technologies to experience and learn history and that is why historians should be better prepared to use them as well. Zofia Wóycicka (House of European History, Brussels) pointed out that the younger generations of historians are not so much interested in political issues, nor in the problem of guilt and responsibility, nor in the relationship between the victims and the perpetrators. More and more young historians try to analyze first of all the everyday, deeper social transformations, the dynamics of protests etc. This is why they are less interested in the period of Stalinism or Nazism and more interested in the later years of Communism.

In the afternoon the participants watched a presentation and film about Lidice, a village destroyed by the Germans during the Second World War in retaliation for killing Reinhard Heydrich, Nazi Reich-Protector of Bohemia and Moravia. They also had an opportunity to visit the Libice Memorial.

The third day of the symposium offered five simultaneous workshops: “Europe for Citizens” (European Commission); “Museums and Projects about the Great War” (Imperial War Museum); “Reflecting Remembrance in History Education. Three case studies on Turning Points in Europe’s 20th Century History from Northern Ireland, Slovakia and Ukraine” (Euroclio); “Sound in the Silence. Art and historical education” (Die Motte); and “Legacy of 1989 and the Collapse of Communism. Presentation and discussion about successful international projects” (European Platform Memory and Conscience). Workshops were devoted to various methods of educational work (Euroclio, Imperial War Museum and Die Motte); international projects (European Platform Memory and Conscience); and also postulates and aims of the Europe for Citizens Programme.

The final lecture, entitled “The Gospel of the Superiority of the Present over the Past? Reclaiming the critical potential of history, 25 years after 1989” was given by Pieter Lagrou. Lagrou began with a fundamental question „Why are we interested in history and why do we investigate history?” Then he enumerated several traps we fall into while analyzing history. He pointed out that remembrance is more than the opposite of forgetting. It is important what we remember and what we forget: „We live in a situation of memory competition, in which we pay more or less attention to one or other memory. We have to make choices what memory we find more important, which doesn’t mean forgetting the other events.” In his opinion, another popular mistake is the predominating approach to historiography through the prism of national history. Such an approach precludes analysis of the social transformations in Europe at the end of the twentieth century. Lagrou also pointed out that a simplified attitude which reduces the history of Europe to a clash between democracy and its enemies enables us to see the events of the twentieth century in a wider perspective. At the same time he claimed that European integration cannot be understood as a pursuit of democracy because at its core it has primarily economic and political factors. He also criticized attempts to unify historical narrations. Using the European Parliament, where controversial exhibitions are forbidden as an example, Lagrou stated that this is the way to exclude many important topics. History presented in this way becomes only a lullaby which deprives us of sensitivity.

The symposium was summed up in a panel discussion between Pieter Lagrou, Dušan Kováč (Slovac Academy of Sciences) and Siobhán Kattago (Tallinn University, Estonia). Kováč stated that individual remembrance is connected with the life experience of particular persons. Hence it is not easy to break free from national narrations and political views. In Kováč’s opinion, historians are facing the important task of discovering in what way totalitarian regimes emerged, in order to draw lessons for the future. He also suggested that it is important to remember about the Nazi regime and not concentrate only on the Communist period: „The institutes of national remembrance in Central-Eastern European countries should take up the task of finding out where and how fascism and other right-wing dictatorships were born, not focus only on communism.”

Siobhán Kattago pointed out that there exists a dependence between democracy and the ability to regret one’s deeds: “There is a real link between processes of democratization and the politics of regret: if one is to be a democrat, one needs to deal with the past.” She also claimed that the question whether there exists such a phenomenon as Europe, i.e. whether there exists any European specificity, still remains unanswered. It is possible to look at it in a double perspective.

Dominik Pick

Conference report: European Remembrance 2nd Symposium

17 August 2014
  • academic
  • 20th century history
  • European Remembrance Symposium
  • memory studies
  • conference report

“European Remembrance” second Symposium of European Institutions dealing with 20th Century History

Date and place: Berlin, October 10–12, 2013

Organizer: European Network Remembrance and Solidarity, the Federal Foundation for Reappraisal of the Socialist Unity Party Dictatorship (Berlin), and the European Solidarity Centre (Gdańsk)


Day One, October 10

The Symposium “European Remembrance” co-organized by European Network Remembrance and Solidarity, the Federal Foundation for Reappraisal of the Socialist Unity Party Dictatorship (Berlin), and the European Solidarity Centre (Gdańsk) is addressed to representatives of European institutions and dedicated to the study and promotion of 20th century history. The second edition of the Symposium was held in Berlin on October 9–11, 2013. This edition was an attempt to answer the question “How much transnational cooperation does European remembrance require? Caesuras and parallels in Europe”. The symposium was attended by over 180 participants representing 133 institutions from almost all European countries. In the opening speeches, the directors of institutions organizing the symposium, Anna Kaminsky, Rafał Rogulski and Basil Kerski put emphasis on the social importance of both the research of remembrance and the discussion on the past issues in a transnational environment. They announced also a continuation of the meetings in subsequent years. The academic part of the symposium was inaugurated by the lectures of Andrzej Paczkowski (Polish Academy of Sciences, Poland) and Keith Lowe (historian and writer, Great Britain) who spoke on “European remembrance. A comparison between East and West”. Andrzej Paczkowski noticed that the theme suggested by the organizers actually refers to the division from the time of the Cold War which is not identical with geographical division. In his opinion, the boundaries between diverse attitudes towards history in Europe do not reflect solely this division. Political opinions for example, which exert a considerable influence over historical narration are equally important. According to Paczkowski, the key element of European remembrance is the memory of the events related to the Second World War. He showed how complicated the discussion about the war is, when one takes into account perspectives of various European nations, of which almost each not only suffered because of the war, but also made other nations suffer. Paczkowski said: “each nation has skeletons in its own cupboard but prefers to peer into a neighbor’s cupboard.” While commenting on the fact that memory of the war is not the same for everybody, Paczkowski called to “be wary of memory as a source of knowledge about the past.”

Keith Lowe presented a similar opinion. He noted that all European nations struggle with similar problems concerning the memory of the past. The Europeans are reluctant to deal with the difficult aspects of their past – collaboration with Nazism or communism, or violence against the others. Lowe said: “these are the shadows that lie behind every act of remembrance”. He stated that we focus on the perception of ourselves as martyrs or heroes, without any sensitivity to other nations. We want our history to be a nice memory. Like most of the speakers at the symposium, Lowe found existence of a uniform vision of history unrealistic, an even dangerous. He pointed out clearly that there exists one element common to the memory of all European nations – the memory of the Holocaust as the major tragedy of the twentieth century. While speaking about the differences between fascism and communism Lowe stated that currently there is a tendency to concentrate mainly on the crimes of communism because these are much more recent. He asserted, however, that precisely because of Auschwitz and the Holocaust, fascism should be condemned much more severely than communism. In the summing-up Lowe expressed an opinion that sensitivity to the perspectives of other people plays a very important role in remembrance: “Remembrance should be the bearer of truth – not a French truth, or a German truth, or a Polish truth – but a complicated mixture of all our truths simultaneously. We are all retreating to our own nationalist perspectives, and our own nationalist myths, without even bothering to look back at what it is we are throwing away.”

Day Two, October 11

On the second day of the symposium Rafał Rogulski (European Network Remembrance and Solidarity, Poland) expressed his conviction about the necessity of exchanging knowledge, reflection and experiences between various communities, nations and institutions. In his opinion this task is difficult. There exist major differences between national historical narrations because, as the speaker noticed, “our heroes are sometimes your enemies.” Rogulski also recalled the film Our Mothers, Our Fathers as a negative example of discussion about history and an unacceptable example of manipulation of history.

Dan Diner (University of Leipzig, Germany), while referring to important dates in the history of Europe said that not only “we cannot write national histories” but also the historical narration on European level is not sufficient. In the era of globalization history should be treated from global perspective. In an attempt to illustrate this statement Diner pointed at the attitude towards the date of May 8, 1945 as a memorial day. This date marks the end of the Second World War but in fact its connotations in Western and Eastern Europe are different. It was the day when the German Instrument of Surrender in Reims was signed but it was also the day when the Act of Military Surrender in Karlshorst was signed and for the nations of Eastern Europe this act was the beginning of another period of occupation. Furthermore, this is also the date of the Massacre in Setif (Algieria), where several thousands to tens of thousands people were killed by the French army. This event from May 8, 1945 also deserves remembrance in the globalizing world. While referring to entanglement history Diner indicated another example – the “Bengal Holocaust” from 1943. The events which took the toll of lives of several millions of Indians were closely connected with the warfare in Europe. Diner perfectly illustrated the problem of treating dates as memorials by reminding the particular anniversaries of November 9 in the history of Germany: the establishment of Weimar Republic in 1918, the Munich Putsh in 1923, the “Crystal Night” in 1938 and finally the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. This date posed so many problems for German collective memory that after 1989 not this day but the colorless anniversary of German unification was chosen as a national holiday.

In his extensive commentary, Gyorgy Dalos (writer and historian, Hungary) who was speaking from his Hungarian perspective, presented a slightly different view on remembrance. Dalos referred to a conviction which is popular in the Danube area, that Hungary played a unique role in the history of Europe, namely defended Christianity against the Ottoman Empire. Dalos indicated that the Hungarians share this conviction with some other nations in the region. This fact proves that rising above a national perspective about which Diner had spoken earlier is necessary to fully understand the events from the past. Unlike his predecessors, Dalos devoted little attention to the Second World War and indicated that this memory is problematic in Hungary, because the country was an ally of Hitler. Dalos pointed out that initially the Hungarians were quite well-disposed towards this alliance, as it offered them a chance to revise the unfavorable Treaty of Trianon. After the fall of the Third Reich, the whole blame was laid on the Germans. According to Dalos, the memory of the events of the year 1956 is much more vivid in Hungary and it is much more important for the Hungarian identity.

A discussion followed between Oldřich Tůma (Czech Academy of Sciences, Czech Republic) Aleksandar Jakir (University of Split, Croatia) and Jan Rydel (Pedagogical University of Cracow, Poland). The speakers focused mainly on the issue of remembrance in Central-Eastern and South-Eastern Europe. Discussion with the audience suggested that the topic of a specific type of remembrance in Czech Republic, Poland and Croatia is of little utility for participants from Western Europe. This fact well shows how big the differences in the attitudes towards memory in different parts of the continent are.

In his speech Tůma noticed that in the Czech Republic, unlike in Hungary, historical events from before the twentieth century are to a large extent forgotten. He recognized the Munich Agreement in 1938 as the focus of Czech remembrance and proved that this topic has been the crucial element of political discussions in the Czech republic until nowadays. Referring to a possibility of writing a common European history Tůma noted that a national perspective still dominates. And a history of Europe composed of separate chapters on each country would be of little value.

Aleksandar Jakir referred to Croatia as his example and pointed out that the differences in historical narration pertain not only to various nations but also to various social groups. He put emphasis on the diverse attitude to history in Croatia and the existence of many different narrations in one nation. He supposed that it might be the result of the turbulent history of the Croatians who in the twentieth century changed their citizenship several times without leaving their homes. Jakir also stated that memory finds its focus in some symbols and here he mentioned Josip Broz Tito as an example.

The speaker appealed for writing history not only from a national perspective but with other narrations taken into account. In his opinion national issues are losing importance and he suggested that historians should focus on values and not on the history of nations.

Jan Rydel referred to Polish historical memory and stated, like Tůma, that in general historical events from before the twentieth century do not play any important role nowadays. He found that important “memorial points” are the events connected with wars: November 11, 1918 – the date when Poland re-gained independence after the Partitions, September Campaign in 1939, Katyn massacre in 1940, and the outburst of Warsaw Uprising in 1944. All these anniversaries have had political meaning until nowadays and all of them evoke numerous emotions. Rydel also expressed his concern about the decreasing knowledge about the historical events which are celebrated.

In the evening participants of the Symposium could visit German Historical Museum. There the director Alexander Koch gave a lecture followed by a discussion. Koch spoke about the problems and main tasks which the museum has to face. He pointed out that besides fulfilling the traditional role of collecting objects, the museum must also show history to the public. German Historical Museum devotes a large part of its activity to temporary projects, like Entartete Kunst, or Gulag history which is on display at present, and a number of these projects take place outside the museum building. At the end of the day participants had an opportunity to see a fragment of the permanent exhibition devoted to the twentieth century which provoked many critical opinions.

Day Three, October 12

Pavel Tychtl (European Commission, Czech Republic) spoke on the importance of the remembrance issues for the European Commission. He covered the range of their activity and indicated two notions which are important for the Commission: “sense of belonging” and “engagement in the participation”. Both these notions suggest that social activity and projects which reinforce values that are commonly accepted in Europe are very important for the Commisssion. These notions also encompass discussion about remembrance and the past. Tychtl also pointed out how much recollections of the past differ, not only among different nations but also among the inhabitants of the same places. Here he referred to the memory about the Holocaust which constitutes one of the central elements in collective European memory.

Wolf Kaiser (Haus der Wannseekonferenz, Germany) stated that one common European memory is neither realistic, nor necessary, and it might even be destructive. It is much more important to exchange information and understand one another. In his speech Kaiser concentrated on two areas of memory which are fundamental for the Europeans: the Holocaust and the remembrance about the victims of Nazism. He pointed out that in many European countries remembrance of the Holocaust is very limited. This is true particularly about the countries which were not directly involved in the tragedy of the Second World War. At the same time in other countries many sites of the greatest Nazi crimes are practically unknown, while the best known symbolic sites like Auschwitz and Buchenwald play the most important role in the transnational discourse.

Hans Altendorf (Stasi-Unterlagenbehörde, Germany). Stasi-Unterlagenbehörde is one of the seven members of the European Network of Official Authorities in Charge of Secret-Police Files. All the institutions belonging to the Network are involved in research and study of secret police files in communist dictatorships. Altendorf pointed out how closely all the Network institutions are bound with politics and how important it is for them to remain independent though it is not always possible. All these institutions perceive themselves as belonging to the European culture of remembrance and they are busy in the field of academic research and development of the history of the communist countries.

Johannes Bach Rasmussen (Baltic Initiative and Network, Denmark) introduced a transnational social initiative which does not receive any regular funds. The main objective of Baltic Initiative is to improve mutual understanding among the countries around the Baltic Sea on the basis of the exchange of information about the newest history. The starting point for their work was the poor knowledge of the Danish people about the life “behind the Iron Curtain”. Nowadays the Initiative operates in all the countries around the Baltic Sea and finds it important for each country to present its own history as well as exchange information with other countries.

Jiří Sŷkora (Visegrád-Fund, Slovakia) introduced the main objectives of the Visegrád Fund, for whose support any organization or individual citizen can apply in co-operation with other partners. The two main pillars of the Fund are mobility and grant programs. Sŷkora pointed out that all the projects supported by the Fund must refer to the countries forming the Visegrad Group.

Vesna Teřselič (Documenta, Slovenia) introduced an international initiative Coalition for RECOM which operates in the area of Former Yugoslavia. This initiative is supported by a number of institutions of diverse provenience. Its aim is the creation of a commission tasked with establishing the facts about crimes and victims during the wars on the territory of the Former Yugoslavia. Such a commission should operate in the area of whole Yugoslavia, and should not limit its activity to confrontation with national discourses. Initially this initiative gathered little political interest; nowadays the first steps towards the establishment of the commission are taken.

Goran Lindblad introduced the activity of the Platform of European Memory and Conscience and presented a reader for older secondary school students which was edited with the support of the program Europe for Citizens and Visegrad Fund. This was the opening of a discussion with participants of the Symposium.

Gesine Schwan (Humboldt-Viadrina School of Governance, Germany) gave the final lecture of the Symposium. She described the changes in the German perception after the war. Initially the Germans saw themselves primarily as victims of war, but in the course of time they began to feel co‑guilty for the crimes of National Socialism. She emphasized that discussions among scholars are important, however they are not well-audible in Europe. She shared the opinion of Andrzej Paczkowski that the dividing lines do not run only along the state borders. Religious and political divisions are equally important for the remembrance of history. While speaking about the future, she claimed that common memory can only be based on values accepted by everybody, like the rights of man. In her opinion the diversity of perspectives is a good sign, a symptom of normality which enriches Europe.

The Symposium closed with a debate between Oldřich Tůma (Czech Academy of Sciences, Czech Republic), Jan Rydel (Pedagogical University of Cracow, Poland) and Matthias Weber (Federal Institute for Culture and History of the Germans in Eastern Europe, Germany). Tůma emphasized the fact that the Symposium once again proved the inexistence of one European point of view on history, even though most discussions focused on the Second World War. We may agree that the worst perpetrators were the Nazis, and those who suffered most were the Jews, but if we look closer at the history of the Second World War, things get much more complicated, even within one national discourse. Tůma shared the opinion that a diversity of views on history is valuable. He was convinced that beside academic discussions it is important to talk about the more practical implementation of historical knowledge. Matthias Weber agreed with Gesine Schwan that remembrance about the past cannot be enforced on anybody but he stated that much can be done to protect the past events from being forgotten. Weber remarked that though most participants of the Symposium share opinions on the necessity of transnational discussions, the question about the ways of passing the academic knowledge to wider audience remains unanswered. In his opinion it is necessary for the Symposium to be more down-to-earth oriented. It is also necessary to discuss how to base an approach towards history on values. How to avoid heroization and rivalry of victims and how to step out of national narrations? Even though we agree that it is not possible to present one European vision of history, the question about the alternatives for the future remains unanswered. Jan Rydel supported Weber’ s suggestion that people with a more practical attitude to history should be invited to debates. He emphasized the number of problems which have not been solved so far. Finally, the organizers announced that the third edition of the Symposium will be held in Praque (Czech Republic), on April 9–11, 2014.

During the Symposium most speakers declared that the Second World War and Holocaust are the central elements of European remembrance of history. It was also emphasized that European memory cannot be uniform. It must be diverse because Europe itself is a diverse continent. It was also emphasized that though at present national historical narrations dominate, often there is no one single opinion about the past even within one nation. Lines of division run not only between nations but also along religious and political divisions. Discussions during the Symposium showed that a more practical approach to history is necessary. In future the Symposium should present a greater number of practical activities, good actions and practical ideas of how to popularize history.


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


Chelsea Medlock

Burdened by Imperial Memory: Rudyard Kipling, Collective Memory and the Imperial War Graves Commission

17 August 2014
  • academic
  • Great War
  • First World War
  • World War I
  • cemeteries
  • Rudyard Kipling
  • War Graves Commission
  • Great Britain


During the Interwar Period, the poet Rudyard Kipling worked closely with the newly-founded Imperial War Graves Commission to register British war dead, to construct permanent war cemeteries and memorials for the fallen, and to cultivate images of sacrifice, equality, and unity in the developing British collective memory of the Great War. Through his work in public relations, the drafting of memorial inscriptions, and the inspection of the progress of cemetery construction, Rudyard Kipling aided the Commission’s mission to memorialize and commemorate the over one million individuals killed during the First World War, and both directly and indirectly molded the shaping of the British Empire’s war memories during his eighteen years with the organization.


Like millions of parents all across Europe, the Great War deeply affected Rudyard Kipling both personally and professionally. At the outbreak of the war, Kipling joined the British war effort through his craft, as well as by advising the British government on war propaganda. However, after the death of his son, Kipling began to focus more on activities to sustain the memories of the war dead, in part by joining the Imperial War Graves Commission. Kipling worked tirelessly with the Commission to keep the memory and sacrifice of the fallen soldiers alive in the minds of Britons everywhere, and thus his work added greatly to shaping the “memory boom” that followed the war. Though his work with the Commission at times seemed to contradict his war writings and propaganda, both his literary works and volunteerism molded British collective memory of the Great War for generations, as did the work of the Imperial War Graves Commission itself.

Rudyard Kipling, though never a soldier himself, developed a general respect and love for the British military, especially the colonialists. The amiable relationship between the British military and Rudyard Kipling began early in Kipling’s literary career. Kipling saw the military as the “essence of the empire”; this forged a bond in Kipling’s mind between the role of the military and the need to maintain a sense of unity within the British Empire (Gross 1972, 40). The Anglo-Boer War (1899–1902) was the first British conflict to capture Kipling’s attention, his imagination, and his sympathy. The harsh conditions in South Africa generated great interest for the welfare of British soldiers and their families (Gross, 1972, 86). This sympathy led Kipling to set up the Absent-Minded Beggar Fund for returning British soldiers and the families of men killed in action early in the war. He wrote in the Daily Mail in 1899, in the hope of reminding the British public of the sacrifice of its soldiers on a distant battlefield (Kipling, October 1899). This soldiers’ fund was the first instance of Kipling’s military philanthropy, a tradition that Kipling would follow for the rest of his life.

The outbreak of the Great War reignited Kipling’s humanitarian interests as well as his patriotic sentiments. The German invasion of Belgium outraged both Kipling and Britain to the point of patriotic fervor. In the early months of the conflict, Kipling and his wife, Carrie, worked closely with the Red Cross, and helped to lessen the plight of Belgian refugees. Kipling routinely visited military hospitals and camps, many times publishing his experiences for the world to see. His most famous trip to the Western Front occurred in August 1915, leading to the publication of “France at War” (Amis 1975, 98). Despite these frontline trips, the war became a harsh reality when Kipling’s only son, John, was killed in action at the Battle of Loos in September 1915. John Kipling was among the first to volunteer for the British war effort; however, like his father, the younger Kipling suffered from poor eyesight, which sidelined him from military service. However, given his adoration of the British military, Rudyard Kipling petitioned Lord Roberts to allow John to join the Irish Guards in 1915. The military commissioned John Kipling as a Second Lieutenant, sending his to the Western Front right after his eighteenth birthday (Mallett 2003, 161). John’s body was never recovered, even after numerous attempts by both Rudyard Kipling and the British military to gather information on John’s death (Ricketts 1999, 325–28). As an act of love, and maybe even penitence, Rudyard Kipling spent five and a half years writing the History of the Irish Guards, completing the work between September 1921 and June 1922. The purpose of the book, for Kipling, was to record the history of the regiment, rather than to focus on the horrors of the war (Gilmour 2002, 268–69). And in a final, and most lasting, gesture of atonement for his son’s death, Rudyard Kipling accepted an invitation from Fabian Ware, a fellow newspaperman and friend from the Anglo-Boer War, to join the Imperial War Graves Commission in 1917 (Pinney 1996, 15; Holt and Holt 1998, 139).

Prior to his decision to join the Imperial War Graves Commission, Kipling “claimed that he could not write from monuments.” He felt that he could not do justice to the sacrifice of fallen soldiers beyond writing the inscription “He died for his country” (Gilmour 2002, 278). The Commission “wanted a man of imagination and one who knew the [common] soldier” as literary advisor for the Commission, and pursued Rudyard Kipling for the position (Holt and Holt 1998,142). Despite his lack of confidence, Kipling relented to the mounting requests from the members of the newly-formed Imperial War Graves Commission, being formally appointed as the literary adviser to the Commission in October 1917 (Kipling October 1917). Many, including Fabian Ware, believed that the loss of his son gave Rudyard Kipling “a natural empathy with the relatives of the fallen” (Summers 2007, 20–21). Kipling would remain a member of the Commission for eighteen years, until his death in 1936 (Birkenhead 1978, 277).

The industrialized warfare and high death toll in the early months of the Great War stunned much of Europe. Concern for the care of the dead occupied the minds of many, including Fabian Ware, an educationalist and former newspaper man. Ware joined the Red Cross in 1914; he was unable to join the British military due to his advanced age. However, he chose to redirect his passions into recording the location of soldiers’ graves at the front. The British military officially recognized Ware’s work in February 1915, giving him the rank of Major, and establishing the Graves Registration Commission for the task. As the war spread beyond the European Continent, the Graves Registration Commission developed into the Directorate of Grave Registration and Enquires. Its work to find the bodies of the Empire’s dead came to encompass not only the Western Front but also Mesopotamia, Egypt, Palestine, and the Balkans (Cross 2008, 257). For Ware, the purpose of the Graves Registration Commission was to give the dead honorable burials, and to create a registry containing the names and locations of the Empire’s dead for relatives and future generations. To this end, the Commission worked tirelessly to locate soldier cemeteries, exhume isolated graves, and create new cemeteries for those who had not been formally buried in the heat of battle. In some cases, British soldiers had been buried in French and Belgian churchyards, alongside their allied comrades; however, as the preexisting cemeteries filled to capacity with the allied dead, Ware and the Commission began to negotiate with the Allied governments for the purchase of land to create new cemeteries for the British dead (The Times 1928, 13–15). This practice of purchasing foreign lands for new cemeteries became one of the basic practices of the future Imperial War Graves Commission, though Ware felt that his organization was severely hindered by having to work within the established military relations networks, leading to his call for the Commission to be given a royal charter that would separate the Commission into a separate entity, with powers to negotiate with foreign nations without the direct consent of the British military or the British government (Imperial War Graves Commission 10 May 1917, 5).

On 10 May 1917, the Commission, now renamed the Imperial War Graves Commission, received its charter from the King, giving it status as the sole organization charged with the remembrance and maintenance of the Empire’s war dead. The 1917 Charter stated that the purpose of the decree was to create “a permanent Imperial Body charged with the duty of caring for the graves of officers and men of Our military and naval forces raised in all parts of Our Empire who have fallen, or may fall, in the present War.” The secondary purpose of the Commission was to honor the memory of the fallen, without segregation of class, race, or religion, and perpetuate the ideals of their common sacrifice for future generations (Imperial War Graves Commission 10 May 1917, 1). To this end, the Commission was granted special powers, including the jurisdiction to acquire land for war cemeteries, to erect permanent buildings and memorials within war cemeteries, to provide upkeep for cemetery grounds (specifically headstone maintenance and gardening), and to maintain burial records and registries for the dead (Imperial War Graves Commission 10 May 1917, 5). The Imperial War Graves Commission met for the first time on 20 November 1917, to discuss not only the logistics of the Commission’s operations, but also the major guiding principles for the Commission (Longworth 1985, 29).

In a pamphlet written by the Director of the British Museum and a member of the Commission, Sir Frederic Kenyon, and later in a booklet by Rudyard Kipling, the Imperial War Graves Commission laid out the guiding principles of the organization, which focused on issues of common sacrifice, remembrance, and equality. The most influential principle of the new Imperial War Graves Commission was extending equal treatment for the Empire’s dead regardless of “military or civil rank, race or creed.” The purpose this principle was to honor the common sacrifice of officers, enlisted soldiers, and colonial soldiers (Cross 2008, 257). The Commission, including Rudyard Kipling, felt that the graves of the fallen should be uniform in appearance and maintenance, for each had died for a common cause, and if the cemeteries were allowed to become private memorials, the graves of the more-wellto- do soldiers would become more “ornate or imposing to distinguish their graves from others.” Kipling and the Commission argued that the wealthy should not be allowed to “proclaim their grief above other people’s grief ” simply because the wealthy had “larger bank accounts.” The Commission felt that the movement for special graves was a “demand for privilege in the face of death,” which meant that the “common sacrifice made by all ranks would lose the regularity and orderliness most becoming to the resting places of soldiers, who fought and fell side-by-side.” (Longworth 1985, 33). Another important principle of the newly-formed Commission was to respect the faith of the dead, including the minimizing of the Christian overtones of the cemeteries and the incorporation of the religious symbols of other faiths, including those of Jews, Muslims, and Hindus, all of whom fought for the British military and the Colonial militaries. The only major Christian symbol to be placed in the cemeteries would be the Cross of Sacrifice, along with the more religiously ambiguous Stone of Remembrance (Geurst 2010, 34). The purpose of the Stone of Remembrance was to harken back to the Paleolithic symbol of the altar and sacrifice, which was common in most cultures throughout the world. The Commission chose to include in its principles the desire to honor the burial customs and beliefs of the soldiers fighting for the British Empire. The headstones of non-Christians included symbols of their own faith and the major monuments of the cemeteries included Biblical phrases that did not specifically read as Christian; the best example of this principle can be seen in the inscription chosen for the Stone of Remembrance (Kenyon 1918, 10–12).

During the first two decades of the Imperial War Graves Commission, the organization located 767,978 graves, 180,861 of which had been unidentified. The Commission recorded the names of a further 336,912 soldiers killed in the war, who possessed no known graves (Ware 1937, 26). The work of the Commission following the Great War included the creation of 970 cemeteries in France and Belgium, approximately one thousand Crosses of Sacrifice, 560 Stones of Remembrance, over 600,000 headstones, and eighteen memorials to those “Missing” (Ware 1937, 56–57). The work of the Commission, including its future work after the Second World War, has become one of the largest and most successful examples of the importance, maintenance, and steering of collective memory in the twentieth century.

After the Armistice in 1918, the Imperial War Graves Commission’s work truly began on an international scale. The battlefields were “systematically combed” for the graves of the British war dead, a process impeded by the constant bombardments of artillery. The relentless fighting destroyed the water management systems, especially on the Western Front, leaving the ground of France and Belgium “a muddy lunar landscape,” filled with decaying bodies and stagnant water (Geurst 2010, 56). In his pamphlet on the Commission, Kenyon mentioned that the burial sites range from isolated and mass graves on destroyed battlefields, to former sites of hospitals and casualty clearing stations, to French and Belgian civilian cemeteries, leaving the Commission with the responsibility to find and create cemeteries for over a million individuals, and the responsibility to remember the identities of the missing, who would never have formal graves (Kenyon 1918, 5). The cemeteries were originally constructed using provisional wooden crosses as grave markers. Over the decades, the Commission slowly replaced the wooden crosses with headstones fashioned from Portland stone. These headstones measured 2 feet 6 inches by 1 foot 3 inches and were uniform in design, with the only major differences between gravestones being the regimental badges and symbols of faith. The Commission consulted the various regiments of the British military, asking them to create their own special design for the headstones (Kipling 1918, 6). The Commission quarried more than 700,000 tons of Portland stone for the cemeteries during the Interwar Period, making the operation one of the largest industrial endeavors of the twentieth century (The Times 10 November 1928, 8).

Along with the construction of the headstones, the Commission devoted much time and effort to the design and construction of the two central monuments for the cemeteries: the Cross of Sacrifice and the Stone of Remembrance. It was agreed within the Commission that the central monument(s) needed to be simple, as well as “durable, dignified, and expressive of the higher feelings with which we regard our dead.” In the beginning, the Commission only desired the construction of a Stone of Remembrance; the Cross of Sacrifice was a compromise with the Christian Lobby in Britain, when its suggestion of crosses for headstones was rejected by the Commission because it would ill suit soldiers of other faiths (Kenyon 1918, 10; Stamp 1990, vii; Aiden December 2007, 12–30). The Stone of Remembrance, designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, was envisioned as a large stone altar approximately twelve feet in length, which would be placed on the “eastern side of each cemetery,” with the graves of the fallen facing the altar-stone, just as the British armies had faced eastward during the Great War (Kenyon 1918, 10–12). This was in stark contrast to the later construction of the Cross of Sacrifice, designed by Sir Reginald Blomfield. The Cross of Sacrifice stood above the graves, with a bronze sword at its center to signify the sacrifice of the fallen for the British Empire (Gibson and Kingley 1989, 52). Of all the policies of the Imperial War Graves Commission, the most contested was the policy regarding exhumations and repatriation. The Commission believed that it would not be fair to the lower classes to allow the wealthier sections of British society to bring home their war dead; this would go against the principle of equal treatment for the fallen. The idea of equality for all was so important to the Commission that it fought for the principle in the House of Commons in 1920, winning the right to reject repatriation and private memorials (King Spring 1999, 256–257; Gilmour 2002, 279). The Commission viewed their work as the creation of an “Imperial and National, not a Private Memorial,” leading the Commission to suggest that private memorials were for the home front (Burdett-Coutts 24 April 1920, 5). To appraise the public outcry over the policy regarding repatriation, the Commission agreed that relatives would be allowed to pay for a short, personal inscription on the individual headstones, though the inscription could not be longer than sixty-six letters (Kipling 1919, 11).

At the center of all of the Commission’s policies and decisions was Rudyard Kipling. Kipling had three main roles within the imperial organization, aside from his role as a voting member on the inner workings of the Commission. His most influential responsibilities to the molding of British collective memory included public relations, the formulation of memorial inscriptions, and touring the cemeteries to report on the construction progress. In the early days of the Commission, Kipling believed that it was important for the Commission to have a publicity department; this role eventually fell onto his shoulders. As the publicity department, Kipling was responsible for the regulation of publications, tours, and the publication of letters to British and international newspapers on the behalf of the Imperial War Graves Commission (Ware 6 February 1920). One of Kipling’s first duties was to write a pamphlet for the British public on the policies and principles of the organization. The pamphlet, entitled “Graves of the Fallen,” was published in 1918 and briefly outlined a great deal of important information regarding the Commission’s work on the fronts, specifically the designs for the cemeteries, the policy of equal treatment, and memorials for the missing (Kipling 1919, 1–5). Kipling volunteered for the project in the hopes that his fame would help the Commission reach a wider audience and command greater attention (Arthur Browne 8th February 1919).

Another influential Commission project for Kipling was the pamphlet for King George V’s pilgrimage to the war cemeteries on the Western Front in May 1922. Kipling performed multiple roles during this royal tour; however, regarding his work in public relations, Kipling edited the pamphlet that covered the King’s tour and worked closely with Ernest Hodder-Williams & Stoughton Publishers to circulate more than 20,000 copies of The King’s Pilgrimage. Along with editing the pamphlet, Kipling also wrote a special poem to mark the occasion, one of his most moving pieces of the postwar years (Aiden December 2007, 26; Hodder-Williams 11 August 1922). As an added responsibility to the Crown, Kipling also wrote the King’s Speech, given at Terlincthun; this act led to a close friendship between Kipling and the Royal family, with Kipling writing a great number of official speeches for the remainder of his and George V’s lives (Holt and Holt 1998, 149; Amis 1975, 103). Finally, Kipling repeatedly agreed to attend the unveiling of war memorials in Britain and abroad, though many times he could not, due to his declining health during the Interwar Period (Kipling 6 October 1924). Kipling, along with Fabian Ware, became the public face of the Commission and its work for much of the 1920s and 1930s, giving the Imperial War Graves Commission both legitimacy and political standing both at home and in foreign affairs.

The most time-consuming responsibility for Kipling during his years as a member of the Imperial War Graves Commission was the drafting of special inscriptions for the war cemeteries, monuments, and memorials. Following his assertion that he was not qualified to craft the various inscriptions required for the Commission, Kipling originally suggested in 1919 that the Commission gather suggestions for inscriptions from the general public; however, after reviewing the majority of the responses, Kipling decided that most were unusable and that he would have to write the inscriptions himself (Arthur Browne 23 December 1919; Cemetery Entrance Inscriptions 15 January 1920). In all cases, the inscriptions chosen by Kipling were crafted to avoid “the language of Christianity” because Kipling felt that using overt Christian symbolism would offend soldiers of other faiths. In many cases, when Kipling did choose a passage from the Bible, the inscription focused on the ideas of sacrifice and memory, thus being universal in message and sentiment (Aiden December 2007, 19).

The first major inscription that Kipling drafted was for the Stone of Remembrance. He wanted the message to conveyance the Commission’s principles of honor and remembrance while remaining simple to verse. After debating the options, Kipling chose an excerpt from the Book of Ecclesiasticus, which honored famous individuals for their sacrifice, “Their Name Liveth For Evermore” (Kenyon 1918, 23–24; Kipling 19 November 1918, 521). In a conversation between Kipling and Lutyens, Kipling later remarked that Lutyens’s Stone of Remembrance was “an inspiration and it looked well no matter where it was put. The only mistake I made was to have an inscription on it. Even my proposed ‘Amen’” (Skelton and Gliddon 2008, 35). Despite Kipling’s and Lutyen’s sentiments regarding the symbolism of the Stone of Remembrance, the Anglican Church felt that the “War Stone,” as it was originally termed, possessed no true religious function in the war cemeteries. However, Luteyn noted years after the construction of his Stones of Remembrance that many were used as altars to the memory of the dead, much as the architect had hoped, therefore becoming a major instrument in the formation and maintenance of British collective memory for many visitors (Geurst 2010, 35).

For his work with the Commission, Kipling produced inscriptions for a wide array of monuments to commemorate the sacrifices made by the war dead; many consisted of tablets for the entrances of cemeteries, tablets for religious institutions, and plaques to memorialize individuals lost at sea. The most frequent type of inscription produced by Kipling was for general memorials, which commemorated the memory of the specific regiments fighting during the war. These inscriptions usually mentioned the regiment’s name, sometimes their nationality, and the location of the battle. The best examples of these more common memorials include the Egyptian Labor and Camel Transport Corps, who fought in the Middle East, the Egyptian Expeditionary Forces and the New Zealand Forces fighting during the Palestine campaigns, and the Indian Armies commemorated at Neuve-Chapelle, Delhi, and Reshire (Chettle 27 December 1923; Kipling 28 December 1923; Ware 4 November 1924; Chettle 14 April 1925; King 24 July 1930). For Kipling, the most important information to convey through these inscriptions was the idea of memory and sacrifice. For the inscription on the memorial to the Palestine campaigns, Kipling suggested the following message to memorialize the men fighting for the British cause: “This memorial chapel was erected by the Officers, Non-commissioned Officers, and Men of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, to the honoured memory of their comrades who fell in the Palestine Campaign 1914–1918” (Ware 4 November 1924). Much like the memorial to Palestine, Kipling spent much of his time making sure that the Indian Armies received their due commemoration after the war. In one of his suggested inscriptions, Kipling chose the message “To the glorious memory of the British officers, Indian officers and men of the Indian Army who fell in France and Belgium during the Great War of 1914–1918. The names of those whose resting place is unknown are recorded here” for the Indian Memorial at Neuve-Chapelle in France (Chettle 14 April 1925).

Another type of inscription created by Rudyard Kipling during the course of his membership to the Imperial War Graves Commission was inscriptions for religious institutions including both churches and cathedrals, particularly in England, France, and Belgium. The Commission requested inscriptions for cathedrals in France and Belgium, including Notre Dame, as well as an inscription for tablets to be placed in Westminster Abbey. For the memorial tablets in Notre Dame, Kipling chose the inscription “To the glory of God and to the memory of one million dead of the British Empire who fell in the war for civilization 1914–1918 and of whom the greater part rest in France” (Kipling 24 May 1923). And much like the tablets in Paris, the memorial placed in Westminster Abbey focused on the memory of common sacrifice across the whole of the British Empire. The inscription crafted by Kipling for the occasion simply read: “To the glory of God and to the memory of one million dead of the British Empire who fell in the Great War 1914–1918 they died in every quarter of the Earth and on all its seas and their graves are made sure to them by their kin. The main host lie buried in the lands of our Allies of the war who have set aside their resting places in honour for ever” (Imperial War Graves Commission 19 October 1926). Of the two tablets located in religious institutions, the memorial constructed for Westminster Abbey plays a greater role in the development of British collective memory after the Great War, because more Britons visited Westminster Abbey than did Notre Dame, making the commemoration a larger part of Britain’s daily life, especially in London.

The final type of inscription produced by Kipling for general memorialization focused on the memory of individuals lost at sea, especially mercantile marines, hospital ships, and steamships (Imperial War Graves Commission 8 February 1928; Kipling 24 March 1926; Chettle 1 December 1923). At the 107th meeting of the Commission on 8 February 1928, it was recorded that Kipling suggested the following inscription for the Mercantile Marine Memorial at Tower Hill in London:

To the honour of the British Mercantile Marine. Here are recorded the names of more than twelve thousand officers and men of the Merchant service who during the war 1914–1918 gave their lives unfalteringly for the needs of their country, who met death at the hands of the enemy and whose grave is the sea (Imperial War Graves Commission 8 February 1928).

Many of the inscriptions for lost hospital ships and steamships generally followed the above example, with Kipling requesting the public remember the various actors who sank with their ships during the course of the war (Kipling 24 March 1926; Chettle 1 December 1923). Like the other members of the Commission, Kipling often sought to commemorate as many of the dead and lost as possible, thus leading to the creation of numerous memorials and monuments to the dead, wherever they lie, even if their graves were the sea.

While many of the Commission’s memorials focused on the graves of identified individuals, much of the public, as well as Kipling himself, worried about the memory of the dead who possessed no known grave; both Kenyon and Kipling specifically addressed this public concern for the unidentified and lost graves in their Imperial War Graves Commission pamphlets in 1918. The Commission decided that special memorials were needed to commemorate the lost souls whom the Commission could never identify. These memorials became known as the “Kipling memorials,” named after John Kipling, who acted as an example for relatives’ need for closure. According to the Imperial War Graves Commission, the Kipling memorials “commemorate a soldier who once had a registered grave in a known cemetery but whose grave was not discovered when the other graves in the cemetery were concentrated into another cemetery” as well as soldiers who were listed as missing in action, like Kipling’s son John (Imperial War Graves Commission 17 November 1926). For such memorials, Rudyard Kipling chose the inscription “Their Glory Shall Not Be Blotted Out” for those known to have fallen in the region, while the inscription “A Soldier of the Great War Known Unto God” for those individuals who possessed a formal grave but no formal identification (Gilmour 2002, 280). Of all of the Kipling Memorials constructed by the Commission during the Interwar Period, the memorial to the British fallen on the Menin Gate in the city of Ypres captivated the public’s attention the most, not only for its beauty but for the thousands of names recorded on this walls to the dead of Ypres Salient and the Somme (Blomfield July 1927). To commemorate the largest memorial to the missing, Rudyard Kipling chose the words “To the armies of the British Empire who stood here from 1914 to 1918, and to those of their dead who have no known grave,” as well as an inscription to be displayed over the stairs that led to the ramparts, which read “Here are recorded names of officers and men who fell on Ypres Salient, but to whom the fortune of war denied the known and honoured burial given to their comrades in Death” (Blomfield July 1927). For Kipling, the memorials to the missing were the most important work of the Commission, because without these special monuments, the names of the missing would rapidly become lost to time, which was unthinkable to the Imperial War Graves Commission.

The final role given to Kipling by the Imperial War Graves Commission was to tour the cemeteries and memorials under construction throughout Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. Originally, Kipling and his wife Carrie travelled extensively in Europe, though France was their most frequent destination. After the Great War, the Kiplings continued their vacations abroad, though much of the time the vacations were paired with Kipling’s mission to inspect and report on the state of the burial grounds, particularly in France in the early 1920s (Amis 1975, 101). In the summer of 1920, the Kiplings travelled nearly 1,500 miles throughout France to view the progress being made on the cemeteries on the Western Front. This trip included a visit to the battlefields near Loos and the Somme, where the Kiplings then ventured to Chalk Pit Woods, the last known location of their son, John (Longworth 1985, 79; Gilmour 2002, 280). Kipling remarked to Edmonia Hill in 1921 that his role as a member of the Imperial War Graves Commission had made him very familiar with the Western Front, but that this familiarity had not diminished his feelings upon seeing the “ruins and spoliation” (Kipling 2 June 1921, 80). While inspecting the work being completed at Rouen, Rudyard Kipling remarked that he was struck by “the extraordinary beauty of the cemetery and the great care that the attendants had taken of it, and the almost heartbroken thankfulness of the relatives of the dead who were there” (Longworth 1985, 79). The purpose of many of these cemetery tours for Kipling was to report on the conditions that he encountered, make recommendations to the Commission, and to push for great funding of the projects by both the British public and the British government (Gilmour 2002, 281). Two of the many recommendations sent to the Commission by Rudyard Kipling were the creation of enquiry offices and grave directories to help relatives and friends find the graves of their fallen loved ones. Along with the tours throughout the Western Front, Kipling was also asked by Fabian Ware to inspect the progress of cemeteries in the Middle East, Egypt, and Gibraltar (Ware 14 March 1922; Commonwealth War Graves Commission, www.cwgc.org/about-us/whatwe-do/records/our-archive.aspx.

The work of the Imperial War Graves Commission, and therefore the work of Rudyard Kipling, both directly and indirectly influenced the construction of British collective memory, to focus on remembering the Great War as a moment of common sacrifice between soldiers and between nations. The purpose of the Commission regarding the memorialization of the fallen was to remember the individual identities of the war dead, to use the cemeteries and memorials as constant reminders to future generations to avoid war, and to unite both the Empire and the nations of the world in the common memory of sacrifice.

From the outset of its creation, the Imperial War Graves Commission pursued the ideas of comradeship and common sacrifice in its work. The Commission felt that the place for the “individual memorial [was] at home” while the purpose of the Commission and the war graves cemeteries was to be a “symbol of a great Army and a united Empire,” thus, the Commission believed that the dead of all ranks and backgrounds should be “commemorated in those cemeteries where they lie together, the representatives of their country in the lands in which they served.” If private memorials were allowed to be constructed, the memory of this common sacrifice and common service would be lost forever (Kenyon 1918, 6). The purpose of the Commission, first and foremost, was to secure the memory of the fallen in foreign lands. This involved the need for identification, memorialization, and preservation. One of the Commission’s most pressing concerns after the construction of the war cemeteries was the future preservation and repairs for the headstones and the monuments; the Commission felt that a lost name or a broken tombstone meant “a man forgotten” (Longworth 1985, 137). To this end, the Commission petitioned the Treasury for a fund to maintain the appearance and therefore the memory of the war dead. In 1926, the Treasury granted the Imperial War Graves Commission a fund of £5,000,000 for the upkeep of the cemeteries (Kenyon 1924/5). As the Commission worked diligently to immortalize the names of the British dead, it also worked to impress upon visitors to the cemeteries and future generations that the cemeteries were to be viewed as hallowed ground, and that the visitors were “in the presence of those dead through the merits of whose sacrifices they enjoy their present life and whatever measure of freedom is theirs to-day” (Kipling 3 December 1922).

Along with the Commission’s mission to remember the individual dead, the organization worked to help the British people, and by association other nations, to remember to avoid the horrors and consequences of yet another European war, though as history would show, this endeavor was doomed to failure. In the King’s speech written by Rudyard Kipling during the King’s Pilgrimage in 1922, the King, and by extension the Commission, expressed the importance of the war cemeteries as a reminder for the peoples of Europe to avoid future wars. The King stated “I have many times asked myself whether there can be more potent advocates of peace upon earth through the years to come, than this massed multitude of silent witnesses to the desolation of war” (Kipling 1922, 93). In his annual Armistice Day and Remembrance Day addresses to the nation, Fabian Ware often passionately pressed for the public and the government to remember the mistakes of the past and avoid future wars. In his radio broadcast on 9 November 1930, Ware stated that the cemeteries and memorials were a “standing and visible record of the cost of war” and an “insistent reminder of the dread consequences of the political conditions which obtained in the world before 1914” (Ware 9 November 1930). Ware repeatedly referred to the war cemeteries as “silent cities of the Dead,” a term coined by Rudyard Kipling during his time as a commissioner for the organization; Ware used this imagery of hundreds of silent cities and witnesses to remind the British public that the war had immediate and long-term consequences, which should not be forgotten owing to fear, grief, or callousness (Kipling 1922, 93; Ware 11 November 1926). Ware believed that the cemeteries needed to stand as a constant reminder, particularly for future generations, of the cost of war, hoping that the visible reminder of the Great War would keep the memories of overwhelming sacrifice from being swept away, as it had been in the past (Ware 9 November 1930).

Like the goals of remembering the individual and remembering to avoid future conflict, the Imperial War Graves Commission sought, albeit indirectly, to unite both the British Empire and the nations of the world through the memory of the Great War and both national and imperial sacrifice. In the 1922 pamphlet on the King’s Pilgrimage edited by Rudyard Kipling, the Commission writes that the work of the Commission must serve to “draw all people together in sanity and self-control,” and to establish better relations with the nations of the world through the memory of a “common heroism and a common agony” (Kipling 1922, 93). For the Commission, and the British government, the Imperial War Graves Commission was first and foremost an imperial body, whose purpose was to recall the role of the Great War in consolidating the British Empire through a common cause and a common sorrow. Prime Minster Stanley Baldwin, Rudyard Kipling’s cousin, stated that the cemeteries constructed by the Commission would “testify to coming generations, to the quickening sense of Imperial unity which [had] grown out of our great trial” (The Times 10 November 1928, 3). The Commission not only signified a united Empire through its visible work around the world, but it illustrated the great effort of the British Empire to work together to remember the great loss of life during the war. The Commission was comprised of representatives from all the major regions of the Empire, including Canada, Australasia, New Zealand, South Africa, and Newfoundland, all of whom played a large role in the funding and construction of the war cemeteries and memorials throughout the world (The Times 10 November 1928, 3). While the Commission illustrated the unification of the British Empire around a common loss, the organization also helped to unite nations around the globe in peace during the Interwar Period. The Commission created transnational bonds of common remembrance between former allies and former enemies, which led to both the creation of the Joint Committees for the guardianship of the graves and the joint ceremonies of remembrance, as nations came together to collectively mourn the fallen every November (Ware 1937, 12; Ware 1933). The Commission often noted the existence of cults of remembrance, especially in Belgium and France, where local villagers traveled regularly to the war cemeteries of the Commission to remember “the strange soldiery that could not talk their tongue, but played with [the village children],” sometimes even bearing “personal tributes” to the war dead of a foreign nation (The Times 10 November 1928, 7). Many times, these private occasions of foreign remembrance continued for decades, long after the actual memories of the foreign soldiers had faded.

On 18 January 1936, Rudyard Kipling died in England, from a perforated ulcer. His funeral was held at Westminster Abbey on 23 January, just days after the death of King George V (HMSO 23 January 1936). The Imperial War Graves Commission, at the behest of Fabian Ware, sent a special wreath to Westminster; the wreath was wrought from flora found in many of the Imperial war cemeteries in France (Imperial War Graves Commission January 1936). The death of Kipling was felt throughout the ranks of the Imperial War Graves Commission as well as the British Empire and the world. In its sixteenth annual report, the Commission wrote that it wished to convey its gratitude to Rudyard Kipling for his years of service to the cause of the war fallen:

The Commission [desires to] place on record their deep and abiding sense of loss which they have sustained in the death of their colleague and friend, Mr. Rudyard Kipling. They feel that an association of no ordinary official nature has been broken; and they know that this feeling is shared by their staff, to whom, in consultation in London or on frequent visits to the cemeteries abroad, he gave encouragement, inspiration, and a sense of personal interest in their work and welfare (Imperial War Graves Commission 1936, 5).

Lt.-Colonel G. P. Vanier, representing the Dominion of Canada at the sixteenth annual meeting of the Imperial War Graves Commission echoed the sentiments of many at the Commission as well as the rest of the world when he stated that

Only a really great man, or a child, could be as simple as he was, and I for one have no doubt that he will rank as one of the greatest writers and also, which is perhaps more important, as one of the finest characters of modern times... Rudyard Kipling was the great apostle of service, whether of obedience or of command: the subject’s service or the King’s. Unafraid to serve, and we can best honour his memory by serving... (Imperial War Graves Commission 1936, 6).

It was clear to many that Kipling’s death had left a gaping hole in the Imperial War Graves Commission, so much so, that when Kipling’s cousin, former Prime Minster Stanley Baldwin, stepped in to replace Kipling on the board of the Imperial War Graves Commission, it was assumed that no one man could replace the poet. The Commission was also forced to appoint the critic Edmund Blunden to help Baldwin take up Kipling’s fallen mantle, leaving another generation of commissioners to carry on the memories of the fallen (Holt and Holt 1998, 203–04). In his book The Immortal Heritage, which commemorated the first twenty years of the Imperial War Graves Commission, Fabian Ware writes that “Rudyard Kipling gave of his genius freely and whole-heartedly in the service of the commemoration of the dead,” helping to further the major principles and ideals of the Commission and helping to maintain the memory of the Great War in the minds of future generations (Ware 1937, 61).

Shortly before his death, Rudyard Kipling remarked that the immense undertaking of the Imperial War Graves Commission was “The biggest single bit of work since any of the Pharaohs – and they only worked in their own country” (Ware 1937, 56). Rudyard, along with the rest of the Commission, worked diligently during the Interwar Period to preserve the memory of those who died for their country in the Great War. While this was the Commission’s and Kipling’s main purpose for decades, they also both directly and indirectly influenced the creation of British collective memory surrounding the First World War, through their spoken and written rhetoric and their visible endeavors. Of the various postwar outlets for British collective memory, the work of Rudyard Kipling and the Imperial War Graves Commission signify the most active and all-encompassing effort to mold the memories of the Great War, not only to remember the millions of dead across the battlefields, but to unite all peoples in a common memory of sacrifice and mourning, in the hope that by doing so, the world would not repeat the failures of the past. Many historians point to the Interwar Period as the rise of the Memory Boom in the West, and like the efforts of the Imperial War Museum and the Great War artists, the Imperial War Graves Commission spent much of these two decades focusing on the potent costs of the Great War and planting the seeds of hope for peace across the Continent.



Chelsea Medlock. Doctoral candidate at Oklahoma State University, specializes in the history of industrialization and its effects on British identity and collective memory. Ms. Medlock is currently writing her doctoral dissertation entitled, Re-Membering the Forgotten Legions: the Veteranization of British War Horses, 1870–1945. Her dissertation focuses on the changing perceptions of the British military, animal welfare organizations, and the public regarding the employment and veteran status of war horses in the age of total war. Ms. Medlock has conducted research into both animal history and the history of industrialization, presenting at numerous conference in North America and Europe.



List of References

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“Transcript of the 107th meeting of the Imperial War Graves Commission,” 8 February 1928, Commonwealth War Graves Commission, WG 998/2/2 pt. 3.

“Unveiling of the tablet presented by the Imperial War Graves Commission at Westminster Abbey,” 19 October 1926, Commonwealth War Graves Commission, WG 1734–2–1–1 pt.1.

Aiden, Michael (2007) “Rudyard Kipling and the Commemoration of the Dead of the Great War,” Kipling Journal (Dec, 2007), pp. 12–30.

Amis, Kingsley (1975) Rudyard Kipling and His World (London: Thames and Hudson).

Birkenhead, Lord (1978) Rudyard Kipling (New York: Random House).

Blomfield, Reginald “A Note on the Menin Gate,” July 1927, Commonwealth War Graves Commission, SDC 42.

Burdett-Coutts, William, Presentation to the House of Commons, April 24th 1920, Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Add 1/1/10. Charter of the Imperial War Graves Commission, 10 May 1917, National Archives, KEW HO 45 21621.

Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Archive Catalog for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, available online at: www.cwgc.org/about-us/what-we do/records/ourarchive.aspx

Cross, Robin (2008) In Memoriam: Remembering the Great War (London: Ebury Press).

Geurst, Jeroen (2010) Cemeteries of the Great War by Sir Edwin Lutyens (Rotterdam, The Netherlands: 010 Publishers).

Gibson, Edwin, Major and G. Kingley Ward (1989) Courage Remembered: the Story behind the Construction and Maintenance of the Commonwealth’s Military Cemeteries and Memorials of the Wars of 1914–1918 and 1939–1945 (London: HMSO).

Gilmour, David (2002) The Long Recessional: the Imperial Life of Rudyard Kipling (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux).

Gross, John (ed.) (1972) The Age of Kipling (New York: Simon and Schuster). HMSO. The Order of Service pamphlet, 23 January 1936, Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Add 1/2/8.

Holt, Tonie and Valmai Holt (1998) ‘My Boy Jack?’ The Search for Kipling’s Only Son (Barnsley, UK: Pen & Sword Military).

Imperial War Graves Commission. “Handwritten note regarding the Kipling memorials,” 17 November 1926, Commonwealth War Graves Commission, WG 1031.

Imperial War Graves Commission. “Telegram from The Imperial War Graves Commission to Mrs. Carried Kipling,” January 1936, Commonwealth War Graves Commission, WG 237.

Imperial War Graves Commission (1936) Sixteenth Annual Report of the Imperial War Graves Commission (London: HMSO).

Kenyon, Frederic, Lieutenant-Colonel Sir (1918) War Graves: How the Cemeteries Abroad will be Designed (London: HMSO).

King, Alex. “The Archive of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission,” History Workshop Journal 47 (Spring, 1999), pp. 253–59.

Kipling, Rudyard (ed.) “Rough Draft of the King’s Pilgrimage pamphlet, 1922: King’s Speech,” Commonwealth War Graves Commission, WG 1544/2 pt 1.

Kipling, Rudyard (1919) The Graves of the Fallen (London: HMSO).

Letter from Arthur Browne to Admiral Poe, 8th February 1919, Commonwealth War Graves Commission, WG 237/1.

Letter from Arthur Browne to Rudyard Kipling, 23 December 1919, Commonwealth War Graves Commission, WG 214–7.

Letter from Major Henry Francis Chettle to the Director of Works, 14 April 1925, Commonwealth War Graves Commission, WG 861–2–4.

Letter from E. J. King to Lord Arthur, 24 July 1930, Commonwealth War Graves Commission, WG 127–5–4 pt 1.

Letter from Ernest Hodder-Williams to Rudyard Kipling, 11 August 1922, Commonwealth War Graves Commission, WG 1544/2 pt1.

Letter from Fabian Ware to Arthur Browne, Commonwealth War Graves Commission, WG 214–7, 6 February 1920.

Letter from Fabian Ware to Lt. Colonel Frederic Kenyon, 4 November 1924, Commonwealth War Graves Commission, WG 1082.

Letter from Fabian Ware to Rudyard Kipling, 14 March 1922, Commonwealth War Graves Commission, WG 1189/3.

Letter from Frederic Kenyon to Rudyard Kipling, 1924–1925, Commonwealth War Graves Commission, SDC 64.

Letter from Major Henry Francis Chettle to Rudyard Kipling, 1 December 1923, Commonwealth War Graves Commission, WG 219/7/5/1.

Letter from Major Henry Francis Chettle to Rudyard Kipling, 27 December 1923, Commonwealth War Graves Commission, WG 298 pt 1.

Letter from Rudyard Kipling to Edmonia Hill, 2 June 1921, in Thomas Pinney The Letters of Rudyard Kipling, Volume 5, 1920–1930 (Iowa City, IA: University of Iowa Press, 2004).

Letter from Rudyard Kipling to Fabian Ware, 24 May 1923, Commonwealth War Graves Commission, WG 1734/1/3 pt 1.

Letter from Rudyard Kipling to Fabian Ware, 6 October 1924, Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Add 1/1/96.

Letter from Rudyard Kipling to Fabian Ware, 29 October 1917, Commonwealth War Graves Commission, SDC 8.

Letter from Rudyard Kipling to Major Henry Francis Chettle, 24 March 1926, Commonwealth War Graves Commission, WG 437/4 pt 1.

Letter from Rudyard Kipling to Major Henry Francis Chettle, 24 March 1926, Commonwealth War Graves Commission, WG 437/4 pt 1.

Letter from Rudyard Kipling to Major Henry Francis Chettle, 28 December 1923, Commonwealth War Graves Commission, WG 298 pt 1.

Letter from Rudyard Kipling to the Daily Mail, October 1899, University of Sussex, 28/6.

Letter from Rudyard Kipling to the Editor of the Daily Telegraph, 3 December (1919–1923?), Commonwealth War Graves Commission, WG 360 pt 1.

Letter from Rudyard Kipling to the Imperial War Graves Commission, 19 November 1918, in Thomas Pinney The Letters of Rudyard Kipling, Volume 4: 1911–1919 (Iowa City, IA: University of Iowa Press, 1999).

Longworth, Philip (1985) The Unending Vigil: a History of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, 1917–1984. 2nd ed. (London: Leo Cooper).

Mallett, Phillip (2003) MRudyard Kipling: a Literary Life (New York: Palgrave Macmillan).

Pinney, Thomas (ed.) (1996) The Letters of Rudyard Kipling, Volume 3 1900–1911 (Iowa city, IA: University of Iowa Press).

Ricketts, Harry (1999) The Unforgiving Minute: A Life of Rudyard Kipling (London: Chatto & Windus).

Skelton, Tim and Gerald Gliddon (2008) Lutyens and the Great War (London: Frances Lincoln).

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Summers, Julie (2007) Remembered: the History of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (London: Merrell).

The Times (1928) “War Graves of the Empire: Reprinted from the Special Number of The Times, November 10, 1928.” (London: The Times Publishing Co.).

Ware, Fabian “Radio Broadcast Speech,” 9 November 1930, Commonwealth War Graves Commission, WG 237/2.

Ware, Fabian. “Radio Speech: War Graves of the Empire,” 11 November 1926, Commonwealth War Graves Commission, SDC 44.

Ware, Fabian. Radio broadcast: “Some Corner of a Foreign Field,” November 1933, Commonwealth War Graves Commission, WG 237/2.

Ware, Fabian (1937) The Immortal Heritage: an Account of the Work and Policy of the Imperial War Graves Commission during Twenty Years, 1917–1937 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press).


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


Leonidas Donskis

The Autumn of Nations – 25 Years After: Leonidas Donskis

17 August 2014
  • academic
  • 1989
  • transformation
  • freedom express
  • Central Europe
  • Eastern Europe

The year 2014 marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and of Eastern and Central European Revolution in general. Even on a short look backward, 1989 appears to have been the year that was nothing short of a miracle.


(1) What was the “Autumn of the Nations” in 1989 about and how should the events of that time be understood?

There is something beautifully ambivalent in the concept of the autumn – a Spengleresque motive of the waning merges here with the metaphor of fertility and harvest. Something straight out of the world of Der Untergang des Abendlandes by Oswald Spengler and Herfsttij der Middeleeuwen by Johan Huizinga.

The year 2014 marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and of Eastern and Central European Revolution in general. Even on a short look backward, 1989 appears to have been the year that was nothing short of a miracle. The World War II with its sinister and seemingly insurmountable divisions within Europe was over nearly overnight leaving no trace of disbelief, despair and hopelessness that devastated Eastern and Central Europe for more than forty years. Instead, Europe was filled with joy and the sense of solidarity. As Adam Michnik, a hero of the Solidarity movement and a towering figure among public intellectuals and dissenters of Central Europe, recently noticed, it is quite tempting nowadays to assume the role of having been the then leading force and the major inspiration behind the historic fall of totalitarianism in Europe. Therefore, it was with sounds reason that Michnik called the year 1989 the annus mirabilis, the miraculous year.

In the United States, it is taken for granted that it was nothing other than the economic power of America that stripped the former Soviet Union of its potential inflicting on it a humiliating defeat in the Cold War. German politicians would proudly assert that their wise and patient Ostpolitik was a decisive factor in this historic struggle, rather than direct force and bellicose stance of America.


In the United States, it is taken for granted that it was nothing other than the economic power of America that stripped the former Soviet Union of its potential inflicting on it a humiliating defeat in the Cold War. German politicians would proudly assert that their wise and patient Ostpolitik was a decisive factor in this historic struggle, rather than direct force and bellicose stance of America.

In Poland, nobody doubts that Pope John Paul II has come to delegitimize Communism both as a world system and a major rival ideology, whereas the Solidarity movement dealt a fatal blow to the mortally wounded Soviet system showing that the working class people can revolt against the Working Class State and deprive it of the remains of its legitimacy. In the Baltic states, it is widely assumed, and not without reason, that the living chain of the joined hands of Baltic people in 1989 that was followed by the exceptional role of Lithuania as the first rebellious and breakaway republic, also played a role in the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the collapse of Communism in Europe, the role that was much too obvious to need emphasis. All these kinds of reasoning and arguments are more or less correct. If a unique combination of forces and inspirations had not been possible, 1989 would never have become the decisive year that changed history beyond recognition.

What looked for a Western European intellectual like the Grand March of History stretching from the Latin Quarter of Paris to the rest of the globe, as the character Franz from Milan Kundera’s novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being has it, was a tragedy and the jackboot trampling on the face of the human being, in the way another character of the novel, Franz’s mistress Sabina, a Czech artist in exile, describes it. Socialism and a promise of freedom as a theory in the West proved a horrible practice in the East in that same year 1968. Memory politics, as well as opposing memory regimes, still divides Europe. The short century of 1914–1989 and the autumn of the nations were tragically logical in its overture, all movements, and finale. Each time the world was changing beyond recognition, it was a strong feeling of fatalism – a revolution, a war, a downfall, a criminal regime accompanied by complacency and impotence of the so-called civilized politics and institutions.

Words, words, words, and no explanations of what and why was lost or what kind of human and institutional weakness was fatal.


(3) Are there any analogies between past and present situation?

Yes and no. Yes, as I can clearly see the analogies between 1917 and 1989, because in both cases the world witnessed the collapse of the Russian Empire, whether in its classical-monarchist incarnation as ancien régime or in its even more devilish hypostasis as the Soviet Union. Poland, Finland, and the Baltic States have all become facts of world politics and international relations, and their names have been engraved in the political map of the world.

And no, since we live in the time of obsession with a different sort of power. As Zygmunt Bauman wittily noticed, the old formula of politics as a carrots-and-sticks strategy still holds, yet we, having seen in the twentieth century, the worst nightmares of sticks, are likely to experience the domination of carrots nowadays. Power manifests itself as the financial and economic might and potential, rather than military force and the language of militarism. Yet the logic remains the same. This is the old good wille-zur-macht, or the will-to-power, whether it assumes the guise of Friedrich Nietzsche or Karl Marx. The point is not if you have an identifiable Weltanschauung, a resilient identity or a major ideology; instead, the point is about how much power you have. I buy, therefore, I am.

We got accustomed to regarding a human being merely as a statistical unit. It does not come as a shock to us to view human individuals as workforce. The purchasing power of society or the ability to consume became crucial criteria to evaluate the degree of suitability of a country for the club of power to which we apply various sonorous titles of international organizations. The question whether you are a democracy becomes relevant only when you have no power and therefore have to be controlled through the means of rhetorical or political sticks. If you are oil-rich or if you can consume or invest really much, it absolves you from your failure to respect modern political and moral sensibilities or to stay committed to civil liberties and human rights. The crisis of the EU is quite different from all previous crises in the 20th century. Before and after WWII, Europeans were afraid to name things that existed already; for now, we are actively using words for things that have yet to come into existence. In fact, we live in a time of fundamental interregnum.


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

I have a feeling that what is happening in present Europe is a silent technocratic revolution, rather than the rise of e-democracy and global civil society, as some of us choose to believe. A decade or two ago it was crucial to have proof that you are a democracy to qualify for the club. What mattered was a set of values and commitments. For now, we are likely to enter the new stage in world politics: what really matters is your financial discipline, the ability to be suitable for a fiscal union, and your economic conduct. There was a time when Eastern European nations sincerely believed that the rule of law, a strong commitment to democracy, and a decent human rights record served as a passport to the heaven of Western attention, respect, and even security.

I am afraid we are loosing this now, and the Eastern Partnership countries are getting awfully discouraging and disenchanting news from the West that nobody will fight their fights, or nobody is willing to risk their gas and oil relations with Russia out of sheer European solidarity or something like that. This may be the kiss of death to the Idea of Europe in Eastern Europe, especially keeping in mind that the Maidan in Kiev was not only an anti-criminal revolution against a mafia state but also a truly European revolution of people who were far less Euroskeptical and cynical about the EU than their Western European counterparts put together…

Recalling Samuel Butler’s Erewhon (the title of this anti-utopian novel is an anagram of Nowhere – hence, a clear allusion to Thomas More’s Utopia), here we have the political and moral logic of Europe turned upside down. In Erewhon, Butler pokes fun of a utopian community where illness becomes a liability and where a failure to remain healthy and fit is prosecuted. Something of this kind can be found in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World where a failure to be happy is seen as a symptom of backwardness. A caricature of the pursuit of happiness in a distant technocratic and technological society should not console us as something beyond our reality, though.

What we have in Europe now is an emerging concept of the liability of economic impotence. No kind of political and economic impotence shall remain unpunished. This is to say that we no longer have a right to fail, which had long been an inescapable aspect of freedom. The right to be open to the possibility of bankruptcy or any other possibility of failure was part of the European saga of freedom as a fundamental choice we make every day facing its consequences.

Those days are gone. Now you are at risk of becoming a gravedigger of Europe or even of the entire world if you send a wrong message to the global market. You may cause a global domino effect, thus letting down your foes and allies who equally depend of that same single world power structure. This is a new language of power, hitherto unseen and unidentified by anybody in world history. Behave yourself, otherwise you will spoil the game and will let us down. In doing so, you will jeopardize the viability of a moral and social order within which no country or nation remains responsible for itself. Everything has its global repercussions and implications. And how about the nations? Up to now we were certain that the European nations embodied the Calvinist principle of predestination implying a possibility to be happy in this earthly life and in this-worldly reality; the Kantian principle of self-determination became more relevant in the 19th century. There was a world where the pursuit of happiness, like the possibility of salvation and self-fulfillment spoke the language of the republic and its values: hence, the emergence of postcolonial nations after two world wars and after the breakup of empires.

What we have today in our second modernity bears little, if any, resemblance to this logic of the first modernity, as Ulrich Beck would have it; we can no longer experience the passions and longings of the 20th century, not to mention the dramas of the 19th century, no matter how hard we try to relegitimize our historical and political narrative. To use the terms of Zygmunt Bauman, the liquid modernity transformed us into a global community of consumers. What was a nation in the era of solid modernity as a community of memory, collective sentiment and moral choice, now is a community of consumers who are obliged and expected to behave in order to qualify for the club.

In the epoch of facebook, the nations are becoming extraterritorial units of a shared language and culture. We knew in the era of solid modernity that the nation was made up by several factors, first and foremost by a common territory, language and culture as well as by the modern division of labor, social mobility and literacy. Nowadays, the picture is rather different: a nation appears as an ensemble of mobile individuals with their logic of life deeply embedded in withdrawal-and-return. It is a question of whether you are online or offline with regard to your country’s problems and the debates around them, instead of deciding once and for all whether you are going to stay in that same place or vote for those same political actors for the rest of your days. Either you are on or you are off. This is a daily plebiscite of a liquid-modern society.


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

In fact, 1989 was the end of geopolitics in Eastern and Central Europe. Yet on a closer look now it appears to have been just a geopolitical interregnum caused by Russia’s political impotence and humiliation by the West, as they claim now under Vladimir Putin – instead, it seems to have been a failure to bring the worst legacy of the USSR and Stalinism to the end. What we have now is a comeback of history and geopolitics all in one and all at once.

By the time this opinion piece is published, we will know whether Russian ambitions in Ukraine went beyond Crimea, but here in Kaunas, Lithuania, there is a strong sense of how history repeats itself. A feeling of being back in time with such code names as Munich, the Sudetenland, Hitler, Daladier, and Chamberlain is much stronger than it would have been any time earlier after the fall of the Berlin wall. We bid farewell to the holy naïveté of Francis Fukuyama’s vision of the end of history, as if to say: “Welcome back to the twentieth century!” We are parting with Fukuyama just to be on the way to Putiyama, as Andrei Piontkovsky, a brilliant Russian political analyst and essayist, once put it with his wit and elegance.

It must have been five years ago when I came up, in a seminar with high-ranking EU and American officials, diplomats, politicians, and academics, with a comparison of Putin’s Russia and post-Weimar Germany. I insisted on the rise of a revisionist state in Russia with a strong sense of injustice seemingly done by the West to the USSR and with the resulting wave of chauvinism, neo-imperialism, and fascism. Some colleagues took this remark quite seriously, yet others (especially Germans) thought that it was overstretched and overblown. I leave it to my gracious readership to decide who was right and who was wrong at that time.

Arnold J. Toynbee, echoing a great many historians, once asked: Does history repeat itself? Karl Marx wittily and caustically answered this question in the nineteenth century reminding us that it does, and even twice: once as a tragedy and then as a farce. There are quite a few indications that what proved a Shakespearean tragedy in the twentieth century tends to repeat itself as a farce now. The Soviet Union and its new industrial faith, as Ernest Gellner described it, was nothing short of a civilizational alternative and rivalry to Europe or to the West, if you will. A deep disappointment with the supposed Jerusalem of the Left, along with the real collapse of modern belief (or disbelief) in a hidden alternative to capitalism and liberalism had a component of a universal tragedy.

Yet what appears as real present civilizational rival to Europe is Russia’s crony capitalism coupled with a gangster state, instead of a resistance ideology or a utopian dream. What was a tragic cul-de-sac of humanity turned into a grotesque of a rogue state with semi-criminal elite. Ideology without any ideology, or capitalism without liberty – no theory or ideological doctrine of the twentieth century can explain this phenomenon. Living in post-ideological and, in all likelihood, post-political era, creates quite a few predicaments when trying to apply mainstream views or conventional wisdom of the past.

History does repeat itself – we will know soon as to whether it is doing so this time as a tragedy or as a farce. We will learn whether the new Iron Curtain and the Old New Cold War is about impotence and forthcoming final disintegration of Russia or whether it is all about our own impotence along with the crushing of our hopes to achieve the final breakthrough. Up to now I was tempted to believe that Russia will fail inexorably due to its own fallacies and also due to a radically different situation in which Poland, the Baltic States, and other democracies find themselves.

Yet I do not have the answer about the fate of Ukraine, the nation that has already become the litmus test case of all of our strengths and weaknesses.



Dr. Leonidas Donskis is a Member of the European Parliament (2009–2014). He has written and edited over thirty books, fifteen of them in English. Donskis combines political theory, history of ideas, philosophy of culture, philosophy of literature, and essayistic style. Among other books, he is co-author (together with Zygmunt Bauman) of Moral Blindness: The Loss of Sensitivity in Liquid Modernity (2013), and the author of Fifty Letters from the Troubled Modern World: A Philosophical-Political Diary, 2009–2012 (2013), Modernity in Crisis: A Dialogue on the Culture of Belonging (2011), Troubled Identity and the Modern World (2009), Power and Imagination: Studies in Politics and Literature (2008), and Forms of Hatred: The Troubled Imagination in Modern Philosophy and Literature (2003). Donskis acts as a visiting professor of politics at Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas, Lithuania. He holds an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters from the University of Bradford, Great Britain.



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.