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.

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

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

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


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

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

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

Information and sources

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

The memory (memories) of World War I

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

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

National and European remembrance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Private and the public remembrance

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

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

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

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

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

Availability vs. unavailability, or mass vs. quality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Searching and finding on the Internet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advantages and disadvantages of digital source research

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

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

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

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

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

Digital archives and the memory of World War I

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

List of References

Akçam, Taner (2012) The Young Turks’ Crime against Humanity: The Armenian Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing in the Ottoman Empire (Princeton: Princeton University Press).

Akin, Yigit (2013), “The Ottoman Homefront During the First World War” (a lecture presented at the Research Colloquium on Modern History, the Free University of Berlin, May 14).

Ancestry, www.ancestry.co.uk; www.ancestry.de, accessed 21.07.2013.

ANNO, Austrian Newspapers Online, anno.onb.ac.at; ANNO Jahresübersicht der Zeitungen und Zeitschriften, available online at: anno.onb.ac.at/cgi-content/anno?zoom=33, accessed 17.07.2013.

ANZ, Archives New Zealand – Books of Active-Service Fatal-Casualty Forms, archway.archives.govt.nz, accessed 17.07.2013.

APEnet, Archives Portal Europe network of excellence, available online at: www.archivesportaleurope.net, accessed 18.07.2013.

APEx, Archives Portal Europe, www.apex-project.eu, accessed 18.07.2013.

ARC, U. S. National Archives and Records Administration ARC Gallery: World War I, available online at: www.archives.gov, accessed 18.07.2013.

BA-DB, Bundesarchiv, Digitales Bildarchiv (the Digital Picture Archives of the Federal Archives), available online at: www.bild.bundesarchiv.de, accessed 29.07.2013.

BA-PD, Bundesarchiv, Plakatdatenbank (the poster database of the Federal Archives), available online at: www.bild.bundesarchiv.de/collections/2265753/_1374759225/?, accessed 25.07.2013.

Becker, Arno and Kutbay, Ismail (2013) Tagungsbericht The Wars before the War (1912/13). 07.12.2012–08.12.2012, Bonn, in: H-Soz-u-Kult, 15.05.2013, available online at: hsozkult.geschichte.hu-berlin.de, accessed 21.07.2013.

Becker, Jean-Jacques (1977) 1914: Comment les Français sont entrés dans la guerre (Paris: Presses de la Fondation nationale des sciences politiques).

BfZ, Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte (Library of Contemporary History), Themenportal Erster Weltkrieg, available online at: www.wlb-stuttgart.de, including posters: avanti.wlb-stuttgart.de/bfz/plakat, accessed 25.07.2013.

BLB, Badische Landesbibliothek, available online at: www.blb-karlsruhe.de, accessed 18.07.2013.

Calenda, Le Calendrier des Lettres et Sciences Humaines et Sociales: available online at: calenda.org, accessed 21.07.2013.

CENDARI, Collaborative European Digital Archival Infrastructure, available online at: www.cendari.eu, accessed 30.05.2013.

Clio, Clio online: Themenportal 1. Weltkrieg, available online at: www.erster-weltkrieg.clio-online.de, accessed 16.07.2013.

CWGC, Commonwealth War Graves Commission, available online at: www.cwgc.org, accessed 29.07.2013.

EC1914–1918, Europeana Collections 1914–1918, available online at: www.europeanacollections-1914–1918.eu, accessed 26.07.2013.

EFG, European Film Gateway, available online at: www.europeanfilmgateway.eu/de, accessed 15.07.2013.

EFG1914 (follow-up project) European Film Gateway EFG1914, available online at: www.project.efg1914.eu, accessed 15.07.2013.

EFG1914-Titles, European Film Gateway EFG1914 – Available Titles: docs.google.com, accessed 26.07.2013.

E-KCP, E-Kolekcja Czasopism Polskich, available online at: buwcd.buw.uw.edu.pl/e_zbiory/ckcp/CKCP.html, accessed 17.07.2013.

EnArC, European Network on Archival Cooperation EnArC, available online at: enarc.icar-us.eu, accessed 12.05.2013.

Europeana 1914–1918, available online at: www.europeana1914–1918.eu, accessed 18.07.2013.

Fischer, Fritz (2000 [1961]) Griff nach der Weltmacht. Die Kriegszielpolitik des kaiserlichen Deutschland 1914/18 (Düsseldorf: Droste), reprint of the special edition of 1967, first published in 1961.

Fourteeneighteen, Fourteeneighteen Professional, available online at: www.fourteeneighteen.co.uk.

FWWS, Collaborative Bibliography of the International Society for First World War Studies, available online at: www.firstworldwarstudies.org, accessed 30.05.2013.

GrandeGuerre, La Grande Guerre. A Global History of World War I, available online at: Grandeguerre.Hypotheses.org, accessed 21.07.2013.

Große Kracht, Klaus (2005) Die zankende Zunft. Historische Kontroversen in Deutschland nach 1945 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht).

Große Kracht, Klaus (2004), “Kriegsschuldfrage und zeithistorische Forschung in Deutschland. Historiographische Nachwirkungen des Ersten Weltkriegs,” in Zeitgeschichte-online, Thema: Fronterlebnis und Nachkriegsordnung. Wirkung und Wahrnehmung des Ersten Weltkriegs, May 2004, available online at: www.zeitgeschichte-online.de/md=EWKGKracht, accessed 12.07.2013.

GWA, The Great War Archive, available online at: www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/ww1lit/gwa, accessed: 19.07.2013.

Haber, Peter (2011), Digital Past. Geschichtswissenschaft im digitalen Zeitalter (Munich: Oldenbourg Verlag).

Heathorn, Stephen (2005), “The Mnemonic Turn in the Cultural Historiography of Britain’s Great War,” Historical Journal 48/4, 1103–1024.

Hettling, Manfred and Jörg Echternkamp (2013), Gefallenengedenken im globalen Vergleich. Nationale Tradition, politische Legitimation und Individualisierung der Erinnerung (Munich: Oldenbourg Verlag).

ICARUS, International Centre for Archival Research ICARUS, available online at: icar-us.eu, accessed 12.05.2013.

ICEM, Institut Cooperatif de l´Ecole Moderne, Pédagogie Freinet, available online at: www.icem-pedagogie-freinet.org/node/18638, accessed 30.07.2013.

IFF, In Flanders Fields Museum Database, available online at: www.inflandersfields.be, accessed 17.07.2013.

Iten, Iten Genealogie, available online at: iten-genealogie.jimdo.com, accessed 21.07.2013.

WM1914, Imperial War Museum, First World War Centenary 1914–1918, available online at: www.1914.org, accessed 16.05.2013.

IWMLives, Imperial War Museum Lives of the First World War, available online at: www.livesofthefirstworldwar.org, accessed 17.07.2013.

Jeller, Daniel (2013) Die Archivalie im Zeitalter ihrer digitalen Reproduzierbarkeit, diploma thesis, University of Vienna, available online at:cluster.nettek.at/?post_ type=document&p=1118,96f, accessed 27.07.2013.

JISC-WW1, First World War Collections in the UK, available online at: jiscww1.jiscinvolve. org/wp/files/2012/02/iDF165-SCA_WW1CollectionsGuide_Jan12_v1–05.pdf, accessed 17.07.2013

Kilb, Andreas (2011), “Digitales Kulturerbe: Unsichtbare Vasen für die Menschheit,” FAZ 1.12.2011, available online at: www.faz.net, accessed 18.07.2013.

Krameritsch, Jakob (2009), ‘Die fünf Typen des historischen Erzählens – im Zeitalter digitaler Medien’, in: Zeithistorische Forschungen/Studies in Contemporary History, online edition, 6 (2009), H. 3, available online at: www.zeithistorische-forschungen.de, accessed 23.07.2013.

Kruse, Wolfgang (1991), “Die Kriegsbegeisterung im Deutschen Reich,” in Marcel van der Linden, Gottfried Mergner (eds) Kriegsbegeisterung und mentale Kriegsvorbereitung. Interdisziplinäre Studien, Beiträge zur politischen Wissenschaft, Vol. 61 (Berlin: Duncker & Humblot), 73–87.

KS1914–1918, Arbeitsgemeinschaft der deutschen Regionalbibliotheken: Kriegssammlungen 1914–1918, available online at: www.kriegssammlungen.de, accessed 13.07.2013.

LA-NRW, Landesarchiv NRW Abteilung Westfalen, Quellen zum Ersten Weltkrieg, available online at: www.archive.nrw.de, accessed 29.07.2013.

LLT, The Long, Long Trail, available online at: www.1914–1918.net, accessed 28.07.2013.

LOC-WW1, Library of Congress, World War I Posters Collection, available online at: www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/wwipos, accessed 25.07.2013.

Menzel, Thomas, “Die Überlieferung zum Ersten Weltkrieg im Bundesarchiv-Militärarchiv,” available online at: www.erster-weltkrieg.clio-online.de, accessed 29.07.2013.

Moller, Sabine (2010), “Erinnerung und Gedächtnis, Version: 1.0,” in Docupedia-Zeitgeschichte, 12.4.2010, available online at: docupedia.de, accessed 15.07.2013.

Mommsen, Wolfgang J. (2004) Der Erste Weltkrieg. Anfang vom Ende des bürgerlichen Zeitalters (Frankfurt/M.: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag).

NAA, National Archives of Australia, Army – World War I: 1914–18, available online at: www.naa.gov.au, accessed 17.07.2013.

NAC, Narodowe Archiwum Cyfrowe, available online at: www.nac.gov.pl/node/708, accessed 24.07.2013.

NAC-online, Zbiory NAC on-line-prototyp, available online at: www.audiovis.nac.gov.pl, accessed 24.07.2013.

NA-OC, The National Archives Online Collections, available online at discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk, accessed 17.07.2013.

NA-OR, The National Archives, Our Online Records, available online at: www.nationalarchives.gov.uk, accessed 14.07.2013.

NAQ, Not All Quiet on the Ottoman Fronts: Neglected Perspectives on a Global War, 1914–18, Istanbul April 9–12, 2014, available online at: www.ottomanfronts1914–1918.org, accessed 28.07.2013.

NARA, U. S. National Archives and Records Administration Citizen Archivist Dashboard, available online at: www.archives.gov/citizen-archivist, accessed 18.07.2013.

NA-YA, The National Archives Your Archives Research Guide: British Army Soldiers´ Papers, First World War, 1914–1918, available online at: yourarchives.nationalarchives.gov.uk/, accessed 17.07.2013.

NLS, The National Library of Scotland, First World War Official Photographs, available online at: digital.nls.uk/74462370, accessed 25.07.2013.

Pennell, Catriona (2012) A Kingdom United. Popular Responses to the Outbreak of the First World War in Britain and Ireland (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Plaggenborg, Stefan (2012) Ordnung und Gewalt. Kemalismus – Faschismus – Sozialismus (München: Oldenbourg Verlag).

Reimann, Aribert (2004), “Der Erste Weltkrieg – Urkatastrophe oder Katalysator?,” in Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte B 29–30, 30–38.

RussiaWW1, Russia in the First World War. Conference announcement: International Center for the History and Sociology of World War II and its Consequences; National Research University Higher School of Economics (Moscow); German Historical Institute (Moscow); Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies; United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (Washington, DC); with additional support from a number of other institutions, available online at: hsozkult.geschichte.hu-berlin.de, accessed 29.07.2013.

SNB, National Library of Serbia, Belgrad, available online at: velikirat.nb.rs/en, accessed 18.07.2013.

Stahlgewitter, Das Archiv zum 1. Weltkrieg, available online at: www.stahlgewitter.com, accessed 19.07.2013.

Szukaj, Zbiory archiwalne online, available online at: www.szukajwarchiwach.pl, accessed 24.07.2013.

Terzieva, Maria (2013), “Archives State Agency of Bulgaria: attempts to popularize its digital holdings” (lecture at the APEx Conference in Dublin 26.-28.06.2013), available online at: www.apex-project.eu, accessed 16.07.2013.

Todman, Dan (2012), “The First World War in History,” available online at: ww1centenary.oucs.ox.ac.uk, accessed 30.07.2013.

Tomann, Juliane; Jacqueline Nießer; Anna Littke; Jacob Ackermann and Felix Ackermann (2011) ‘Diskussion Angewandte Geschichte: Ein neuer Ansatz?, Version: 1.0’, in: Docupedia-Zeitgeschichte, 15. 2.2011, available online at: docupedia.de/zg/Diskussion_Angewandte_Geschichte?oldid=84597, accessed 17.07.2013.

Vanden Bosch, Hans; Michael Amara; Vanessa D’Hooghe (2010) “Guide des sources de la Premiere Guerre mondiale en Belgique” / “Archievenoverzicht betreffende de Eerste Wereldoorlog in België, Etudes sur la premiere guerre mondiale” / “Studies over de Eerste Wereldoorlog” (Algemeen Rijksarchief – Archives générales du Royaume), Brussels, available online at: extranet.arch.be - vol 1; extranet.arch.be - vol. 2, accessed 18.07.2013.

Verhey, Jeffrey (2000) Der Geist von 1914 und die Erfindung der Volksgemeinschaft (Hamburg: Hamburger Edition).

White, Hayden (1990) Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press).

WikiMedia, Wikimedia Commons, available online at: commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Hauptseite, accessed 19.07.2013.

WW1 Centenary, World War I Centenary. Continuations and Beginnings, available online at: ww1centenary.oucs.ox.ac.uk, accessed 21.07.2013.


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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For further reading:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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




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

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

Photo of the publication From Dissidence to Neoliberalism? Reflections on the Human Rights Legacy of 1989
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).


List of References

Arndt, Agnes (2013) Rote Bürger: Eine Milieu – und Beziehungsgeschichte linker Dissidenz in Polen (1956–1976) (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht).

Bob, Clifford (2005) The Marketing of Rebellion: Insurgents, Media, and International Activism (Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press).

Bolton, Jonathan (2012) Worlds of Dissent: Charter 77, the Plastic People of the Universe, and Czech Culture under Communism (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press).

Bradley, Mark (2012) “Approaching the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” in Akira Iriye, Petra Goedde, and William I. Hitchcock (eds) The Human Rights Revolution: An International History (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press), pp. 327–343.

Brier, Robert (2011) “Adam Michnik’s Understanding of Totalitarianism and the West European Left: A Historical and Transnational Approach to Dissident Political Thought,” East European Politics & Societies 25, pp. 197–218. — (2103) “Entangled Protest: Dissent and the Transnational History of the 1970s and 1980s,” in idem, ed. (2013) Entangled Protest: Transnational Perspectives on the History of Dissent in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union (Osnabrück: fibre), pp. 11–43.

Bright, Christopher (1990) “Neither Dictatorships nor Double Standards: The Reagan Administration’s Approach to Human Rights,” World Affairs 153, pp. 51–80.

Christofferson, Michael Scott (2004) French Intellectuals Against The Left: The Antitotalitarian Moment of the 1970s (New York, Oxford: Berghahn Books).

Ciżewska, Elżbieta (2010) Filozofia publiczna Solidarności: Solidarnośc 1980–1981 z perspektywy republikańskiej tradycji politycznej (Warszawa: Narodowe Centrum Kultury).

Cmiel, Kenneth (1999) “The Emergence of Human Rights Politics in the United States,” The Journal of American History 86, pp. 1231–1250.

Cohen, Jean L. (2008) “Rethinking Human Rights, Democracy, and Sovereignty in the Age of Globalization,” Political Theory 36, pp. 578–606.

Cywiński, Bohdan (1971) Rodowody niepokornych (Warszawa: Biblioteka “Więzi”).

Dahrendorf, Ralf (1990) Reflections on the Revolution in Europe in a Letter Intended to Have Been Sent to a Gentleman in Warsaw (New York: Times Books).

Domnitz, Christian (2013) “Overcoming Bloc Division from Below: Jiří Hájek and the CSCE Appeal of Charter 77,” in Frédéric Bozo, Marie-Pierre Rey, N. Piers Ludlow, and Bernd Rother (eds) Visions of the End of the Cold War, 1945–1990 (New York, Oxford: Berghahn), pp. 177–192.

Dunne, Tim (2007) “The Rules of the Game Are Changing’: Fundamental Human Rights in Crisis After 9/11,” International Politics 44, pp. 269–286.

Eckel, Jan (2009) “Utopie der Moral, Kalkül der Macht: Menschenrechte in der globalen Politik seit 1945,” Archiv für Sozialgeschichte 49, pp. 437–484. — (2011) “Under the Magnifying Glass”: The International Human Rights Campaign Against Chile in the Seventies,” in Stefan-Ludwig Hoffmann (ed.) Human Rights in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp. 321–342.

Eckel, Jan, and Samuel Moyn (eds) (2013) The Breakthrough: Human Rights in the 1970s (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press).

Eichwede, Wolfgang (2010) “‘Entspannung mit menschlichem Antlitz’: KSZE, Menschenrechte, Samizdat,” Osteuropa 60, pp. 59–84.

Elshtain, Jean Bethke (1992) “A Man for this Season: Václav Havel on Freedom and Responsibility,” Perspectives on Political Science 21, pp. 207–211. Ethics and Public Policy Center (1983) “Center Honors Lech Walesa,” Ethics and Public Policy Center Newsletter 6, pp. 1, 4.

Falk, Barbara J. (2003) The Dilemmas of Dissidence in East-Central Europe: Citizen Intellectuals and Philosopher Kings (Budapest: CEU Press).

Findlay, Edward F. (1999) “Classical Ethics and Postmodern Critique: Political Philosophy in Václav Havel and Jan Patočka,” The Review of Politics 61, pp. 403–438.

Fischer, Uli, Milan Horacek, Petra Kelly, and Elisabeth Weber (1986) “Was soll das Geholze,” Kommune 4, pp. 58–60.

Friszke, Andrzej (2010) Anatomia buntu: Kuroń, Modzelewski i komandosi (Kraków: Znak). — (2011) Czas KOR-u: Jacek Kuroń a geneza Solidarności (Kraków: Znak, ISP PAN).

Gawin, Dariusz (2013) Wielki zwrot: Ewolucja lewicy i odrodzenia idei społeczeństwa obywatelskiego (Kraków: Znak).

Goddeeris, Idesbald (ed.) (2010) Solidarity with Solidarity: Western European Trade Unions and the Polish Crisis, 1980–1982 (Lanham: Lexington).

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

Haas, Peter M. (1992) “Introduction: Epistemic Communities in International Policy Coordination,” International Organization 46, pp. 1–35.

Habermas, Jürgen (1990) “What Does Socialism Mean Today? The Rectifying Revolution and the Need for New Thinking on the Left,” New Left Review I/183, pp. 3–21.

Havel, Václav (1985) “The Power of the Powerless,” International Journal of Politics 15, pp. 23–96.

Havel, Vaclav (1984) “Politics and Conscience.” — (1995) “Forgetting We Are Not God,” First Things 6, pp. 47–49.

Hipp, Markus (1995) “Identität und Verantwortung im Denken Václav Havels,” Bohemia 36, pp. 298–329.

Hoffmann, Stefan-Ludwig (ed.) (2012) Human Rights in the Twentieth Century (New York: Cambridge University Press).

Horvath, Robert (2005) The legacy of Soviet dissent: dissidents, democratisation and radical nationalism in Russia (London; New York: RoutledgeCurzon).

— (2007) ‚”The Solzhenitsyn Effect: East European Dissidents and the Demise of the Revolutionary Privilege,” Human Rights Quarterly 29, pp. 879–907.

Howard, Dick (2002) The Specter of Democracy (New York: Columbia University Press).

Ingram, James D. (2008) “What Is a ‘Right to Have Rights’? Three Images of the Politics of Human Rights,” The American Political Science Review 102, pp. 401–416.

Iriye, Akira, Petra Goedde, and William I. Hitchcock (eds) (2012) The Human Rights Revolution: An International History (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press).

Jarząbek, Wanda (2013) “A Growing Problem: The Polish People’s Republic and the Problem of Human Rights in the Context of the CSCE process, 1975–1983,” in Robert Brier (ed.) Entangled Protest: Transnational Perspectives on the History of Dissent Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union (Osnabrück: Fibre), pp. 129–149.

Joas, Hans (2000) The Genesis of Values (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

— (2013) The Sacredness of the Person: A New Genealogy of Human Rights (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press).

Johnstone, Diana (1984) “How the French Left Learned to Love the Bomb,” New Left Review I/146, pp. 5–36.

Kahn, Tom, and Norman Podhoretz (2008) “How to Support Solidarnosc: A Debate,” Democratiya 3, pp. 230–261.

Keane, John (1999) Václav Havel: A Political Tragedy in Six Acts (London: Bloomsbury).

Kelly, Petra (1990) “Für eine Solidarność des Friedens,” in Marie-Luise Recker (ed.) Politische Reden (Frankfurt am Main: Deutscher Klassiker Verlag), pp. 738–743.

Keys, Barbara (2012) “Anti-Torture Politics: Amnesty International, the Greek Junta, and the Origins of the Human Rights ‘Boom’ in the United States,” in Akira Iriye, Petra Goedde, and William I. Hitchcock (eds) The Human Rights Revolution: An International History (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press), pp. 201–222.

Khilnani, Sunil (1993) Arguing Revolution: The Intellectual Left in Postwar France (New Haven: Yale University Press).

Kind-Kovács, Friederike, and Jessie Labov (eds) (2013) Samizdat, Tamizdat, and Beyond: Transnational Media during and after Socialism (New York: Berghahn Books).

Kirkpatrick, Jeane J. (1979) “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” Commentary. — (1988) “We and They,” in her Legitimacy and Force: Political and Moral Dimensions (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction), pp. 35–41.

Kołakowski, Leszek (1971) “Theses on Hope and Hopelessness,” Survey 17, pp. 37–52.

Kopeček, Michal (2012) “Human Rights Facing a National Past: Dissident ‘Civic Patriotism’ and the Return of History in East Central Europe, 1968 –1989,” Geschichte und Gesellschaft 38, pp. 573 – 602.

Krauthammer, Charles (1982) “A Panglossian Warsaw,” The New Republic, 10 February 1982.

Kuroń, Jacek (2010) Opozycja: Pisma polityczne 1969–1989 (Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Krytyki Politycznej).

— (2011) Autobiografia (Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Krytyki Politycznej).

Le Monde (1983) “Adam Michnik et le Chili,” 29 July 1983.

Lefort, Claude (1986) The Political Forms of Modern Society: Bureaucracy, Democracy, Totalitarianism (Cambridge: Polity).

Luks, Leonid (2010) “Idee und Identität: Traditionslinien im sowjetischen Dissens,” Osteuropa 60, pp. 105–126.

Luxmoore, Jonathan, and Jolanta Babiuch (1995) “In Search of Faith: The Metaphysical Dialogue Between Poland’s Opposition Intellectuals in the 1970s,” Religion, State and Society 23, pp. 75–95.

Mazowiecki, Tadeusz (1978) „Chrześcijaństwo a prawa człowieka,” Więź 2, pp. 5–15.

Metger, Julia (2013) “Writing the Papers: How Western Correspondents Reported the First Dissident Trials in Moscow, 1965–1972,” in Robert Brier (ed.) Entangled Protest: Transnational Perspectives on the History of Dissent in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union (Osnabrück: Fibre), pp. 87–108.

Michnik, Adam (1985) “A New Evolutionism,” in his Letters From Prison and Other Essays (Berkeley: University of California Press), pp. 135–148.

— (1993). The Church and the Left (Chicago, London: Chicago University Press).

Miller, Stefania Szlek (1983) “Catholic Personalism and Pluralist Democracy in Poland,” Canadian Slavonic Papers / Revue Canadienne des Slavistes 25, pp. 425–439.

Miłosz, Czesław (1953) The Captive Mind (New York: Alfred Knopf).

Moyn, Samuel (2010) The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History (Cambridge: Harvard University Press).

— (2011) “Personalism, Community, and the Origins of Human Rights,” in Stefan-Ludwig Hoffmann (ed.) Human Rights in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp. 85–106.

— (2012) “Die neue Historiographie der Menschenrechte,” Geschichte und Gesellschaft 38, pp. 545–572.

Nathans, Benjamin (2007) “The Dictatorship of Reason: Aleksandr Vol’pin and the Idea of Rights under ‘Developed Socialism’,” Slavic Review 66, pp. 630–663.

— (2013) “The Disenchantment of Socialism: Soviet Dissidents, Human Rights, and the New Global Morality,” in Jan Eckel and Samuel Moyn (eds) The Breakthrough: Human Rights in the 1970s (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press), pp.

Ostrowska, Marta (1976) „Kolokwium ‘1956’,” Kultura 11, pp. 3–10.

Paulmann, Johannes (2013) “Human Rights as History,” History Workshop Journal 75, pp. 335–342.

Pendas, Devin O. (2012) “Toward a New Politics? On the Recent Historiography of Human Rights,” Contemporary European History 21, pp. 95–111.

Peterson, Christian (2011) Globalizing Human Rights: Private Citizens, the Soviet Union, and the West (New York: Routledge).

Porter-Szűcs, Brian (2011) Faith and Fatherland: Catholicism, Modernity, and Poland (New York: Oxford University Press).

Reagan, Ronald (1982) Address to the Members of British Parliament, Westminster, 8 June 1982, The Public Papers of President Ronald Wilson Reagan available online at: http://www.reagan.utexas.edu/archives/speeches/1982/60882a.htm (last accessed 15 Nov. 2013).

Schimmelfennig, Frank (2001) “The Community Trap: Liberal Norms, Rhetorical Action, and the Eastern Enlargement of the European Union,” International Organization 55, pp. 47–80.

Simpson, Bradley R. (2009) “Denying the ‘First Right’: The United States, Indonesia, and the Ranking of Human Rights by the Carter Administration, 1976–1980,” The International History Review 31, pp. 798–826.

Smolar, Aleksander (2001) “History and Memory: The Revolutions of 1989–91,” Journal of Democracy 12, pp. 5–19.

Snyder, Sarah B. (2011) Human Rights Activism and the End of the Cold War: A Transnational History of the Helsinki Network (Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press).

Solzhenitsyn, Alexander (1974) “Live not by Lies,” Washington Post, 18 Feb. 1978.

Sutor, Bernhard (2008) “Katholische Kirche und Menschenrechte: Kontinuität oder Diskontinuität in der kirchlichen Soziallehre?,” Forum für osteuropäische Ideen – und Zeitgeschichte 12, pp. 141–158.

Szacki, Jerzy (1995) Liberalism after Communism (Budapest, New York: Central European University Press).

Szulecki, Kacper (2011) “Hijacked Ideas: Human Rights, Peace, and Environmentalism in Czechoslovak and Polish Dissident Discourses,” East European Politics & Societies 25, pp. 272–295.

— (2013) “Freedom and Peace are Indivisible: On the Polish and Czechoslovak Input to the European Peace Movement 1985–89,” in Robert Brier (ed.) Entangled Protest: Transnational Perspectives on the History of Dissent in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union (Osnabrück: Fibre), pp. 201–229.

Thomas, Daniel C. (2001). The Helsinki Effect: International Norms, Human Rights, and the Demise of Communism (Princeton: Princeton University Press).

Vilímek, Tomáš (2013) “Oppositionists in the ČSSR and the GDR: Mutual Awareness, Exchanges of Ideas, and Cooperation, 1968–1989,” in Robert Brier (ed.) Entangled Protest: Transnational Perspectives on the History of Dissent in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union (Osnabrück: Fibre), pp. 55–86.

Voronkov, Viktor, and Jan Wielgohs (2004) “Soviet Russia,” in Detlef Pollack and Jan Wielgohs (eds.) Dissent and Opposition in Communist Eastern Europe (Aldershot: Ashgate), pp. 95–118.

Walker, Barbara (2009) “Pollution and Purification in the Moscow Human Rights Networks of the 1960s and 1970s,” Slavic Review 68, pp. 376–395. — (2010) “Moscow Human Rights Defenders Look West: Attitudes toward U. S. Journalists in the 1960s and 1970s,” in György Péteri (ed.) Imagining the West in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union (Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press), pp. 237–257.

Ziemann, Benjamin (2009) “A Quantum of Solace? European Peace Movements during the Cold War and their Elective Affinities,” Archiv für Sozialgeschichte 49, pp. 351–389.



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

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

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


Photo of the publication Conference Report: European Remembrance. Europe between War and Peace 1914-2014
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.

Photo of the publication Conference report: European Remembrance 2nd Symposium
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


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

“Cemetery Entrance Inscriptions,” January 1920, Commonwealth War Graves Commission, WG 214–7, 15.

“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).

Stamp Garfield, John and Gavin Stamp (1990) The Fallen: a Photographic Journey through the War Cemeteries and Memorials of the Great War, 1914–1918 (London: Leo Cooper).

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


Photo of the publication The Autumn of Nations – 25 Years After: Leonidas Donskis
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.


Photo of the publication 25 years of freedom, that is a journey from a periphery to a periphery
Adam Leszczyński

25 years of freedom, that is a journey from a periphery to a periphery

15 August 2014
  • 1989
  • transformation
  • periphery
  • peripheries
  • Poland
  • End of Communism
  • end of the 20th century

A quarter-century after recovering freedom the Poles have to confront again the notion of their civilisation belonging to the periphery.

When the celebrations of the 25th anniversary of freedom started, I wrote in Gazeta Wyborcza[1] about the Polish cultural leap after 1989, and a member of the public reacted bitterly to my text. He asked: if “everybody” believes that Poland made it, that we achieved a collective cultural advance, why is it so bad? The reader cited a survey from March 2014 (conducted by the well-known polling institute Millward Brown), according to which only 17% of Poles “did not consider” emigration.

He went on: Why is health care such a shambles, and why education (including, or perhaps especially, university education) is so poor? Why do we have such a high unemployment rate, despite the fact that several millions of our compatriots have already left Poland in order to search for a job and professional fulfilment abroad? Why do so many people find it so hard to make ends meet? Why is our economy so lacking in innovation? Why we are still a peripheral country?

He also asked why book readership in our country was declining, why quality press was unable to stay on the market – in Poland we have no counterparts of The New Yorker or The New York Review of Books. The problem is not wealth: the problem is culture. “In the foreseeable future Poland will have motorways and express roads in abundance. What strikes every driver coming from Germany to Poland is a completely different driving culture. My worry is that in the foreseeable future this difference will be the same.”

This anecdote illustrates a fundamental discussion now going on in Poland today. You can find its echo in debates concerning various spheres of life - the economy, education, public administration, labour market. A quarter-century after recovering freedom the Poles have to confront again the notion of their civilisation belonging to the periphery. The history of the Polish struggle with the awareness that we are not the navel of the world, is very long. In the eighteenth century aristocratic ideologues wrote that Poland was antemurale christianitatis, the rampart of Christianity, the easternmost bastion of Western civilization, the historical mission of which was to protect the rich and well-fed Europe against the barbarian hordes flooding in from the south and the east. In this ideology the Polish sabres were the main bulwark separating the lazy and helpless Western bourgeois from Oriental despotisms, in its Orthodox or Muslim versions.

But it was not accidental that the “rampart of Christianity” concept gained momentum in Poland only when the nobility of The Republic was already in decline and later, at the time of the Partitions, when the Poles lost their own state. The message was clear: our Polish moral merits not only entitled us to Western help in the fight against the invaders (to whom we had finally succumbed after centuries of heroic struggle). In the play Kordian by Słowacki the Pope greets the main protagonist with the words “welcome to a descendant of the Sobieskis” – that is those Poles who saved Christianity at Vienna in 1683. The Pope, of course, did not help Poland, leaving Kordian – a classic Polish romantic hero - a prey to depression and gloomy reflections on the nature of the world. The West, of course, did not read Polish lamentations, because they were mostly written in Polish, so it was not even aware of their existence.

The costs of the titanic effort in defending the Western civilisation incurred by the Republic and its citizens also explained Polish cultural backwardness. The roads in Poland had always been bad, the inns dirty, poverty widespread, and the peasants – constituting as much as 90% of contemporary society – lived in conditions decrying even the contemporary notions of a decent standard of life. At the same time the gentry and nobility lived in luxury.

There is no space here to cite the numerous reports of Western travellers who believed that Poland did belong to a different civilisation than the West (they experienced another cultural shock when entering the territory of Russia).[2] I will confine myself to one description, by an Englishman named William Jacob, who in 1825 was commissioned by the British government to cross the length and breadth of the then Kingdom of Poland, Galicia and the Baltic provinces of Russia. Jacob was asked to examine how much grain and at what prices could be provided by the lands of the “former Poland”. After returning to England he published a comprehensive report, where he also described - in the fashion of contemporary travelogues - the inhabitants of the Polish lands.[3] He noted the reluctance of the nobility to take up any occupations outside the military service and the dominant position of the Jews in trade and the Germans in crafts. (Germans, he observed, felt uncomfortable in Poland and longed to return home after they have made enough money.) The author devoted much attention to Polish peasants.

They are no longer slaves, or adscripti glebae. [...] Though no longer slaves, the condition of the peasants is but little practically improved by the change that has been made in their condition. When a transfer is made, either by testament or conveyance, the persons of the peasantry are not indeed expressly conveyed, but they services are, and in many instances are the most valuable part of the property. [...] These people live in Wooden Huts, covered with thatch or shingles, consisting of one room with a stove, around which the inhabitants and their cattle crowd together, and where the most disgusting kinds of filthiness are to be seen. Their common Food is cabbage, potatoes sometimes, but not generally, pease, black bread, and soup, or rather gruel, without the addition of butter or meat. Their chief Drink is water, or the cheap whiskey of the country, which is the only luxury of the peasants; ad is drunk, whenever they can obtain it, in enormous quantities. [...] In their houses they have little that merits the name of furniture; and their clothing is coarse, ragged and filthy, even to disgust. Very little attention has been paid to their Education, and they are generally ignorant, superstitious, and fanatical. [...] This Representation of the condition and character of the Peasantry, though general, cannot be considered so universal as to admit of no exceptions; some rare instances of perseverance in economy, industry, and temperance, are to be found.[4]

Economic historians confirm this grim picture. Estimating the Polish GDP per capita over the centuries is of course a very bold exercise: the data are haphazard, the price structure in past centuries is different than today. The information that in 1820 the GDP per capita in the Polish lands was $686 per year, more than in China ($600) but less than in England or the U.S. (respectively 1200 and 1250 dollars) tells us little, although it is cited by economists in dead earnest5. The figures given by various authors are divergent, but generally it is assumed that never in history Polish GDP per capita has exceeded 60% of the average GDP in the West. It came close to this ratio several times: for the first time probably in the sixteenth century, at the time of the Jagiellonian “golden age”; the second time was around 1648, before the rise of the Cossacks and the invasion of the Swedes, who ruined the First Republic; the third time was in 1914, before World War I, during which the frontlines swept across the Polish lands three times (and which in Poland ended in 1921, three years later than in the West); the next time was in 1939, when the restored Poland recovered from the Great Depression and began to implement a large-scale programme of industrialisation; and the last time was around 1978, at the end of Gierek’s “economic miracle” financed by loans from the West.[5]

As I write these words, Poland is again nearing this magic mark.

The relatively lower level of Polish wealth shows only one - although perhaps the most visible to the naked eye – dimension of Polish cultural “junior status”. Of more importance are such factors as the direction of import and export of technology, the patterns of the organisational structure of the state, the military and industry, capital, literary and intellectual fashions. And the direction of this exchange has always been the same - from the West to the East. Prominent historian Jerzy Jedlicki wrote:

It is hard not to see that inventiveness of the kind discussed here was born only in some areas, and that the patterns spread in various directions, and the extent of these impacts marked the expansion of the current boundaries of civilised Europeans. I mean here multiple types of patterns, such as articles of faith, rites and religious practices, secular and ecclesiastical hierarchy, government structures, sets of laws, the secrets of calligraphy, artistic conventions, canons of philosophy, ideas of a just social order, as well as new crops, rules of trade, specie, handicrafts, principles of engineering and religious architecture, and many, many more discoveries producing an almost constant evolution of forms of life and ideas about the world, about its physical and moral order[6].

Since baptism of Poland in 966 we were - writes Jedlicki - a border country, a recipient country. In the monumental work of Immanuel Wallerstein about the history of the world system it is Poland - and Eastern Europe, but most of all the huge Republic of the nobility – that plays the role of the first “periphery” of the West, drawn into its orbit at the very beginning of the development of the system, that is in the fifteenth century, before the era of great explorers and colonization[7].

There is nothing surprising in this situation: a large part of the continent shares this fate. The question is to what extent the Poles were willing to accept it.

For centuries it was easy to think that history always threw obstacles on the Polish path. We would be wealthy and prosperous were it not for the Tatars, Swedes, Muscovites, Germans; were it not for the Cossack uprising, the Great Northern War, the Partitions, the failed uprisings and the ensuing repression; were it not for the war and occupation, and, finally, communism. The list of Polish woes is long and invoking it was handy. In a well-known short story by Sławomir Mrożek entitled Moniza Clavier the main protagonist, a Pole suffering for the nation and humanity, shows his wounds to the indifferent Western world:

I stepped into the midst of an amused company. `O, here!,’ I shouted, widely opening my mouth and pointing my finger on the molars. `O, here, they knocked them out, sir, for freedom they knocked them out!’ Confusion ensued. They went quiet, looked at me, unable to understand what I meant[8].

Only a quarter of a century after the 1989 watershed it is becoming clear how important role was played by this historical justification of our peripheral status (once the word “backwardness” would be used at this point but because of its emotional load it came out of fashion) in the Polish collective unconscious.

This change took place gradually. In the early 1990s the memory of communism, its dreariness, misery and isolation from the world it imposed on the Poles, was too vivid to seriously reflect on the structural sources of the Polish “junior status”. In the early 1990s everything seemed clear: the words „we are going to Europe” were omnipresent. It ended, as we know, in success. In 1999 Poland joined NATO and in 2004 it joined the European Union. In parallel with these political developments, there was an unprecedented wave of cultural imports: of values, ideas, norms, patterns, corporate culture and organisation of non-governmental institutions. In the period before the accession the Polish parliament was incorporating European law in a wholesale fashion; some people quite seriously asked the question if European directives really must be translated into Polish prior to their passing. After joining the European Union the import only gathered momentum, but changed its character. It is not enforced by politicians, and if it is, then only to a small extent. Over two million Poles emigrated to look for work in the West - which is one of the largest waves of migration in Polish history, comparable only with the wave of migration in the late nineteenth century, the first era of globalisation. Just like then, immigrants have not lost contact with their home country: they brought back from the West new notions about what to wear, what to eat, how to live, how the state and government administration should be organised. I was recently at a New Year’s Eve party in a village near Wroclaw. I met there a Polish woman living in Paris, the host’s sister, who in France is the head nurse in a hospital. She brought with her French wines that she likes, different ideas about food and a lot of experiences from the world of Western institutions, which a person born ten years earlier would not have a chance to encounter.

The gigantic cultural import only brought out the paradox of a breakthrough which occurred in the “Polish civilisation” in 1989. On the one hand, of course, we are getting closer to the West, adopting its norms and customs. Poland still is a much poorer country, but no longer separated from France and Germany by such a deep chasm as in the days of Polish People’s Republic. Polish wages are two-three times lower than Western ones, which means that the gap is roughly the same size as in 1914 or 1939.

The paradox of the breakthrough lies in the fact that bringing the Poles closer to the West, at the same time it reminded them of their peripheral status. The Polish cultural backwardness can no longer be explained away by history. The main debate now raging among Polish commentators concerns the new path of Polish modernisation Polish - how to make Poland became a country competing in the world through innovation rather than cheap labour; how to make the money generously given to us by the Union produce sustained growth rather than be spent on one-off pleasures - such as stadiums and swimming pools (also needed for that matter). We ask why Poland spends just 0.7% of its GDP on research and development - which makes us one of the least innovative countries in Europe. This problem, as many observers seem to notice, is more profound. It is not just a result of a political decision about how to share the money in the government budget. In Poland not only the government spends little on research - even less is spent by private companies, which prefer to buy technology and equipment from the West. Polish economists discuss a “trap of an average income country” – a country with an educated workforce and improving infrastructure, and where Western companies are increasingly willing to locate their factories, but also a country which does not have its own global brands, its own research centres of world class quality and which seems doomed to the role of an eternal subcontractor of Western corporations.

Jan Szomburg, president of the Institute for Market Economy, in the 1970s and 1980s one of the leading figures in the community of the Gdańsk liberals (from which many important politicians originated, including Janusz Lewandowski, today European Commissioner for Financial Programming and Budget), asks:

We are looking for answers to the question: what is the glass ceiling of our development and how to break through? As a whole society we are working a lot (few nations in the world work longer hours), and generally we are working well - we are good subcontractors. In the structures of global corporations Polish factories are recognised as the best in terms of efficiency and quality of work. The level of our savings - as a source of investment financing - is not high, but there is not much to save on - we have low wages because this is the area we base our competitiveness on. As for the rational level of foreign debt, we have already achieved, and perhaps even exceeded it. Although we have a lot of foreign investments, they do not produce high wages and do not fully allow for the development of our skills and talents (we practice our manufacturing competence - even if it is an engineering and highly specialised competence)[9].

This is the whole paradox: after 1989 Poland has come a long way and has been successful, but it was a road from one periphery - the Communist world was a peripheral world, importing technology and other solutions from the West – to another, within the global capitalist economy. At the same time it also deprived the Poles of the mental comfort provided by a sense of historical injustice. Now we are solely responsible for our destiny - for our poverty and backwardness.

[1] “Polaku, jesteś moim bohaterem,” Gazeta Wyborcza, April 5-6, 2014.

[2] Many such impressions can be found, for example, in a two-thousand-pages long collection edited by Wacław Zawadzki and called Polska stanislawowska w oczach cudzoziemców, v. 1-2, Warszawa 1963.

[3] W. Jacob, Report on the Trade in Foreign Corn: And on the Agriculture of the North of Europe, London 1826. descriptions of Polish backwardness and misery were a constant element of travel reports at least since the seventeenth century: see J. Kochanowicz, “Polska w epoce nowoczesnego wzrostu gospodarczego,” [in:] Modernizacja Polski. Struktury, agencje, reżimy instytucjonalne, edited by W. Morawski, Warszawa 2010.

[4] W. Jacob, Report…, op.cit., 63–67.

[5] A. Maddison, Contours of the World Economy, 1-2030 AD: Essays in Macroeconomic History, Oxford 2007, p. 382.

[6] J. Jedlicki, „Nasz kraj na poboczu Europy”, Przegląd Polityczny no 91/92 (2008).

[7] See I. Wallerstein, The Modern World-System II. Mercantilism and the consolidation of the European World-Economy, 1600-1750, New York-London 1980.

[8] S. Mrożek, „Moniza Clavier,” [in:] Wybór opowiadań, Kraków 1987, p. 150.

[9] J. Szomburg, „Polska jak Pendolino,” Rzeczpospolita, March 21, 2014.



Dr. Adam Leszczynski - historian, journalist, reporter. Assistant Professor at the Institute of Political Studies of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw, journalist of Gazeta Wyborcza. Author of several books, including a documentary Naznaczeni: Afryka i AIDS (2003) and a collection of African reports Zbawcy mórz oraz inne afrykańskie historie (2013). He has recently published the book Skok w nowoczesność. Polityka wzrostu w krajach peryferyjnych 1943-1980 (2013), devoted to the problems of modernisation in poor countries - including Poland - in the mid-twentieth century. Thanks to a grant from the Polish Ministry of Science an English edition of Skok w nowoczesność will be published by Peter Lang Publishing in 2015.



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


Photo of the publication 1989 – 25 years later. Cathérine Hug interviews Robert Menasse
Cathérine Hug

1989 – 25 years later. Cathérine Hug interviews Robert Menasse

15 August 2014
  • academic
  • iron curtain
  • transformation
  • freedom express
  • Memory
  • European history

In 2009, an exhibition on the Iron Curtain was held at the Kunsthalle Wien, in celebration of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall; 35 well-known artists from both East and West took part, including Chantal Akerman, Johan Grimonprez, Anna Jermolaewa, Marcel Odenbach, Ewa Partum and Neo Rauch. The exhibition, curated by Cathérine Hug and Gerald Matt, not only tried to depict an event through art, it also tried to detect pictorial worlds that could subconsciously and critically reflect and capture these intense, hopeful atmospheres.

It was a completely interdisciplinary exhibition, with a number of lectures and discussions taking place simultaneously, for example with the artists Erik Bulatov and Ilya & Emilia Kabakov, as well as Barbara Kruger, with the psychologist Hans-Joachim Maaz, the writer Bora Ćosić, the priest Helmut Schüller, the philosopher Boris Buden, the Slavist Svetlana Boym, the politicians Alexander van der Bellen and Ursula Pasterk, and the economist Rainer Münz, to name but a few. The following conversation with Robert Menasse in Vienna and Zurich at the end of March 2014 took place in this context and against the backdrop of the topicality of European issues. Menasse is a poet and novelist living in Vienna, whose work deals intensely and recurrently with European topics and their complex genealogy. He has been awarded the Heinrich Mann Award (Berlin 2013) and the Max Frisch Award (Zurich 2014) for his work.

Catherine Hug (CH): 25 years ago, on 27th July 1989, the former Austrian Foreign Minister Alois Mock, together with his Hungarian college Gyula Horn, cut a hole into the border fence between Austria and Hungary. How do you remember this?

Robert Menasse (RM): History was faked at the Austrian-Hungarian border on 27th July 1989; it was done for a good reason, namely the hope that this falsification would develop its own momentum and actually become steeped in history. The dismantling of the monitoring systems and borders had actually begun much earlier, at the end of February and the beginning of March, if I remember rightly, so almost three months earlier.

Obviously, this did not yet represent the true fall of the Iron Curtain, it was just a symbolical act by the Hungarian government, in accordance with Gorbachev’s policy of détente. The border systems were indeed reduced, but the borders were still guarded by soldiers. On 27th June, the image that turned this symbol into a historical fact was deliberately produced. This was a combination of Pop Art and political voodoo. The political stakeholders involved were aware that this had to be included in future history books and that it had to become history. They succeeded in this. It became an iconic photo in the history of 20th century press-photography. However, if you look at it carefully, you can see that it is a fake: the border systems no longer existed, so it was arranged to make it look real, but it looks more like a wire mesh fence on an allotment. And look here: Horn is cutting something that looks like a white ribbon. Well, the Iron Curtain was certainly not secured with white ribbons. A journalist later told me that the picture was taken many times and repeated until the counselors, press and politicians were satisfied with it, so it really was an artistic shot. In fact, it is surprising that they didn’t do it in a studio. I later processed this journalist’s stories in my book Schubumkehr (Reverse Thrust).

If I remember rightly, the immediate impact of the picture was not huge, either. As far as I know, it was not published on the front page of any newspaper, which it certainly would have been if what the picture meant to portray had been true. But the picture had a gradual effect, especially on the minds of the people of the GDR. And so the photo was subsequently overtaken by its message, firstly, on 19th August 1989, during the mass exodus of GDR citizens over the Austrian-Hungarian border near Sopron. That truly was a historic day! I have a much clearer memory of that. Nothing was staged or acted, the cameras were just pointing at what was happening and I was sitting in front of the TV, stunned, I was totally fascinated. In reality, the border had not been opened, it was only open symbolically. But hundreds of GDR citizens just crossed it, as if it had actually fallen. The officer on duty on the border that day, Arpad Bella, had received orders to open fire, however he gave orders not to shoot and to simply ignore the refugees. This soldier could have caused a bloodbath, in fact he had been required to do so! And he could later have used the excuse of “orders from above”. But he did not do it. He was a hero. But nobody could have known that at the time, nobody could have anticipated that, completely by chance, a hero of humanity was on duty that day. And here you see what an important role the human factor plays in this story! I later visited and interviewed Arpad Bella. He told me that he returned home late in the evening and his wife slapped him, screaming and crying. She had seen the scenes on TV and had heard that he was guilty of insubordination. She was beside herself with fear; afraid that he would go to jail and she would be left alone with the kids.

Anyhow, the hole in the fence really began to exist at that moment, the hole that Alois Mock and Gyula Horn had created for a photo. As I said, it was fascinating, it was touching, but… how can I describe it?

CH: But…?

RM: It might sound strange, but it was still unreal. In terms of the meaning that this event should have had, and indeed gained later. This was still not the fall of the Iron Curtain; even then, nobody could imagine that it would actually fall. There was a hole in the Iron Curtain, yes, but a hole can be fixed, and even if it was not closed, it was still unimaginable that the power and might of the Eastern Bloc could leak out of this little hole in the Hungarian border, the Berlin Wall could fall and the Soviet Union could collapse. The excitement, this unbelievably emotive feeling that I was witnessing a major event in world history, an epochal change, did not hit me until 9th November 1989, when the Berlin Wall opened. Then I consciously and comprehendingly experienced something that I had not expected to happen in my lifetime, as up to that moment, everything had seemed to be carved in stone for eternity; this was the great upheaval of history that turned everything upside-down.

CH: The shock waves even reached my school in Switzerland; on 10th November, our history teacher came into our class and gave us the day off, after announcing that it had been a historical night. The general euphoria was so great that during the 25th and 26th November 1989 referendum about the abolition of the army, 35.6% voted in favor. In the Canton of Jura, where I lived at that time, the initiative was actually accepted. This was interpreted as a clear sign that the policy of deterrence could no longer be effective and that it was gradually making way for other ideological viewpoints.

RM: Yes, gradually – but at the same time suddenly. At that time, everything happened simultaneously in slow-motion and ‘fast-motion’. It was no longer a process being steered pragmatically by the political elite; it was now a political meltdown, in which reality and possibility merged. There was no tracking of time, because a sense of time became a sense of history, and every second was equally historic. This has never really been looked back on and reappraised. Firstly, why did nobody see it coming, despite many indications and signals? On 8th November, anybody claiming that the Berlin Wall would fall, the Iron Curtain would disappear and the Soviet Union would implode would have been called a dreamer, a utopian or even a lunatic. Secondly, why did nobody back then even vaguely think it was possible to anticipate the impact that 9th November would have beyond the first moments, even though all of a sudden, everything seemed possible and all possibilities seemed to simultaneously become reality. The atmosphere suggested that this was the end of the era of crises and hostilities. Every citizen of the GDR, who suddenly could now go through the Brandenburg Gate, actually took these steps before the eyes of the global public, with the pathos of the astronaut Neil Armstrong, “…one giant leap for mankind!” But isn’t it strange that nobody anticipated where these steps would actually lead, i.e. to entirely new conflicts, world-policy crises and new wars with new stereotypical enemies and the dramatic growth of misery and poverty amongst the “winners”, i.e. Western societies? The prevailing sentiment was that everything would now be possible, but nobody really thought in terms of possibilities! And thirdly, why until today did nobody understand the most obvious, simplest and clearest message of this historical momentum?

CH: Which message do you mean?

RM: Let me take a trip down memory lane. I can remember, as clearly as if it were yesterday – that’s why it bewilders me so much -, that today there is a generation of grown-ups who were born after these events, and for whom the world has always been as it is today. However, I can remember sitting in front of the TV crying. I sobbed – out of affection, happiness and literally FELLOW feeling with this euphoria of liberation felt by all these people stumbling across the Berlin Wall, climbing over it, singing and dancing. Apart from the day my daughter was born, there is no day in my life I can remember that clearly. I instantly thought, this is the decisive, the defining experience of my lifetime, from today my life has a new system of bearings, from today everything will rearrange itself around this new point of reference and stand in relation to it. But today, we have to admit that this has not happened. Before November 1989, the political elites, the opinion leaders and the media had always been of the opinion that the Soviet Union and the Iron Curtain were unalterable political realities, entities that could not be eliminated, one could only try to ease the situation and improve life for the people “over there”. From the Western point of view, the so-called arms race was merely a lever for easing the situation and, at the same time, a multi-billion dollar business. But nobody seriously believed that the Soviet Union would collapse. Maybe it had been said in political speeches, with that frivolous audacity that does not expect consequences, that the Berlin Wall had to fall. But from Monday to Friday, the division of the world was a self-evident and acknowledged precondition of all global political affairs, accepted as a political law of nature, one it was in no way possible to abolish. Just as we do business today with China, the Tiananmen Square murderers, while at home we gripe with rhetorical disgust about their human rights situation.

That’s a definition of political pragmatism: take the world the way it is, and call anyone who does not a dreamer! Then silence the dreamers by telling them that their dreams are lovely and we have the same dreams. But then make it plain that anyone who now believes they could make these dreams come true is a lunatic! That’s why everyone was so surprised; the pragmatists, because they had never believed that what they had sometimes claimed, for ideological reasons, would really happen; and the dreamers, too, because they had long ago stopped building their illusions on political pragmatists. This is a historical fact and it also explains the enormous emotional euphoria of that time. We could have drawn a permanent lesson from this! Namely, that what is understood and acknowledged as political pragmatism is petty-minded and blind and will someday be overrun by history. What then enthralled me so much was exactly that: I was experiencing the death of petty-minded, unimaginative pragmatism!

Now we can more boldly and freely ask how we want to organize our life politically and socially, how we can construct a humane and free world. But even though this was the end of the pragmatists, today they once again sit in control of the levers and switches, sweep through governments and institutions and produce a political zombie-world in which people become aggressive but have no perspective beyond what the weather forecast is. I cannot understand how people who experienced 1989 and created a situation in which the Iron Curtain could be torn down, now believe that it is pragmatically unthinkable to regulate the financial markets… For the generation which experienced 1989, the persistent lesson should be that history is feasible, more is possible than you think, so think more boldly from the beginning, don’t think anything is forever, tomorrow it could already be history, because everything that has a beginning in history also has to have an end! It is a strange punchline that after 1989, the ideology of the “end of history” became fashionable, with what however the exact opposite of the experience of 1989 was meant. The experience was, in fact, that everything has an end, even those things we once thought would last forever. However, out of this experience emerged the philosophical idea that now, nothing would come to an end.

CH: How do you understand that?

RM: I don’t know. Maybe because, in the final analysis, the experience of 1989 touches on a taboo; anyone who thinks this experience through to the end must, in the final analysis, be able to imagine that capitalism will also collapse, that the national democracies to which we are accustomed will reach their end, that the ideology of everlasting growth in a confined world will be buried in rubble, and so on. We cannot and must not think like this. The fall of the Iron Curtain was admittedly not foreseeable in this way, but it did not touch on a taboo. On the contrary, it confirmed an ideology. And ideologies are philosophically regarded, necessarily wrong awareness.

However, the consequences of that do indeed touch on a taboo. It is complicated. And at the same time it is ridiculous in the light of history; on the precondition that we consider ourselves to be thinking beings, pursue historical science, fetishize memories, raise monuments, celebrate historical anniversaries and so on, it is almost preposterously ridiculous. Isn’t it ridiculous to believe that from now on, only technologies and medicine will further develop, but not our political and social systems? Isn’t it ridiculous to believe, in all seriousness, that revolutions will only take place in the virtual world of informatics or genetic engineering, but not in political reality? And don’t the agitations of Taksim Square, the Tahrir or the Maidan prove that history is still moving forward, anything but turned to stone – even if the people who start the revolutions are still betrayed…

CH: What visible and sustainably positive consequences did the political turnaround of 1989 have on art production and especially on your work as a writer? Let’s take, for example, your novel Schubumkehr (1995): terms like drawing of a border, shifts of borders and dissolution of borders, of hope, of encounters with strangers as well as the fear of the strange play an important role. Do you see yourself more as a commentator or an analyst? Or is it also or primarily about other things?

RM: As a writer, I have, from the outset, aspired to reflect upon my contemporaneity. I was shaped by theories of art and literature, which understand art as a reflection of an era and literature as a story about how it is lived and thought, so that contemporaries can recognize themselves and those who come after us can understand us. My trilogy of novels, Die Trilogie der Entgeisterung, which I had conceptualized in the first half of the ‘80s, was meant to be a mirror on our times; it was an irrelevantly disgusting time, the so-called postmodern era. The notion of postmodern era basically means that enlightenment had come to an end, to be replaced by unelightenment. What was disgusting was that the end of enlightenment was celebrated, that creativity was achievable solely in some form of eclecticism and that the ideologists of unlightenment preposterously celebrated themselves as “critical philosophers”. At the same time, it was of course a happy time. There was no big crisis, no anxiety about the future, principally because there was no future, just as there was no history. History was a trunk from which you could take what you fancied. Superficially, this time was esthetically nicer than the ‘70s, that’s why this was basically a time of extraordinary good luck for some people, namely a sensation of weightless floating on a slightly rippling surface. There are, of course, many objections to this point of view, but that’s how I experienced this time. That was how it was and that was the material that I had to hand. That’s what I wanted to reflect like a mirror, inverted. And while writing, I have methodically and technically reverted to reflection theory. But 1989 happened before I had finished the trilogy. That’s why I abandoned this theory in the end and created the third volume completely afresh. I then gave it the title “Schubumkehr” (“Reverse Thrust”) instead of “Endzeit (“Eschaton”), and instead of a story about the trickling away of history, I wrote a text in which the narrator disappears. History is simply bigger than a single spokesman! But at that time, the novel was not yet really analytical, something that probably benefited the book in the end. But since then, literature has interested me in a completely different way, no longer as a mirror-image, or reflection of the static, the status quo, but rather as some kind of laboratory, where experiments are performed with the liquids of history and where the changes in the condition of aggregation can be described. 1989 completely changed me. But when I observe how politics are pursued today, and also how they are written about today, I lose it. On the other hand, the feeling of losing it is omnipresent lately, so maybe I’m just a little symptom in a specific way, at least not unworldly!

CH: Bold and very inspiring trains of thought; you are throwing new, rather self-critical light on my hitherto rather positive perception of eclecticism. Eclecticism is commonly perceived as a formula for success, at least in fine arts, architecture and design, as well as in philosophy, as you mentioned. If we think outside the box, we will come to the conclusion that not every cultural sphere deals with topics such as perceptions of history and crisis in the same way – a blessing of our kaleidoscopically multi-faceted world! 2014 also marks the 25th birthday of the World Wide Web, or the Internet, in short. Where do you see comparisons with 1989 and its consequences in this context? How did the WWW shape artistic practice?

RM: I don’t believe that 1989 and the WWW have a causal relationship beyond their random concurrency. In an emotional sense, the only thing which might be important for world history is the fact that even though the Internet emerged concurrently, it came too late for the GDR. If the possibilities arising from the Internet had existed sooner, if what the NSA is able to do today had been available to the Stasi, then the GDR might still exist. CH: Maybe yes, I completely agree! On the other hand, I also want to protect the achievements of the Internet. Positively seen, it is after all about the provision of more extensive information, where, for example, readers can follow this conversation in every corner of the world. Which brings me to my next question: what is the relationship between the free movement of people and homeland (Heimat: in German: region or place where you come from and where you feel at home and at ease, place where you belong)? The writer Max Frisch once pointed out the fact that there is no plural for the word homeland (Heimat), even though the definition of this notion is so heterogeneous. Artists embody a nomadic understanding of homeland (Heimat). They are unstoppable travelers within their trains of thought, but at the same time part of real life. What role does longing play in connection with that? Can it become a problem? Or is it first and foremost the instigator for finding a solution?

RM: That is an interesting question. It points to another, extremely dramatic symptom of the change of era following 1989, namely the fact that development since then, especially through the so-called Eastern enlargement of the EU, has extended the area described as homeland (Heimat) and at the same time given the notion of homeland (Heimat) a plural after all. Yes, homeland (Heimat) now has a plural, too! Due to the free movement of people, the freedom to travel and the freedom of establishment, the notion of homeland (Heimat) has radically changed, at least for us in Europe. It no longer refers to a nation, something that has always been fiction anyhow. I, as an Austrian, have for example never felt at home in Tyrol. What do I have in common with mountain-dwellers, just because they have the same passport? In Vienna, there are no mountains and therefore there is a completely different mentality! The Tyrolese can be nice and friendly, but people from Alentejo or the Peloponnese can also be nice and interesting… So why should I feel at home in Tyrol, just because it belongs to Austria? Homeland (Heimat) is therefore not a nation but, in a libertine and mobile Europe, increasingly a place to live, which I can, at least inside the Schengen-area, choose freely and without problems. Mobility, which has always been an aspiration, has nowadays become almost a compulsion. Many do not want to, but have to be mobile.

However, it still remains an opportunity, and this opportunity has increased, even though many still regard it as a threat to their homeland (Heimat). In 2012, there was a Eurobarometer survey about the concept of mobility, which showed that personal freedom of movement had the highest approval rates in Poland and the highest rejection rates in Austria. In Poland, mobility apparently means, “I can go somewhere else!”, whereas in Austria mobility means, “someone could come here”! That alone shows that there are at least two concepts of homeland (Heimat): the concept that my homeland is where I live and work, where I have dignity and a legal situation and the concept that this is all divisible, homeland (Heimat) is somewhere I can exclude everybody else from. One is an urban, enlightened concept, the other a village concept of homeland (Heimat), a concept of a narrow valley, of contractedness. What is interesting is the fact that conservative, narrow concepts of homeland (Heimat) are historically more recent. Visas, for example, were not introduced until 1914; before that, one could travel from Coimbra to Riga without a visa or passport and settle there.

Stefan Zweig wrote about this in 1914, “Nationalism has destroyed European culture!” It is insane that today there are once again so many people demanding the devastation and ruin caused by nationalism, literally as a human right, establishing these situations through referenda and celebrating this devastation of intelligence as democratic reason, just so they can defiantly feel better. I have always had the desire to live and work in different cities; I have spent the greater part of my adult life in the so-called outlands, in São Paulo, Lisbon, Berlin and Amsterdam. Nowadays, I live in Brussels part-time. Political borders are one thing, they can be abolished, as we have seen, however it is crucial to break open the narrow borders of mentalities. When we do, we will also feel better in our homes and only then will homeland (Heimat) be a part of the world and not a castle built to withstand the world.

CH: In the meantime, a whole post-1989 generation has grown up, a generation that knows about the time of the Cold War and a bipolar world-order only through stories. These narratives and depictions are generally ideologically biased. Nostalgia, frustration and fatalism, as well as hope, can be found in the implementation of new perspectives. Do you agree with me that young people today think more freely? And that they might have learnt to cope better with what is foreign to them? At the same time, I have the impression – but maybe I am wrong - that we, especially young people, are more apolitical. Where does this come from? However, I want to hold against this assertion the visionary power of initiatives such as the Occupy movement on Wall Street and the demonstrations on Taksim Square or, more recently, in Ukraine. As different as they might be, what is their common denominator, what do they reveal about our understanding of democracy?

RM: First of all, I have to clear up a misunderstanding that appears repeatedly. One can no longer split a society into generations with regard to social awareness, social discourse, way of thinking, political behavior, et cetera. If we take a transient picture of how a society works as a collective, what unites it and what kind of contradictions prevail within it, then at this moment, all living people are contemporaries, no matter how old the individual is. Contemporaneity establishes itself in living beings as a whole, and not in dates of birth. If I, as a sixty-year-old, encounter a thirty-year-old, he might belong to another generation, but basically we are both equally characterized by what is impressed upon us by contemporary conditions, much more than by the erstwhile experiences that I might have had due to my greater age and that the other person has not had. Expressed very primitively, I am influenced by the smartphone culture to the very same degree as someone who has never experienced telephone booths. This is also the reason why age no longer necessarily commands respect, as it did in the olden days, when age meant many years of experience with respect to problems which young people also faced, as nothing really changed except for the seasons, and even they don’t change, they just alternate. This means that when I meet a thirty year-old, I as an adult encounter an adult, and we could both be dead tomorrow, even him, though he would not have lived as long. We are both inherently the same: contemporaries. That’s also why we cannot say that young today think more freely, or that they are more apolitical, or whatever. There are older people thinking more freely, and older people who are completely apolitical; this does not even depend on class consciousness any more. There are younger people from privileged families who are solidary, and working-class children who know no solidarity when it comes to fighting for their workplace. There are all kinds of things, but if it can be integrated into a description of contemporary zeitgeist, it has to do with today and not with age. Admittedly, it is true that the Erasmus-generation has opportunities and experiences that the older generation could barely dream of, but that is unfortunately a minority, and no politicians who check their slogans via opinion-polls would let themselves be guided by that. So if we want to understand ourselves in our contemporaneity, then the question of why younger people today are in part apolitical and whether that has something to do with the fact that they did not experience ’89, is completely nonsensical. There are younger people who are not apolitical and there are older people who experienced ’89 who are apolitical.

The truth is that the applicable parameters have changed again since 1989, and these new parameters are the pegs between which everyone today, both young and old, has to move and find their bearings. Younger people did not experience ’89, well yes, but for older people, the experience of ’89 vanished just as quickly as the time when they did not yet have cellphones. My daughter, for example, speaks five languages and has studied and lived in three different European cities. That is representative of today’s possibilities, but definitely not of her generation. That’s what I mean. The question of what might be typical for a generation is relatively insignificant to me; I have the impression that what is typical for our contemporaneity is typical for all generations, roughly speaking. And, bearing in mind all individual exceptions, that is the backlash of renationalization, the curse of the lucky year of 1989.

CH: Okay, then please forgive me my slightly naïve interjection concerning the generation question. Anyhow, one also speaks of youth mania nowadays. In cultural production, for example, everything has an extremely short half-life – partly artificially created, but partly because it has not historically evolved. Careers are short, memories fade… That is, of course, not the fault of the producers per se, but of an overheated art market, so maybe something similar is happening on the book market. A friend of mine, who is an author, recently told me how frustrating it can be to spend two or more years writing a novel, which is quickly out of date, if significant commercial success does not follow or no acknowledging prices are recorded. Something comparative is happening in fine art: young artists today concentrate far more on being well placed in the art market early on; unfortunately this mainly happens at the expense of creative ideas, as they are too keen to satisfy the market. That’s why free art spaces are so important as a counterbalance! In my previous remark, I might have wanted to create an analogy between this cultural phenomenon and the superordinate society. Obviously, it is not that easy to do this.

RM: Yes, for a simple reason: the “youth mania” which exists today is without a doubt a societal phenomenon. It is not a generational phenomenon. Your examples show that young people today have no advantages, even though youth has become a fetish. This fetish is not recognition of the self-evident beauty and strength of youth, but a lever forcing older people to somehow stay young in order to function and be needed. The sweat in fitness centers and the blood on the operating tables of plastic surgeons are the sweat and blood of the war of markets. Turbo-capitalism demands the faster reproduction of the capital invested, the product has to be fresh, the profits easily disposable. Man himself enters the market as a product, the art market too… But I was originally driving at something else.

CH: Yes, you mentioned the curse of the lucky year of 1989. What do you mean by that?

RM: 1989 was not only the opening of the Berlin Wall. 1989 also represented the beginning of the developments which quickly led to German reunification. At that time, as I have already said, everything was possible; however, the fall of the Berlin Wall, as if on an inclined plain, led unstoppably and almost unopposed to reunification and the national rebirth of Germany, as if there were no alternative. National rebirth! And that took place in the midst of the post-national development of Europe via the EU and the internal market. The train of history had, after all, been driving in a completely different direction for four decades. Now, the redemption of German trauma could take place and the liberation of all the misfortunes and crimes connected with the history of the German nation-building process. All of a sudden, the German nation stood there great and proud. And this fact, that there had actually been a misunderstanding, became completely lost in the initial euphoria: the world was celebrating the liberation of the people; Germany, however, was celebrating the liberation of a nation. And today, Germany is what the EU was founded to oppose, namely a leading power in Europe. This is rooted deep in the heart of Europe, knowingly or unknowingly, but in any case as an enduring political rage. The Germans have demonstrated that re-nationalization is a concept which can lead to success. And even if Germany honestly and sensibly seeks European policy solutions in some key issues, the reactionary and national forces in Europe are becoming stronger, as is the impetus for German nationalism. CH: And in Hungary, of all countries, where 25 years ago there was significant hope for the future of Europe, the most reactionary forces in Europe are in power today! And recently in Switzerland, the question arose of whether the free movement of people should be regulated within nation states –contrary to all the fundamental principles of the EU and the law of nations; this was unfortunately (although admittedly narrowly) accepted by the people. As a citizen of that country, this is a decision I deeply regret. Although democracy in this specific case openly displays its shortfalls, what would be the alternative? How responsible are neighboring states and what measures and initiatives could particularly creative artists use to participate actively in the process of redefining democracy?

RM: Yes, those are the misunderstood consequences of 1989 and also the pragmatic preconditions we have to deal with today. What should be done now and what artists can do, are two different questions. Artists accompany the process, knowingly or unknowingly, no matter how history develops. But it obviously matters how history develops further. What is necessary now, in my opinion, in the light of recent experiences in Switzerland, Hungary, the Crimean, etc., is in fact a new definition of democracy, the liberation of the perception that democracy has to express and defend national sovereignty, and that personal happiness thus depends on national pride and the enforcement of national stubbornness.

The world long ago became a transnational entity, as nothing of any importance can still be regulated within or stopped at national borders. We have transnational economic processes and financial currents, markets, investments and repayments of profits, everything functions transnationally, there is no such thing as a national economy anymore, ecological problems don’t stop at borders, streams of information, including their downsides such as surveillance, cultural exchanges, everything is completely without boundaries; all this can be handled and configured for the purposes of public welfare only through the development of a transnational democracy. 1989 was, and remains, the year that stood for an epoch change. But 2014/15 will be an even more important date, as it will have to result in a decision. Do you know what is strange? Centuries take a further one and a half decades to really die. In 1814/15, the 18th century died with the Congress of Vienna. In 1914, the 19th century died.

And in 2014/15, the 20th century, the century shaped by the criminal energy of nationalism and its consequences, will have to die. And if it does not die now, it will be the fault of world-history.

CH: Thank you for this conversation, Robert Menasse!

Photo of the publication Was the War Inevitable?
Andrzej Chwalba

Was the War Inevitable?

01 August 2014
  • Treaty of Vienna
  • Great War
  • First World War
  • World War I


The question as to whether war was inevitable is tantamount to asking what must have happened for the order established by the Treaty of Vienna to finally collapse in 1914. An extensive search through libraries and archives has allowed us to venture a response to this question. As it turns out, the treaty protecting Europe from war was either a spent force or was being consumed by the virus of national chauvinism to such an extent that it was unable to play its role any longer. As it happened, Europeans were longing for war, the politicians and the military yearned for it, and this war-mongering mood was growing in intensity. The artistic avant-garde did their best to meet this demand in society, providing an ideal reflection of the atmosphere of the time.

During the war and following its conclusion, it was often heard that: “things could have worked out very differently,” or “war was entirely avoidable.” It has been said that we must not be drawn into taking a deterministic view of history, claiming that if war broke out, it must have been necessary. Was peace therefore truly within our grasp, and could the war have been avoided? It soon turned out that the hope of salvaging peace was based on a few fallacious premises. The first of these was the conviction that monarchs were bound by a sense of solidarity and were therefore reluctant to go to war. Indeed, the monarchs had close blood-ties and considered themselves a single family. Emperor Wilhelm II and the Tsarina were maternal cousins, as were Nicholas and Britain’s George V, who looked like mirror images of each other. Edward VII was the uncle of the Kaiser of the Reich and the Tsarina, while Irene of Hesse and by Rhine, the cousin and sister-in-law of the Kaiser, was her sister. Almost all the monarchs ruling in both the larger and smaller countries of Europe were either distantly related to the Sachsen- Coburg-Gotha Dynasty, or sprung from it directly. Bismarck disdainfully called them the “fertile studs of Europe.” In the letters they exchanged, they called each other beloved and dear brothers, cousins, and friends. One sign of the solidarity of these “cousins,” these emperors, kings, and princes, was their joint decision to attend the funeral of Victoria, the British Queen, in 1901; for some she was an aunt, for others a grandmother. In 1914 seven of her descendants sat on European thrones. In 1910, during the funeral ceremonies for King Edward VII, the “uncle of kings,” there was a parade of monarchs, an unparalleled demonstration of royal solidarity. Ties between monarchs were based not only on family bonds, but also on shared traditions, similar values, and court etiquette. Nonetheless, quarrels, discord, and wars can even occur within a family, which is why, time and again, tension emerged in the royal family, in spite of its veneer of fraternity. As such, there was no guarantee that a Europe of related monarchs was immune to a great war. But even if the monarchs had made a joint stand against war, there still would have been no certainty that it would not have broken out, as none of the reigning European monarchs enjoyed absolute power or were able to impose their will. They were all compelled to hear out their advisers, ministers, generals, and, in this era of European constitutions, the voices of the people or the nation as well, however much the monarchs were the symbols of the state, the image of sovereign statehood, and however much their portraits adorned public spaces. Meanwhile, even if they had cared to, they would not have been able to halt the impending armed conflict. But did they want to? To this question it is difficult to find a definitive answer.

When the war had already broken out, the monarchs were forced to make a dramatic choice between the solidarity of the royal families and solidarity with their own nations. This choice was in fact made for them, as they could not oppose their subjects. This is why King George V – under pressure from his British subjects – changed his German name to the British Windsor, which British monarchs still use to this day. He deprived the Emperor of the Reich of his honorary command of the British army, and struck German and Austro-Hungarian names from the registry listing members of the officer corps. Knights of the Garter who belonged to enemy camps were also stripped of this honor. The other monarchs representing the warring parties behaved in like fashion.

Another source of faith that war could be avoided was the trust placed in diplomats who, even when the pressure had reached its boiling point, found ways to resolve disagreements without resorting to war. The diplomats traditionally sought paths to reconciliation between the restless sides, ever pursuing the difficult art of striking a compromise. Most often they merely called a conference of the states which formed the “concert of powers,” and this sufficed. “In the impending war, which shall be spurred on for no compelling reason, what is at stake is not only the Hohenzollern Crown, but the very future of Germany [...] the provocation of war is not merely foolhardy, it is downright reprehensible,” warned the German Chancellor in 1913. It turned out in 1914, however, that neither the solidarity of the monarchs, nor that of the diplomats would suffice.

The third source of optimism that war was impossible was the stance adopted by the socialist parties with delegates at the Second International. They expressed the conviction that armed conflict was advantageous for international capital, imperialist states, and nationalist governments, but not for the proletariat. This is why the socialist-led proletariat had to struggle for peace. The socialists threatened to organize a general strike if war were to be declared. They believed that this threat would stop the war-mongers in their tracks. This hope for peace also proved illusory, and the anti-war demonstrations organized on the eve of the conflict were unable to prevent the war. Anti-war sentiment was particularly strong in Great Britain. The prospect of dying for – as the British press worded it – “the stinking Serbs” and the “drunken Russians” was less than alluring. When the war did break out, however, the pacifist socialists, including the British, vanished from sight, declaring solidarity with their own nations. The idea of national solidarity triumphed over the idea of class solidarity, which for many came as a considerable surprise.

Fourthly, military alliances – in particular, the Triple Alliance and the Triple Entente – were meant to safeguard against war, serving as insurance policies of sorts. These too failed, however. Nor were the political and economic ties between the states in the antagonistic blocs of any aid. These ties, sometimes bolstered by political treaties, could have raised hope for salvaging a state of peace. Nonetheless, the desire for war turned out to be stronger than the desire for peace.

Fifthly: Pacifists gave people hope for peace. Their writing had its readership, whose numbers were not negligible. Norman Angell’s treatise entitled The Great Illusion was a publishing success; its argument was that the European integration process was already so far advanced that a war that ruptured these ties would be a disaster for one and all. No less a publishing success was a multi-volume work by one of the world’s best-known authors, Jan Bloch, a Pole of Jewish extraction, and one of the wealthiest entrepreneurs of the Kingdom of Poland. His work, published in 1898 and entitled Przyszła wojna pod względem technicznym, ekonomicznym i politycznym [The Future of War from a Technical, Economic, and Political Perspective] was translated into many of the world’s languages. In Austria and Germany it was Karl Kraus who was most frequently read. Nevertheless, neither he nor Angell, nor any of the other pacifists, were able to create mechanisms protecting against war or pacifist movements. On the whole, they were isolated and politically insignificant. The German Emperor, for example, nursed deep contempt for the pacifists, whom he called eunuchs. At any rate, it soon turned out that pacifists could most easily laud peace in times of peace.

Sixthly, a chance to salvage peace was seen in the pressure being exerted by international concerns. Indeed, they were afraid of war, as it threatened to rupture all their economic and financial ties. They preferred to negotiate for their share of the markets – such as the businessmen from Britain and Germany who, two weeks before Sarajevo, negotiated a deal to build a railway from Baghdad to Basra. Two Englishmen were due to sit on the board of the German-controlled Baghdad Railway Association. Earlier, in mid-February 1914, entrepreneurs from France and the Reich signed a similar contract. Yet the influence of big business circles interested in a peaceful resolution to the conflicts was ultimately too weak to prevent war. The arms industry, on the other hand, generally declared itself in favor of the war.

The political tension between the states and, in particular, the powerhouses, was growing from one year to the next; the issues of dominance in Europe, the recovery of lost lands or the acquisition of new ones, influence in the Balkans or the Middle East, a new division of colonies, and rule over the seas and oceans led to rearmament on an unprecedented scale, and to an arms race. Did this rearmament inevitably bring war to Europe? It might have, though it is difficult to definitively declare that it led to the war. Such opinions do abound, however. The scale of the rearmament was unprecedented. All of Europe’s large and small states, including Montenegro, increased their military budgets, which went to prove the popularity of the idea of war in parliaments, and was, at the same time, a way of making people accustomed to the real prospect of war. The inflated war budgets testified to the fact that most parliamentarians accepted the governments’ proposal to fuel the fire. In the years 1909–1914 alone the European states’ expenditure for arms rose, on average, by about 50%. In 1909 it was 3.5% of the GDP, while in 1913 it rose to 5%. Rearmament caused a serious fiscal burden for society. For the Reich the burden was so severe that several warned that the state could go bankrupt. The only chance of avoiding this glum prospect was “pressing forward,” i.e. declaring war, during which time the state could suspend the debts it had incurred from its own citizens. Budgets assigned for naval weaponry rose particularly swiftly. The construction of warships was supported by dozens, and later hundreds of associations and organizations, which created effective pressure groups.

The new carving up of the world and the colonial lands was of most interest to Germany, while the Austro-Hungarian Empire was comparatively indifferent. The Germans believed that they had received less of the colonial pie than they deserved. True, they possessed around three million square meters of colonies spread over two continents, inhabited by thirteen million people, officially known as “protected territories,” but these were not generating enough profit or prestige. In his 1900 work entitled The Great Powers, Max Letz said that a war to divvy the ailing British Empire was inevitable, and in its place would come a German Empire. He argued that, in accordance with social Darwinism, the colonies should trade owners. The weak, such as the French, the Portuguese, and the British, would withdraw, while the stronger ones – the Germans – would step in. “Our future will be ensured when we conquer not only all of Europe, but also wherever we can across the ocean. Expanding our possessions is, after all, the basis of our nation,” said Heinrich Class, head of the Pan-German League, in 1913. The idea of war can certainly be traced to this mode of thinking, but thought alone was not enough to actually set it off.

Nor were the Germans satisfied with their place in Europe. Located in the center of Europe, they were constantly obsessed with the idea of being encircled by France and Russia, caught between the proverbial firing lines. In fact, these countries did not pose much of a threat, at least for the time being. This was more of an artificially generated psychosis than a real threat, but it did reinforce the pro-war mood.

The armament policy was fueled by the imperialist propaganda and pro-war rhetoric. Nationalism, which was growing into a national chauvinism, held pride of place in the nations’ preparations for the looming struggle. Apart from love of one’s country and nation and a national pride, it was composed of contempt and hostility for other nations and a national pride that sanctioned rule over others. The nationalists claimed that the path to achieving a high level of national solidarity and unity led through war. War, they argued further, cleanses a nation of its weaknesses and shortcomings, and would work like a salubrious catharsis. The Italian nationalists stressed that war was the swiftest and most heroic means of attaining willpower and wealth. “To the nationalist circles war seems akin to salvation, a hope for change,” concluded Viktor Adler, a leader of the anti-war social democrats on 29 July 1914. Nationalism did not dominate the general mindset, and the nationalist parties did not dominate the political stage. The power remained, on the one hand, with the liberal and conservative parties, and on the other, with the socialist ones, though both the former and the latter did show evidence of being influenced by nationalist ideas and ways of thinking. In particular, the liberal parties succumbed to the pressure of nationalism. The nationalists’ advantage and strength was in the comparatively few in number, yet outspoken, punitive, hierarchically structured, and well-financed organizations and associations, such as the German Eastern Marches Society, the German Army League, the Navy League, the Pan-German League, and the Pan-German Union in Germany; England’s Imperial Naval League and the National Service League; France’s Patriotic League and Action française; Russia’s Black Hundreds; and the Nationalist Association of Italy. These organizations were capable of mobilizing public opinion around their aims, for rearmament and war preparations. They influenced governments, parliaments, and rulers.

Nationalism was nourished by a confused social Darwinism, which urged the need for a decisive armed confrontation in the name of national values and glory. Social Darwinism was popularized in England by Benjamin Kidd, author of Social Evolution, which was first published in 1893. Another Briton who made his name in Europe writing on the subject was Harold Watt, a founder of the Imperial Naval League; he claimed that “war is God’s test for the soul of a nation,” and that in history “the higher and more noble nations have triumphed in war, routing the lower races.”

The cultural climate also favored the war. In the late 1890s Positivism and Scientism were on the decline and Neo-Romanticism was on the rise. In the early twentieth century millions of people had already been convinced by artists and intellectuals that they were leading a bland, prosaic life, a life of consumer boredom, bereft of greatness, sublimity, and spirituality. They claimed that such a bourgeois existence was senseless. Thomas Mann wrote that “war should be a cleansing, a liberation, and a vast hope,” a manifestation of the “fitness of the nation.” War, it was said, ennobled people, and taught the virtues of discipline and obedience. The hopeless life of the wage earner could only be changed by something sublime and revivifying – and this “something” was war. Wartime accomplishments and the life of the hero were important. Neo-Romantics and avant-gardists saw war as a manifestation of the strength of the spirit, as a sign of vitality and creativity. “War is a life-giving principle,” “it is an expression of the highest culture,” Friedrich von Bernhardt wrote in 1911 in a work which went through six editions in Germany in the space of two years. “When a man throws himself into the whirlwind of war it is not instincts, but virtues he rediscovers... In war everything is renewed,” stressed French painter Pierre Bonnard in 1912. In 1891 the French writer Emil Zola pointed out that “only fighting nations develop: a nation immediately perishes when it disarms. War is a school of discipline, devotion, and courage.” The Italian Futurists, headed by Filippo Marinetti, were enthusiastic about war, joyfully exclaiming that “war is the only hygiene of the world.” Generally speaking, the rebellious people of the avant-garde who roused others to rebel against the old world in order to build a new, better, and more noble one in its place, and who called for liberation from the suffocating girdle of custom, could, to a considerable degree, feel that they shared responsibility for the war.

Historian D. S. Landes has pointed out that many a war was believed to be a sort of spring break; he wrote that the tragedy of war lay “in the gullible vanity of people who thought war was a party – a kaleidoscope of handsome uniforms, masculine courage, feminine admiration, dress parades, and the lightheartedness of immortal youth. The war broke out for a lack of imagination.”US President Theodore Roosevelt saw the eventuality of the outbreak of war in only a slightly different light: “Europe has not fought for a very long time, and has decided to rouse in itself the spirit of action. War broke out when Europeans had subconsciously grown tired of peace. Then war became acceptable, even desirable.”

Fashionable philosophers and historiosophers added more arguments in favor of the war: “The propriety of war is simply based on the consciousness of its moral necessity. Because [...] history must be in a state of eternal movement, war is waged; it must be regarded as an order established by God,” wrote Heinrich von Treitschke in 1887. People chose to heed his words, but also those of Joseph Maistre, an early-nineteenth-century conservative thinker who maintained that “war is the normal state of the human species.” Henri Bergson’s perception of thought also aided intellectual preparation for the war, stating that Europe urgently needed a spiritual rebirth through a powerful clash of elements. Friedrich Nietzsche, who was popular in Europe, also contributed here. Nietzsche’s call to action and violence, to do battle with idleness, bourgeois narrow-mindedness and hypocrisy, spoke to many, and his statements were printed on leaflets for soldiers; his idea that “war and courage have done more good than love for those dear to you” was found in the rucksacks of soldiers from various armies. Nietzsche called on people to take risks in life and promoted the value of a revolt against liberalism, tradition, and the status quo. Ideas directly or indirectly glorifying war were distributed to millions, and to young people in particular – and it was they, after all, who had to march off to battle.

The literature of the time made a clear contribution to psychologically and emotionally preparing people for war; it often portrayed armed conflict as a joyful and fascinating adventure. Spy novels and tales of the future enjoyed popularity. Novels published in installments that depicted Germans landing on British shores or Britons organizing landing operations on the German coast also proved exciting. Boys’ adventure literature and new weeklies for young people prepared readers to slay their enemies, filled as they were with resourceful and courageous warriors ready to die for their homeland.

State history policies also contributed to preparing people for war, mainly through schools. School curriculae reminded pupils that there was nothing more valuable than a nation’s victories on the battlefield, but also reminded them of the defeats, to inspire an urge for revenge. Anniversaries of wars that were important to the nation were celebrated, along with the deaths or births of heroes who had fought for the national cause. The French commemorated the victories of Napoleon, and the Germans the Battle of the Nations, which ended in Napoleon’s defeat. In 1913, at the Monument to the Battle of the Nations, the authorities organized a great fete – a holiday of national unity – under the pretext of ringing in twenty-five years of Emperor Wilhelm II’s rule. The Russians commemorated Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow, and the French the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bouvines (June 1914).

Solemn celebrations and shows of patriotism were organized in schools, and negative images of enemies were widely promoted. Hate propaganda was spread by newspaper and school bulletins. Army camps were organized for children and young people, there was drill practice during physical education classes, and military preparation courses were run. All this had a major impact on mental preparation for the conflict. School textbooks taught “good patriotism,” indicating the significance of sacrifice, if the motherland should so desire it. “War is not likely, but it is possible. That is why France remains armed and always ready to defend herself. In defending France we defend the land in which we were born, the most beautiful and abundant land in the world,” we read in a French schoolbook of 1912. One way of mobilizing and educating school-age pupils was mass events, such as the Navy Days in Great Britain, or the German youth festivals.

The priming of nations for war was also crucially affected by a series of crises, beginning with the one caused by the annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. This was followed shortly afterward by the Moroccan Crisis in 1911 (the “Panthersprung” in Agadir). When this concluded, anti-French and pro-war hysteria erupted in Germany. The mob called for the Emperor to abdicate, calling him a coward, and demanded that the Chancellor resign from his position. Tensions were further stoked by Belgrade’s “Pig War” with Vienna, Italy’s war with Turkey over Libya in the years 1911–1912, and finally the Balkan War, which infringed upon the existing power structures. The fact that every war brought a new crisis meant that the atmosphere grew increasingly electric and ways of thinking feverish. Biases and mutual grudges intensified, along with mistrust and nationalist phobias. The constant tension was akin to a tightrope walk over an abyss. Each new crisis overlapped with the one before, building the tension until it all reached a climax. At any moment an armed conflict on a greater scale was expected to erupt. This led to a “dry” (today we would say: “cold”) war. The consecutive crises inclined nations to arm themselves on an even greater scale, to “try out” the militarization of their economies and to forge more “defensive alliances.” The disquieted populaces began asking questions about the coming war. “I always thought about the looming war. If it could be avoided,” wrote Daisy Hochberg von Pless in 1911. “In the early winter of 1912/1913 there was increasing talk of the possibility of war between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Russia... There was quiet turmoil hidden in our country. The wheels of independence were turning feverishly,” recalled the Polish Princess Matylda Sapieżyna. Due to the tension, volunteers swiftly arrived for the Polish and Ukrainian rifle units in 1912–13 in Galicia. When the immediate threat of war seemed to subside, recruitment diminished.

And yet, even all of the above factors need not have sealed the outbreak of a world conflict. Further crises could have come and gone, resolved through established procedures, and the world could have kept on arming itself, continuing to train and parade its armies while war plans reposed in carefully guarded safes. Even with all this going on, it would have been possible to live in peace, though a life of constant tension, from crisis to crisis, from conflagration to conflagration, was certainly not a source of comfort. How many years can one live on a powder keg? Not very long. This is why it should come as no surprise that it was often concluded that, in spite of the risk of war and the lack of certainty as to how things would turn out, an attempt needed to be made. “War [...] was inevitable and unstoppable, as a result of motives that drive states and peoples, like a storm which nature itself must release,” wrote Joseph Conrad-Korzeniowski. Thus, if war is unavoidable, there is no point in delaying it. A surgeon would make a similar argument: an operation is the only chance to salvage the health of a patient, and the chance of its success depends on the speed with which it is conducted. “A just and necessary war is no more brutal than a surgical operation. It is better to give the patient pain and get blood on your fingers than to let the illness spread to such an extent that it becomes a threat to you and the world,” wrote British journalist Sidney Low on the eve of the war. War is, after all, simply another means of gaining political aims. Meanwhile, there is what might be called the compulsion of war. All that remained was to choose the date. The bloody attack in Sarajevo of 28 June 1914 appeared to fulfill these expectations, setting off a chain reaction.


Andrzej Chwalba. Born on 11 Dec. 1949; he specializes in the social and religious history of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. He has been a professor since 1995. He has 380 publications to his name, including twenty-two books. He once served as Vice-rector of Teaching Affairs of the Jagiellonian University. He has received many awards for his books, including The History of Poland, The History of Krakow 1939–1945; The History of the World in the Nineteenth Century; The History of the World 1989–2011. He has also published six books in foreign languages: Polen und der Osten, Suhrkamp, 2005; Kurze Geschichte der Dritten Republik Polen 1989 bis 2005, Harrassowitz, 2010; Collegium Maius. A History, 2010; Polsko 1989–2008. Dejiny soucasnosti, Brno 2009; Poljska Nakon Komunizma (1989–2011), Zagreb 2011; Istorija na Trietaja Polska Republika, Sofia 2013.




1. David S. Landes, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1999), p. 465.


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

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

Photo of the publication Revolution by Song: Choral Singing and Political Change in Estonia
Joseph M. Ellis, Keeley Wood

Revolution by Song: Choral Singing and Political Change in Estonia

01 August 2014
  • Estonia
  • choral singing
  • song festivals
  • chorus


After being subsumed by the Soviet Union during World War II, Estonia suffered greatly during occupation. But one area that the Soviet authorities could not completely control was Estonia’s tradition of “Song Festivals”. Sung primarily in the Estonian language, these choral festivals lasted through Soviet rule, and became the bedrock for preserving Estonian culture. Moreover, this singing tradition spilled over into Estonia’s fight for freedom, as Estonians used song as a peaceful, non-violent means of protest. Estonia’s “Singing Revolution” lasted roughly from 1987–1991 and resulted in independence for Estonians. This paper will assess this period of Estonian history by using survey data and over 30 participant interviews gathered by the authors. These structured, in-depth interviews assess the meaningfulness of the Song Festival tradition and crystallize the role of these festivals in post-independence Estonia. More specifically, the authors also will connect discussion of these song festivals to the social capital literature made famous by Robert Putnam. The authors argue that song festivals and choruses were a significant component of fostering social cohesiveness and civic engagement among Estonians – both native and abroad – and thus served as a bulwark against the intrusion of Soviet ideology.


The collapse of the Soviet Union is one of the monumental episodes of the 20th century, resetting the world politically, economically and ideologically. Perhaps the most fascinating turn of events in the build-up to this collapse lies in the myriad of avenues through which revolutionary activity was fomented and spurred throughout the Eastern bloc. From Romania’s very violent turn of events over Christmas in 1989, to Czechoslovakia’s relatively peaceful “Velvet Revolution,” change in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union proceeded in very different ways. One of the more remarkable stories of revolutionary activity was that of Estonia’s so-called “Singing Revolution,” an effort by native Estonians to protest Soviet occupation through song. Though Estonia is not the first (nor will it be the last) country to use song as a form of political and social protest, the Estonian experience is germane for what it says about the position of music within Estonian culture and language. In addition, as the authors argue in this essay, music – particularly choral music – was a central organizing tool for Estonian protest. Borrowing from the voluminous work on civic engagement and social capital in the political science discipline, the authors will contend that the Estonian “Singing Revolution” was a combination of cultural re-awakening and political strategy that fostered community activism. Estonian choral music and singing during the Soviet collapse not only rekindled a notion of “Estonian-ness,” but also provided a platform for many individuals who were otherwise not politically active to engage in social and governmental protest.

For this article, over thirty Estonian song festival performers were interviewed, many of whom participated in the political struggle of the mid to- late 1980s. These interviews provide an enriching narrative of Estonian views on song and its relation to social and political change. Moreover, these interviews offer further insight into the differences between Estonian choral protest and other countries’ use of song protest. This matter is particularly relevant given recent musical protests, such as Russia’s feminist-inspired Pussy Riot, and the musically-charged protests lodged by Syrian youth against the Syrian government and President Bashar al-Assad (MacFarquhar 2011). In all of these instances, although music was the medium by which grievances were transmitted, the songs were varied in audience, content, arrangement and perhaps most importantly, participants.

This essay is organized into three parts. First, an overview of the Estonian political situation in the 1980s is examined, with special attention paid to the effect of Soviet occupation on Estonian politics and society. Second, the history of the song festival tradition will be analyzed, including interviews with participants. Lastly, the third section links both the political history of Estonia and its history of song festivals to the literature on social capital. Though it is truthful to argue that “singing” was a major catalyst in ending Soviet occupation, the manner in which this unfolded requires further distillation. Thus the third section explores how song choirs became important networks for political and social change within a closed-off environment like the Soviet Union. The authors also will touch briefly on how singing allowed social networks to be fostered across Estonian expatriate and émigré communities in the USA and Europe, and what this meant for the preservation of Estonian culture as a whole.

Occupation and Revolution in Estonia

Estonia’s tortured relationship with outsiders dates back centuries, as it was settled and occupied by countries such as Denmark, Sweden, Germany and Russia for roughly 700 years, in what Kyllike Sillaste entitled Estonia’s unfortunate history of “conquest and survival” (1995, 119). However, by 1919, Estonians declared their independence, wrote a constitution, and enacted a democratically-elected parliament. This first “independence period” brought the flourishing of Estonian schools, business and culture, an era that lifted Estonian society to a level comparable with “Western” neighbors such as Finland. Even so, twenty years following independence, in 1939, the dream of freedom was halted. German and Soviet forces used Estonia as one of their theaters of war during World War II, with both militaries taking turns ruling parts of the country. By the culmination of the war, Soviet forces dominated Estonian territory and incorporated Estonia into the Soviet Union. For Estonians, the period from 1945–1953 was especially traumatic, termed by Estonian political scientist and politician Rein Taagepera as the “years of genocide” (Mertelsmann and Rahi-Tamm 2009, 308). “Approximately 8,000 were arrested for political reasons during the first year of Soviet rule” noted Olaf Mertelsmann and Aigi Rahi-Tamm. “Of these, only a few hundred survived” (2009, 310). Anatol Lieven, in his book The Baltic Revolution, argued that the Estonian population had declined by 25-percent in the 1940s, and further speculated that “it is difficult to exaggerate the amount of damage done to the Baltic States by Soviet rule” (1994, 82).

The penetration of Soviet influence into Estonian political and cultural life was particularly galling and unsettling for Estonians. Not only were they unable to control their political fortunes or to possess autonomy over political decisions, but Estonian language and customs were struggling to maintain a foothold. “As early as 1959,” wrote political scientist David Smith, “over 50 per cent of the school-age urban population of Estonia were native speakers of Russian, receiving their education in Russian language schools, where little or no Estonian was taught” (1999, 296). Other scholars estimated that by the 1980s, less than 70 per cent of the population were actually “Estonians,” as years of industrial plans and collectivization campaigns brought growing numbers of outsiders to the region (Sillaste 1995, 122).

As in the rest of Eastern and Central Europe, and throughout the Soviet Union, things began to rapidly change for the people of Estonia in the 1980s. While it is true that economic and political softening brought by glasnost and perestroika augmented changes in Estonia, the tipping point occurred in 1987, over environmental problems related to open-pit phosphate mining in north-eastern Estonia. As political scientist Andres Kasekamp points out, environmental concerns were a catalyst for revolutionary spirit in all three of the Baltic States, and especially in Estonia (2010, 161). However, environmental harm related to phosphate mining was not the only issue, as the mine also sought to employ over 100,000 workers who were not from Estonia (Smith 1999, 297). From 1987 onward, Estonians proceeded down a political path that would radically alter the prospects for future generations. This path included large-scale social activism that rallied native Estonians against what they saw as Soviet and Russian occupation.

From 1987–1990, Estonia formed several new political and civic movements, including the Estonian Popular Front – an organization led by Edgar Savisaar and composed of many reformist communists – the Estonian National Independence Party, a group that argued that Estonians never relinquished their independence to the Soviet Union to begin with, and the National Heritage Society, a “proto-political force” that, among other things, challenged Soviet authority by restoring Estonian monuments and the Estonian tri-color national flag (Lieven 1994, 217–220). Additionally, Estonians took to the street to protest, when, in 1989, they locked arms with Latvians and Lithuanians in a 400-mile long human chain connecting Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn, an action known as the “Baltic Chain.” This protest commemorated the anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which had given the Soviet Union control over the Baltics (Sillaste 1995, 123). By 1990, many communist governments throughout Eastern Europe – in Poland, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, and Romania among others – had collapsed or were on the brink of collapse. Soviet-occupied spaces such as Estonia and the rest of the Baltics followed suit. In April 1990, Estonia “simply cancelled the Soviet annexation, and declared that Estonia was in a period of transition to full independence” (Lieven 1994, 242). A provisional government was formed around members of the Popular Front and headed by Savisaar.

Not all shared in the independence struggle in 1990, however. Thousands of Russians who feared their own political and cultural extinction formed the group Interfront, and staged a sort of insurgency against the new government, attacking the Estonian parliament building (the Riigikogu) located on Toompea Hill in Tallinn. Savisaar went to the radio broadcast tower in an attempt to alert the public, declaring: “Interfront gangs have surrounded Toompea Castle and are attacking. I repeat – Toompea is under attack!” (Vesilind 2008, 146). Estonians flooded up the hill, chanting for freedom, and surrounded the Interfront group. Remarkably, no one was injured or hurt in the protests and counter-protests. The Russians filed out peaceably, and Estonians returned to their homes.

This episode marked a turning point in the Estonian independence narrative. Estonians remained united behind this cause and let little stand in their way. The following year, in August 1991, the Soviet Union was collapsing upon itself – Gorbachev was removed from power, a coup was being staged in his place, and Boris Yeltsin was moving Russia towards independence. Clumsily, Soviet tanks were still moving in the Baltics, having killed 14 Lithuanians in an effort to take television communications away by knocking out and scrambling their TV tower (Vesilind 2008, 148). The tanks then rolled on into Latvia, and later, Estonia. But, Estonians staged physical and human blockades to protect the tower, and two young, Estonian border policemen stood guard until the Soviets retreated, never to return. Estonia was a free country again.


A key component missing from the previous narrative (and existing literature generally), is a substantive discussion of the contribution made by Estonian singing, especially the long-standing tradition of choral music within Estonian society. Ultimately, one cannot fully understand the Estonian independence movement without referencing singing. In 2008, this notion was made famous by James and Maureen Tusty’s documentary The Singing Revolution and Priit Vesilind’s accompanying book of the same name. Though research into Estonia’s choral traditions and song festivals has been advanced by a number of scholars (Thomson 1992, Puderbaugh 2006, Brokaw and Brokaw 2008), The Singing Revolution documentary broadcast the Estonian independence saga to wide and far-reaching audiences beyond academic communities. Not only was there limited distribution of the film in theaters, and thousands of copies of the film sold and distributed to libraries, but PBS (Public Broadcasting System) picked up the documentary as well, airing the story to millions of Americans through their televisions.

Drawing on the inspiration of Tusty’s film, the work done by many scholars on this topic, and the courage demonstrated by the Estonian people in the face of cultural and linguistic annihilation, the authors continued to delve further into Estonia’s singing revolution. In particular, the authors were not only interested in the history behind the singing, but also the effect of this singing in the lead-up to independence. In the following section, Estonian singing traditions are examined, both through secondary research and through 34 semi-structured interviews conducted by the authors via surveys, emails, and face-to-face contact. The interviews were conducted in English, over the course of four months in the Spring and Summer of 2013. All face-to-face interviews were conducted at the LEP-ESTO festival – a convention that brings together native and ethnic Estonians – in San Francisco, California. The interviewees were a diverse lot – from teenage to senior citizens, from Estonian-natives to first- and second-generation people of Estonian heritage residing outside of Estonia, and from veteran choral performers to prideful on-lookers. This diverse selection was culled intentionally, to achieve a variety of perspectives on Estonian singing, and to demonstrate its meaningfulness to the Estonian people.

Before proceeding, the authors must clarify the general use of the words “song festival” in the Estonian culture. In short, there are many different types of Estonian song festivals. The most notable of those forms is the Laulupidu – literally meaning “song festival.” Laulupidu occurs every five years – the last being in 2009 and the next one in 2014. The festivals are the largest gathering of Estonian choirs in the country and typically are the festivals to which our respondents refer. However, there are many other song festivals in Estonia, including the Estonian Night Song Festival (Öölaulupidu), the Estonian Youth Song and Dance Festival, the Viljande Folk Festival, and more recently, the Punk Laulupidu, among others. These festivals occur in the intervening years between the larger, more prominent Laulupidu, though they are no less important to some Estonians.

Singing and Song Festivals in Estonia

Estonia has a rich folklore and storytelling tradition that dates back centuries. The most famous of these stories was that of the mythological giant Kalevipoeg (Kalev’s son), a tale that tells the national story of the Estonian people. But other, less famous, stories began to be collected in the early 19th century. Jakob Hurt, a German pastor dubbed the “King of Folkfore,” persuaded Estonians to begin collecting and writing down the literally hundreds of thousands of stories and tales passed through the generations (Thomson 1992, 15). This ongoing project created a repertoire of Estonian narratives that became crucial to preserving Estonian culture, but also served as a natural springboard to the composition of Estonia-specific songs. During what is known as the “National Awakening” period of Estonian history, poets such as Lydia Koidula constructed a narrative from which future generations of composers would borrow. Koidula’s place in Estonian history is so significant that following independence her picture was placed on the former 100-kroon bank note (Thomson 1992, 76).

Coupling the growth of folklore literature with an already rich tradition in music and choir singing, Estonia began hosting a Song Festival (Laulupidu) in the nineteenth century. The first festival began in 1869 and was organized in part by Johann Voldermar Jannsen, a newspaper publisher who created the Estonian-language newspaper (Postimees) and was also the father of Koidula (Vesilind 2008, 32; Thomson 1992, 75). In the university city of Tartu, and in conjunction with the national awakening, the festival was held in an effort to raise the national consciousness of the Estonian people and to encourage them to embrace Estonian as the official language of the state. “I think that in general the first song festivals were not so much about politics,” said Estonian song festival participant Merit Künnapuu, “than cultural awakening and identity” (Künnapuu, Merit. Survey Interview. 22 February, 2013). Tartu saw 51 male choirs consisting of 845 musicians, with 10,000–15,000 in the audience during the first year of the Song Festival (Raun 2001, 75). Singing came naturally to the people of this small Baltic country; “you get three together and they start singing” said Mari Truumaa, an Estonian-American (Truumaa, Mari. Personal Interview by Authors. 29 June, 2013). The festivals then played out uninterrupted for three decades before Estonia was rattled with revolution and war. The singing resumed during Estonia’s first period of independence from 1923–1938, but was halted due to Soviet occupation and the introduction of communism. The 1938 festival was in fact the last festival that was entirely an Estonian project, “rife with Estonian nationalism” (Puderbaugh 2008, 33)

Thought of as “one of the darkest sides of Stalinism,” the decrease in cultural output and expression is what weakened Estonia the most in the early years of occupation. In typical communist fashion the Soviets fought for “ideological purity” and banned many aspects of Estonian culture including literature and the arts (Raun 2001, 186). What they did not ban at first, however, was soon molded into something that was no longer Estonian in nature, but Soviet-inspired and then Estonian-produced. In this way, literature could be published only if the author was an Estonian Communist Party member (ECP), theatres could produce only Soviet Russian or Soviet Estonian works, and composers were encouraged to create music that reached the masses of people. This same concept was used to neatly package the Estonian song festival tradition into something that was Stalinist in spirit, and as this event encouraged a mass participation it offered the perfect opportunity to establish the new principle of “national in form, socialist in content” (Raun 2001, 188).

Kai Põld, an Estonian born before the Soviet era of occupation and attended every song festival since his childhood, expressed a sentiment that many of his fellow countrymen felt when their twenty-year bout for independence was contested with the onset of WWII: “What can one do when there are one million Estonians and 150 million Russians? What more than wait. So we worked and sang and waited” (Põld, Kai. Email Interview, May 22, 2013). While Hitler began his invasion of Central Europe, the small Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were disregarded by the rest of Europe and left “for 50 years to the barbarian Soviet Union,” as Leonardo Meigas, a veteran of all song festivals dating from 1965, acrimoniously recalled (Meigas, Leonardo. Email interview, 4 July, 2013). Communism had settled effortlessly into Estonia, and with a population of only 1.3 million it infiltrated all aspects of everyday life, making it impossible for the Estonian people to embrace their own cultural heritage and long-enduring traditions.

Many families fled the country during the 1940s, narrowly escaping the desolation the Soviets would reap upon their homeland and its people. Truumaa’s family – for example – lived in the city of Tartu in Estonia, but left for the United States in 1952 after being displaced persons in Germany for six years. Upon her marriage in 1965 she claimed that “at the time there really was no hope of Estonia, at least in my lifetime, to become free” (Truumaa, Mari. Personal Interview by authors. June 29, 2013).

The Soviet Union, however, underestimated the strength and perseverance of Estonians. While their plight was not unique in the grand scheme of war and occupation, their sentiment toward the situation was. Estonians collectively refused to acknowledge their perceived hopelessness with the same pessimism that potentially could have become their downfall, but instead came together as a nation. Instead of feeling guilt that their sons and daughters could grow up knowing nothing beyond foreign oppression, they channeled their energies into fighting using their one strength: singing. While defeating 150 million Russians was unrealistic, so was silencing one million Estonians. Estonia was ready to raise its voice.

“Singing is the best therapy in everything. You can sing about your joy, pain, longing, grief, dreams... and express yourself through music,” said Estonian native Kertu Vallerind, who has performed in every song festival since 1976. “And to do that together with thousands of other singers, it’s such a powerful feeling. It makes you feel that you can move mountains, and you can in your soul!” (Vallerind, Kertu. Email Interview. 7 June, 2013). In late June 1947, following a conscious collaboration with the Soviet government, Estonia was allowed to resume their century long tradition and continue the beloved Song Festival, but with very strict guidelines. This was the first song festival since the 1938 festival, which was a wholly Estonian performance. However, in 1947, Soviet influence on the musical program was apparent to all Estonians.

The repertoire started with God Save the Tsar “A lot was forbidden,” said Vallerind, referring to absence of many Estonian choral classics. But Estonians eluded the Russians by hiding messages in verse. “The censor couldn’t stop you as the message was hidden carefully into the text and melody – through ‘flowers.’ The censor didn’t notice it or they just couldn’t find a proper reason to decline” (Vallerind, Kertu. Email Interview. 4 June, 2013). For many people, it was not the words they were singing or the communist propaganda that united the country, but the feeling of togetherness through choral music. Estonians were able to experience a sense of cultural identity that was not present during the majority of their occupation. “It was a tool that we used to show to the Soviets that they did not manage to kill our culture and spirits and that if we wanted to restore our freedom then there was nothing that would stop us,” said Künnapuu (Künnapuu, Merit. Survey Interview. 22 February, 2013).

Eva Türk, an Estonian born during the end of Soviet occupation, recalled: “My grandmother used to say some decades ago when we were a part of USSR: ‘Attending the festival makes me feel Estonian again...’ I think that this says a lot” (Türk, Eva. Survey Interview. 22 February, 2013). Even so, the 1947 Soviet-influenced festival was not the same as the pre-war performances. First generation Estonian-American Aavo Reinfeldt said that if he had to describe those first festivals “the words I would use would be gray, somber, unified sadness” (Reinfeldt, Aavo. Personal Interview by Authors. 29 June, 2013). As David Puderbaugh argued, the purpose of the festival from the Soviet perspective was to attain three main objectives. The Soviets wanted to create a sense of comfort in the wake of war and devastation, to celebrate the Soviet Union’s victory over Germany, and to show off the Soviet economic and societal advancements made in Estonia (Puderbaugh 2008, 35).

Though the 1947 festival was still shrouded in communist ideology, 28,000 people came to sing and another 100,000 filled the audience, the largest turnout in Estonian history. With the Soviets keeping a close watch on the repertoire, Estonians spent two days singing compulsory songs centered around socialist themes, such as the nobility of hard work and the glorifying of the deeds of Stalin, Marx, and Lenin. “It was better to continue our national events than not do it,” said Põld (Põld, Kai. Email Interview. 22 May, 2013). Accordingly, it was when Gustav Ernesaks took the stage that Estonia was exalted for the first time in years. Ernesaks led the choir in “Mu isamaa on minu arm,” a poem written by Koidula during the national awakening movement and a song that is considered the unofficial national anthem of Estonia. Put to a new arrangement, thousands of Estonians sang this song in their native tongue, expressing hope for the future of their homeland through the lyrics. The Estonians sang: Mu isamaa on minu arm // kell’ südant annud ma // sull’ laulan ma // mu ülem õnn // mu õitsev Eestimaa. This translates in English as: Land of my fathers, land that I love // I’ve given my heart to her // I sing to you // my supreme happiness // my flourishing Estonia! The song slipped past the Russian censors and the true message it conveyed was lost in translation.

Ernesaks is arguably the most famous conductor in song festival history, and an enormous statue of him graces the song festival grounds in Tallinn today. Perhaps not surprisingly, during the 1940s and 1950s, some Estonians looked upon Ernesaks with great suspicion, as a sort of Soviet traitor. Someone like Ernesaks would have been among the handful of Estonians permitted to travel throughout the Soviet Union, and his attempt at conducting Sovietthemed material proved problematic for his reputation at the time. “[He] was considered a collaborator,” Põld said, “But nobody told him that he was treated like a national hero, for he started [sic] continuing our song festival tradition” (Põld, Kai. Email Interview, May 22nd, 2013).1 The following year three conductors were declared “enemies of the people” and arrested. Ernesaks was able to escape arrest and possible deportation because of his high public profile in society, both among the Estonian people and Soviet dignitaries. Still, during the 1950s, the song was banned from the song festival and did not reemerge for a decade (Puderbough 2008, 41).

In 1960, as the Fifteenth Estonian song festival was winding to an end and people were filing out of the song festival grounds, following a repertoire that contained the customary Soviet songs, the opening lyrics of Mu isamaa on minu arm were heard quietly trickling through the audience. A tune that had not been heard publicly in over 10 years quickly picked up with vigor until thousands of Estonians were singing the song that had first struck a cord with the Estonian people in 1869 at the first song festival. The people knew what they wanted and were rebelling in the only way they knew how. One participant recalled: “Why people are still crying, singing ‘Mu isamaa on minu arm?’ Because having homeland is more important than having home. Losing it you can’t buy a new one” (Meigas, Leonardo. Email Interview. July 4, 2013). Throughout the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, the song festivals continued, each with a mixture of Soviet and Estonian songs. But following the backlash over phosphate mining in 1987, Estonians began to organize more and more public protests centered around their singing culture. A prominent example is the June 4th, 1988 rally, where close to 100,000 people marched and sang songs, working their way from Old Town Tallinn, and weaving down the street toward the Song Festival grounds, about a four kilometer walk (Puderbaugh 2008, 41). Noted Meigas: “In 1988, spontaneous night festivals of young people singing old forbidden songs [fed] our belief and hope to live in our free homeland someday again” (Meigas, Leonardo. Survey Interview. February, 20, 2013). The song protest participants were a diverse lot, ranging from formal conductors, to noted Estonian rock stars like the late Alo Mattiisen. Without sacrificing one life or shedding an ounce of blood Estonia had managed to restore its independence peacefully. Though it would be an overstatement to suggest that song alone brought forth revolution, it is not hyperbole to remark that choral music in some ways saved Estonia. Most Estonians do not deny the importance of the song festival tradition during the Soviet period, nor the challenges it presented to communist authority. “In the Soviet period, under the Russification pressure it was the only legal public way to demonstrate mental and cultural togetherness of a small nation,” said Meigas (Meigas, Leonardo. Survey Interview. February 20, 2013). After the Soviets left and the Republic of Estonia was once again independent, some Estonians worried that the tradition would diminish in its breadth and significance, since there was no longer a direct cause to precipitate the act of engaging in song. “The one in 1990 [song festival], it was like everyone was convinced they would become free...it was a tremendous nationalistic movement,” said Truumaa. “And I thought, well now that everyone is free maybe not everybody is going to participate, oh no! It was raining on the parade, everybody was doing it anyway. We were sitting in the rain. Whenever it started raining everybody put their ponchos on... They said there were over 20,000 singers...” (Truumaa, Mari. Personal Interview by Authors. June 29, 2013).

Liina Steinberg, an Estonian veteran of six song festivals, believes the song festival tradition is “the most visible part of Estonian culture.” As she states: “...Estonian music can be enjoyed without knowing the Estonian language – so the song festivals provide everybody with a more tangible example of Estonian culture” (Steinberg, Liina. Survey Interview. February 22, 2013). Türk furthers the sentiment by saying that the song festivals give her “a feeling of being one of many – it is part of my cultural consciousness” (Türk, Eva. Survey Interview. February 22, 2013). This is important as even Estonians – admittedly so – are typically regarded as being a very reserved group of people. In this regard, Künnapuu said: “I think we don’t really appreciate each other that much and we rarely refer to those cultural ties in our everyday life. It seems to me we mostly come together and feel united when in trouble” (Künnapuu, Merit. Survey Interview. February 22, 2013).

Stories like Liina’s, Eva’s and Merit’s were told to the authors in numerous ways by numerous interviewees. One of the key themes that emerges from the authors’ interviews with these diverse individuals of Estonian heritage is the notion of music as a source of collective action, or more broadly, as a vehicle for bringing people together in common pursuits that transcend the songs themselves. It is important, though, to distill what is unique about the role that song played in fostering these larger pursuits in Estonia and for Estonians living outside of their native land. Such an understanding, it follows, will permit a thorough recognition of the sources underlying – and the after-effects of – forms of civic engagement across other cultures. To directly address these matters, the authors turn to a discussion that links the unique traits of Estonian song with existing literature that addresses the notion of “social capital.”

Singing, Engagement and Social Capital

What separates much of Estonian protest music from music in the rest of the world is the use of choruses as the primary framework for musical expression. While it is true that Estonian song festivals occasionally feature solo performances – Tõnis Mägi’s version of Koit is an excellent example – most of the music is structured around the choral traditions of the country. The most rudimentary (and perhaps most important) quality of a chorus is the amount of participation that it engenders. When respondents noted that 20,000 singers would sing all at once this was not an exaggeration. Including the audience, which would frequently join in, over 100,000 Estonians could sing in unison at a song festival. The group-dynamic of choral singing in the Estonian case also helps to make sense of the success and peacefulness of the revolution in the country.

To understand this idea, Robert Putnam’s books Making Democracy Work (1993) and Bowling Alone (2000) provide some insight. Putnam’s work on the concept of social capital was developed in these books, the first about civic engagement in Italy, and the second about declining civic engagement in the United States. Social capital – as he defines it – is “features of social organization, such as trust, norms and networks, that can improve the efficiency of society by facilitating coordinated actions” (1993, 167). Putnam’s work set off a firestorm of debate in the political science community about the extent to which these social networks impacted politics, and whether increased social capital was, on balance, a healthy component of political communities. While the authors do not wish to delve too far into those debates, we do think the social capital literature has relevancy to this particular project on Estonian choral singing.

In this regard, Matthew Baggetta at the University of Indiana examined in detail the use of choirs as important social networks. In his study of Boston-area (USA) choirs, he argued that choral groups offered “opportunities to interact with others, experience [in] governance, and [connection] with community institutions” (Baggetta 2009, 194). Baggetta also touched upon two other important components of choir groups in his research. First, he noted that choirs create great opportunities for individuals to assert “organizational management,” as member-volunteers often are tasked with organizing and planning choral practices and events (2009, 187). “Choruses are relatively complex managerial undertakings,” Baggetta stated, “with substantial budgets, limited staff presence and significant amounts of volunteer labor” (2009, 189). Second, Baggetta highlighted the collaborative nature of the choral experience. Choirs frequently interact with other musicians (vocalists need instrumentalists, for example) and people of various ages and skillsets. Choirs also frequently perform in the community, connecting not only with other artists but also with people who hold only a passing interest in music (Baggetta 2009, 189).

Choirs in Estonia certainly provide the kind of networking and organizational components Baggetta observed in Boston-area choirs. Survey respondent Viivi Verrev stated that being part of choirs in preparation for a song festival “are great practice in organizing a major event on a tight budget” (Verrev, Viivi. Survey Response. February 25, 2013). Another interesting example of the organizational power of choral groups was relayed by Leonardo Meigas, an aforementioned singer: “Edgar Savisaar, the newly elected Prime Minister, managed to get a message on the radio saying ‘Toompea is under attack. I repeat, Toompea is under attack!’ I left my frightened and crying nine-month pregnant wife waiting at home and I rushed to Toompea, being really ready to meet a conflict. But when I got there, I saw a crowd of perplexed and downcast Russians already descending with their red flags...” Meigas explained that this event happened on a Tuesday, which has been a traditional rehearsal day for amateur choirs who practice in schools, theatres, and other venues with large recital halls. “That’s why many angry Estonian choirs quickly reacted,” Meigas clarified. “Nearly a thousand men got through in 15 minutes to Toompea to protect our newborn independence!” (Meigas, Leonardo. Email interview. July 31, 2013).

Singer Hanna-Liina Vosa, arguably one of the most popular performers in Estonia, got her start singing traditional songs in a song festival choir. While she has had a successful career in theatre, starring in many big name musicals such as Grease, My Fair Lady, and Les Miserables, and even having an audience with and performing for Queen Elizabeth II, she has not forgotten her roots, and performs in many Estonian festivals, most recently singing at the 2003 song festival and the 2009 Tallinn Days in Moscow. “It means a lot to people who are from smaller places in Estonia because they practice, they rehearse the songs all year and then they come together and it kind of expands, but they feel like they really give it their all,” said Vosa. “Because they feel like their voice counts even though there are 20,000 people singing” (Vosa, Hanna-Liina. Personal Interview with Authors. June 29, 2013). Respondent Kerstti Kittus agreed. She noted: “...Choir singing is an important part of social life outside of the big cities like Tallinn and Tartu” (Kittus, Kerstti. Survey Response. February 23, 2013).

As Künnapuu stated, the song festival is an event that has the power to bring everyone together, “[...] no matter the age, gender, economic background; it’s all about the love for the country and to feel that connection and sense of belonging” (Künnapuu, Merit. Email interview by authors. June 5, 2013). In the same breath, Eva-Tiina Põlluste, an Estonian veteran of nine song festivals, noted: “In my opinion Estonians are quite individualists, but sometimes you would like to feel that people around you are similar and thinks and likes the same. So that is what unites us on the song grounds and we can feel that we are the same nation and we breathe in same rhythm” (Põlluste, Eva-Tiina. Survey Interview. February 22, 2013).

Especially following the fall of the Soviet Union when Estonia was free to sing as she pleased, the people needed an event that was going to unite them again as a country and make them forget the evils they had faced to reach that point. As Reinfeldt stated:

Estonians’ spirit does come alive during song festivals because everything aside there is nothing to be afraid of. When you’re afraid you don’t want anyone to overhear what you’re saying. When you’re afraid you don’t want anyone to read your letters. But everyone knows how to sing. Everyone knows how to hold hands. Everybody knows what it means when your emotions sort of take over. And imagine the power of thousands not thinking of negative things, but positive (Reinfeldt, Aavo. Personal Interview by Authors. June 29, 2013).

Even those Estonians that moved abroad following independence have not lost their cultural roots, with many returning year after year for the song festival. Besides coming home every five years to sing for their country, those Estonians that have moved abroad often join choirs in other countries, like the European Choir of Estonians that was founded in 2007. One member, Mairis Minka, grew up during Soviet-era Estonia but currently lives in Luxembourg, where she was a part of a few different choirs before going back to her roots and joining an Estonian-based group. “I have been living in Luxembourg ten years and there was a period of my life where I was searching for some choirs but I didn’t match with these Luxembourg choirs,” said Minka. “I was singing there but I didn’t feel well there, it’s not at all the same singing Vivaldi, it doesn’t touch you” (Minka, Mairis. Personal Interview by Authors. June 29, 2013). “SILLER” is another choir that seeks to unite Estonians living abroad, translating in English to “a group of Estonians living in Finland.” Co-founder Maria Lume helped start this choir in 2006, because much like Minka in Luxembourg, no matter where they are, “singing is in the blood of all Estonians.” While this group is based in Helsinki, their objective has always been participation at the song festival in Estonia, which they “do not consider an obligation, but rather a privilege” (Lume, Maria. Email Interview. May 27, 2013).

What makes this Estonian tradition all the more unique is the staying power it had with the people. “In Estonia the folk dance and singing is not dying out, it’s getting more and more popular, while in other countries it’s not popular,” stated Tuuli Solom, a member of the Choir of European Estonians who grew up during Soviet-era Estonia, but now lives in Germany. “That’s the phenomenon in Estonia. Even though we do these traditional things we try to modernize it also, it will not stay in the old fashioned way” (Solom, Tuuli. Personal Interview by Authors. June 29, 2013). Upon gaining independence, some feared that the song festival would lose popularity, especially with the younger Estonians being a generation removed from the devastation of war and foreign occupation. As Trummaa said of the post-independence festivals: “And I thought, well now that everyone is free maybe not everybody is going to participate” (Truumaa, Mari. Personal Interview by Authors. June 29, 2013).

Once again, Estonians impressed their adversaries by capitalizing on their newfound independence. The song festivals were considered vital, and a way for the people to sustain their optimism for the future and to promote much needed nationalism among the smallest of the Baltic countries. As Solom emphasized, by modernizing the festival and composing new melodies and songs, such as Rahu (a pop song performed by the famous contemporary group Ruja) and Isamaa ilu hoieldes, (an upbeat rock song written by the late Mattiisen), the tradition has not been left stuck in the nineteenth century. “I think it’s delightful to see how eager the young generation is to perform and wear national costumes,” said Steinberg. “Some smaller cultures face the problem that the younger ones don’t want to carry on the cultural traditions of the nation.” This does not seem to be true, however, in the Estonian case.

Proof of this assertion lies in the story of Estonian orchestra conductor Jaan Ots, who was born in 1988, and is currently a rising star within the Estonia orchestral community. Too young to remember the major strife between Soviet Russia and Estonia, Ots feels the passion of the song festival every time he attends. “Music-making together, and so many people together, and good music and good emotions that unite people and this feeling that you get... It’s such an international feeling, it’s not only about Estonians. If you can create a good energy with singing and making music, that’s the most important thing I think” (Ots, Jaan. Personal Interview with Authors. June 29, 2013). “I am not worried about the younger generation,” added Künnapuu. “Maybe 100 years from now [the] song festival will be just another social event but right now it is so much more” (Künnapuu, Merit. Email Interview. June 5, 2013).

For now, the song festival is not diminishing in value or representation. “Knowing the historical, political and cultural meaning of these festivals to Estonians and taking into account that during such a festival about ten per cent of our nation is present,” said Steinberg, “you feel and see history in making.” (Steinberg, Liina. Email Interview. June 5, 2013). An Estonian respondent named Maria, who asked for her last name to be withheld, is a veteran of six festivals. She believes the song festival still helps the people unite in a very special way, and said: “There is a hint of nostalgia in song festivals when singing songs had a political impact, but there’s also a lot of joy and it seems that song festivals help people believe in a better tomorrow (Maria. Survey Interview. March 12, 2013). Added Ots: “There is a kind of atmosphere that you cannot find anywhere else. Maybe you can but it isn’t in any way special (Ots, Jaan. Personal Interview by Authors. June 29, 2013).

Künnapuu best summarized the significance of the song festival and choral singing for Estonians both near and far:

These days a lot of people go abroad to work, study or just have an adventure. And many stay abroad. But our song festival is something that always brings people back. No matter the age, gender, economic background; it’s all about the love for the country and to feel that connection and sense of belonging. There are always a lot of expatriate Estonians going to song festivals who emigrated during the cold war. Their life is not in Estonia anymore but I think every Estonian is at least a little bit of a nationalist at heart. And with a population of 1.3 million we need that something that will always bring us together. (Künnapuu, Merit. Email Interview. June 5, 2013).


Estonia is not the first country to use song as a form of political and social protest.2 For example, in her study of the French Revolution, Laura Mason uncovered how a revolutionary song culture was a critical piece of understanding that period of French history. As she noted about Paris at that time: “It was a city that encompassed a cacophony of voices as revolutionaries and royalists filled streets... giving speeches, rioting and throughout all, singing” (1996, 2). The same was true in Cuba in the 1950s, as Fulgencio Batista’s army clashed with the bourgeoning communist movement led by Fidel Castro. All the while, however, Cuban music exploded in popularity both at home and abroad. “Batista’s final years in power are thus associated simultaneously with pleasure and political repression, hedonism and terror” (Moore 2006, 27). Cuba is a particularly interesting case as artists both hailed the coming revolution with songs such as “En eso llego Fidel” (That’s When Fidel Arrived), but also grew to be critical of the restrictions placed upon them, opting for exile rather than for censorship (Moore 2006, 60–67).

Dozens of other examples also could be mentioned, including the folk and rock protests of American music in the 1960s or the recent punk protests of a band like Russia’s Pussy Riot. Music is a wonderful medium for rallying people to engage in activities in which they might not otherwise partake. Valerie Samson’s study of music during the Tiananmen Square protest represents a case in point. “[...] Music was a significant factor in politically arousing protestors to such a degree that they increasingly engaged in risky behavior,” Samson wrote. She also noted that music “enhanced [...] audience participation. [T]hese performances were auditory realization of the abstract concept of democracy” (Samson 2012, 518, 527).

Of course, not all politically-charged protest music is necessarily uplifting or constitutive to healthy communities or democratic practices. This is certainly true of the plethora of neo-Nazi bands in places like the United States, Germany and England. Consider the Croatian band called Thompson. While their music and lead singer Marko Percović Thompson are widely popular on Croatian radio, he has been accused of glorifying the Ustaše, Croatian soldiers that collaborated with the Nazis during World War II (Muršič 2012, 191). The popularity of his music coupled with on-going political and religious tensions in that area, demonstrates how song also can rally communities in very divergent directions.

The Estonian case is special because the music was, as one might infer from the interviews discussed herein, almost exclusively uplifting. It was also inclusive of many participants from different walks of life, a hallmark of what Putnam defines as “bridging” social capital (Putnam 2000, 22–24). More specifically, the songs united people around themes that were universal, like nature, or even the honey bee. For example, the classic song festival tune Ta lendab mesipuu poole roughly translates to “He flies toward the beehive,” and is a song about the return of bees to the hive. Some bees are lost along the way, but others have returned home. The subtext is obvious to an Estonian, but the theme of returning home is a universal one.

To draw a quick illustration in closing: Creedence Clearwater Revival’s song Fortunate Son is an appropriate example of 1960s protest music that emerged in the United States around the time of the Vietnam War. The song details how many fortunate sons were able to avoid serving in Vietnam by being well-connected, or having wealthy fathers, while thousands of lower – and middle-class people were sent overseas. The song was direct, blunt, and for many, divisive and scandalous. While it would be a mistake to assume that everyone in Estonia unites around the themes of the song festival – ethnic Russians living in Estonia have their antipathies, for example – the content and melodies of the songs are designed to bring everyone together, and during the independence period from 1987–1991, this was true for many. After countless emails, conversations, interviews and surveys conducted by the authors, the primary realization of this research is not only that Estonians love to sing, but also that, for many, the act of singing represented a central organizing force in their lives. And thus, singing is a critical part of understanding the evolution of Estonian independence.


Joseph M. Ellis. An Assistant Professor of Political Science at Wingate University in Wingate, NC (USA). His research interests are in comparative politics and post-communist transitions, specifically in the former Soviet Union. He has written extensively on the Baltic States and flat taxes, and more recently, on counter-intuitive forms of social capital, such as pick-up soccer and choral groups. He received his BA from Winthrop University (USA) and his MA and Ph.D from Temple University (USA). He would like to thank the Wingate Summer Research Grant fund for supporting this work and Hemant Sharma, Ph.D at the University of Tennessee, for his editorial advice.

Keeley Wood. An undergraduate student at Wingate University majoring in Communications. A native of Sanford, NC (USA), she was awarded a Summer Research Grant from Wingate to conduct research on Estonian song festivals. In addition to her academic prowess, Wood is a three-time All-Conference and a two-time All-Region performer in cross-country. She is also a Capital One Academic All-District athlete.



1. This has some parallels to the story of the Russian Dmitri Shostakovich, one of the preeminent composers of 20th century and someone who played on both sides of the ideological divide. On the one hand, Shostakovich was a favorite composer and propagandist of Stalin and the Soviet government; on the other hand, his music had a sub-text that went deeper than the surface level, and even was critical of Soviet form. “To Shostakovich, music was the true language of multiplicity, which always expressed the truth, never lied, yet was always subject to interpretation,” wrote Jennifer Gertsel. “With music he felt he was able to say everything and admit nothing” (Gertsel 2012, 156).

2. Estonia’s neighbors, Latvia and Lithuania, have very proud and storied singing festivals and choral traditions also. Though the focus of this paper was only on Estonia, a number of works have addressed the importance of song in the lives of Latvians and Lithuanians. See Janis Chakars (2010) “Work Life in the ‘Singing Revolution’”, John Ginkel’s “Identity Construction in Latvia’s ‘Singing Revolution’”, and Guntis Šmidchens (2013) The Power of Song, which compares Estonia’s, Latvia’s and Lithuania’s singing cultures.

List of References

Books and articles

Brokaw, Alan J. and Marianna Brokaw (2008) “Identity Marketing and the Case of the Singing Revolution,” Journal of Nonprofit and Public Sector Marketing 8(4), pp. 17–29.

Gertsel, Jennifer (2012) “Irony, Deception and Political Culture in the Works of Dmitri Shostakovich,” in Ian Peddie (ed.) Music and Protest (London, UK: Ashgate Publishing), pp. 154–156

Kasekamp, Andres (2010) The History of the Baltic States (London, UK: Palgrave MacMillan), pp. 160–167.

Lieven, Anatol (1994) The Baltic Revolution: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and the Path to Independence. (New Haven: Yale University Press), pp. 82–220

MacFarquhar, Neil (2011) “In Protests, Syrians Find the Spark of Creativity,” The New York Times, December 19, p. A10.

Mason, Laura (1996) Singing the French Revolution: Popular Culture and Politics, 1787–1799. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press), pp. 2–17.

Mertelsmann, Olaf and Aigi Rahi-Tamm (2009) “Soviet Mass Violence in Estonia Revisted,” Journal of Genocide Research 11(2–3), pp. 307–322.

Moore, Robin D (2006) Music and Revolution: Cultural Change in Socialist Cuba. (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press), pp. 27–67.

Muršič, Rajko (2012) “Yugoslav and Post-Yugoslav Encounters with Popular Music and Human Rights,” in Ian Peddie (ed.) Music and Protest (London, UK: Ashgate Publishing), pp.191–212

Puderbaugh, John (2008) “How Choral Music Saved a Nation: The 1947 Estonian National Song Festival and the Song Festivals of Estonia’s Soviet Occupation,” Choral Journal October edition, pp. 29–43.

Putnam, Robert (2000) Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon and Schuster), pp. 22–24

Putnam, Robert (1993) Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press), pp. 167

Raun, Toivo (2001) Estonia and the Estonians. (Palo Alto, CA: Hoover Institute Press).

Samson, Valerie (2012) “Music as Protest Strategy: The Example of Tiananmen Square, 1989,” in Ian Peddie (ed.) Music and Protest (London, UK: Ashgate Publishing), pp. 518–527.

Sillaste, Kyllike (1995) “Conquest and Survival: An Outline of Estonian History,” World Affairs 157(3), pp. 119–123.

Smith, David (1999) “The Restorationist Principle in Post Communist Estonia,” in Christopher Williams and Thanasis Sfikas (eds) Ethnicity and Nationalism in Russia, the CIS and the Baltic States (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate Press), pp. 287–321.

Thompson, Clare (1992) The Singing Revolution: A Political Journey Through the Baltic States (London, UK: Michael Joseph), pp. 7–15.

Vesilind, Priit (2008) The Singing Revolution: How Culture Saved a Nation. (Tallinn, Estonia: Varrak Publishers), pp. 32, 148


  • Anonymous, “Maria,” Survey response to Authors, 12 March, 2013.
  • Kittus, Kerstii , Survey response to Authors, 23 Feburary, 2013.
  • Künnapuu, Merit , Email message to Authors, 5 June, 2013.
  • Künnapuu, Merit , Survey response to Authors, 22 February, 2013.
  • Lume, Maria , Email message to Authors, 27 May, 2013.
  • Meigas, Leonardo , Email message to Authors, 4 July, 2013.
  • Meigas, Leonardo , Email message to Authors, 31 July, 2013.
  • Meigas, Leonardo , Survey response to Authors, 20 February, 2013.
  • Minka, Mairis , Personal interview with Authors, 29 June, 2013.
  • Ots, Jaan , Personal interview with Authors, 29 June, 2013.
  • Pold, Kai , Email message to Authors, 22 May, 2013.
  • Polluste , Eva-Tiina, Survey response to Authors, 22 February, 2013.
  • Reinfeldt , Aavo. Personal interview with Authors, 29 June, 2013.
  • Solom, Tuuli . Personal interview with Authors, 29 June, 2013.
  • Steinberg, Liina , Email message to Authors, 5 June, 2013.
  • Steinberg, Liina , Survey response to Authors, 22 February, 2013.
  • Truumaa, Mari , Personal interview with Authors, 29 June, 2013.
  • Turk, Eva , Survey response to Authors, 22 February, 2013.
  • Vallerind, Kertu , Email message to Authors, 7 June, 2013.
  • Verrev, Viivi , Survey response to Authors, 25 February, 2013.
  • Vosa, Hanna-Liina , Personal interview with Authors, 29 June, 2013.

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

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

Photo of the publication Could communism have collapsed without Wałęsas Nobel Peace Prize?

Could communism have collapsed without Wałęsa's Nobel Peace Prize?

09 October 2013
  • communism
  • Lech Wałęsa
  • fall of communism

Ewa Piłat: You came to Poland right after completing law studies in Rome in 1958 as a correspondent of Il Giorno. As a correspondent for RAI Television you reported on such things as the birth of Solidarity. For years in the European Parliament you had been a spokesman for Polish affairs and interests. Fifty-five years in and around Poland must have given you unique insight into assessing whether we have achieved as much as we could have after toppling communism?

Jas Gawronski: That all depends on the perspective through which we evaluate the changes that took place in Poland. Despite all its horrors, communism had its good sides as well: it toughened the nation up and brought out the best and the worst character traits in people. It verified a person's value. Pope John Paul II highlighted that fact in a conversation I had with him. As we were musing over which part of Europe had benefited the most from the unification, he said it was the West. Thanks to communism, people in the East were stronger, he maintained. They added a breath of fresh air, energy and morality to Europe. Following that digression I can answer your question. Poland has made superb use of its historic opportunity thanks to the quality of its people. It has also taken advantage of its geographic opportunity by virtue of being situated in this part of the world.

On 11 October 1982 the European Parliament adopted a resolution you had proposed on nominating Lech Wałęsa for the Nobel Peace Prize. A year later, almost to the day, on 5 October 1983, the Nobel Committee announced it was awarding the world's most prestigious prize to the leader of Solidarity. When preparing that resolution, did you foresee the great historic consequences that act would have for Poland and Europe?

No, I did not. Back in 1982 I did not foresee what the consequences of that effort might be. First of all, I wasn't sure I could get the resolution adopted. If it were only a question of voting, it would have been simpler. But preparing the resolution required collecting a set number of signatures. Deputies had to want to make the effort and be convinced about a given issue. I myself was surprised that 223 MEPs signed the resolution. At that point, I wasn't sure what the Nobel Committee's decision would be as there were many candidates in the running.

Without the Nobel Prize could Lech Wałęsa have brought about the collapse of communism?

I think he could have. It has been said that the Nobel Prize had been a kind of protective umbrella for Wałęsa, because the communists couldn't treat a Nobel laureate the way they normally dealt with opponents. However, I believe an even bigger security umbrella was provided to the Solidarity leader by John Paul II. The Nobel Peace Prize in turn gave him, Solidarity and the changes taking place in Poland world-wide publicity.

Had you known Mr Lech Wałęsa before preparing that resolution?

Yes, quite well. We met in 1980 in Gdańsk. Later we conversed in Warsaw. One time he came to collect me at Gdańsk airport. We got in the vehicle and there were cars of secret police in front of and behind us. We couldn't shake them off. It was then that I realised how easy it was being a foreign correspondent in Poland and how difficult the life of an opposition activist could be.

You were the first journalist who succeeded in conducting an interview with John Paul II. Many times you have emphasised the Polish Pontiff's contribution to the toppling of communist rule. Was it greater than that of Lech Wałęsa?

Both were indispensable to the overthrow of the communist system. One could not have achieved anything without the other. Not long ago I took part in a conference which raised the question: which of those two 20th-century heroes will be better remembered 50 years from now? Most of those in attendance pointed to the pope. I however would vote for Wałęsa. There have been many popes and no-one knows when some new one might eclipse ‘our’ John Paul II. But there was only one leader of the many-million-strong trade union movement which overthrew the criminal system.

In the 1990s, when the first effects of the transformation and Poland's European aspirations became visible, you said that for Poland, membership of the European Union was more important than NATO. Why was that?

I continue to hold that view. In a situation where there is no real threat to the state, NATO does not mean a whole lot. But being in Europe means a great deal: for the Polish economy, culture, science and the mentality of Poles – one could go on enumerating.

Four years ago, after five terms in the European Parliament, you took leave of that institution, but to Jan Gawroński the question of a common Europe remains close at heart. From the sidelines it is often easier to see the virtues and vices of EU organs. What tasks in your view should today's MEPs be dealing with?

The most urgent matter is to tackle the economic crisis and resolve financial problems. In the long run, MEPs will have to work on people’s mentality and convince them to want to regard themselves as Europeans. Today there is no sense of community, only a sense of belonging to an institution that ensures specific economic benefits. That's not enough to predict a good future for the European Union.

Jas Gawronski – Italian politician of Polish ancestry; up till 2009 an MEP belonging to the European People's Party which affiliates politicians with moderate conservative, Christian Democratic and democratic views. His father, Jan Gawroński, was the last pre-war Polish ambassador to Austria, his mother, Luciana Frassati-Gawrońska, – a social and conspiratorial activist (she escorted the wife of General Władysław Sikorski from occupied Warsaw to the West). His grandfather, Alfredo Frassati, founded the daily La Stampa, and his mother's brother, Pier Giorgio Frassati, was elevated to the rank of blessed, the penultimate step to Catholic sainthood.

Interviewed by: Ewa Piłat, Dziennik Polski, 24 May 2013

Interview is published courtesy of the May 77 Society

Photo of the publication Volhynian massacre

Volhynian massacre

21 August 2013
  • European Network Remembrance and Solidarity
  • Second World War
  • remembrance
  • Volhynian massacre

In 2013 we commemorated the 70th anniversary of the Volhynian massacre - anti-Polish genocidal ethnic cleansings conducted by Ukrainian nationalists. The Volhynian massacre was one of the topics of a seminar Common Memory - fragments of presentations by Grzegorz Motyka, Piotr Tyma and Andriy Portnov below.

The massacres took place within Poland's borders as of the outbreak of WWII, and not only in Volhynia, but also in other areas with a mixed Polish-Ukrainian population, especially the Lvov, Tarnopol, and Stanisławów voivodeships (that is, in Eastern Galicia), as well as in some voivodeships bordering on Volhynia.

The time frame of these massacres was 1943−1945. The perpetrators were the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists−Bandera faction (OUN-B) and its military wing, called the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA). Their documents show that the planned extermination of the Polish population was called an “anti-Polish operation.” (http://www.volhyniamassacre.eu/). The 11 July, 1943, is regarded as the bloodiest day of the massacres,with many reports of UPA units marching from village to village, killing Polish civilians.

On 17 June 2013, the History Meeting House was the venue for the international seminar Common Memory dedicated to the Polish, Ukrainian and German perspective of dramatic events from the 20th century history of Central and Eastern Europe. The event was organised by the European Network Remembrance and Solidarity, the Polish-Ukrainian Cooperation Foundation, the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and the History Meeting House. Presented below are fragments of the panel entitled SECOND WORLD WAR – HISTORICAL REMEMBRANCE OF GERMANS, POLES AND UKRAINIANS, which placed a spotlight on the memory of the Wołyń massacre.

Dr Grzegorz Motyka (Jagiellonian University)

I will try to explain what the Second World War meant for Poles and Ukrainians and highlight some elements of remembrance of the wartime period. In reference to the overview of the conference, I would also like to discuss the problem of the Wołyń massacre.

First of all, the Second World War is an essential fragment of the national collective memory for both Poles and Ukrainians, for its historical events have shaped the current borders of both countries. Both nations have a sense that their wartime history demonstrates special significance and that they have suffered extraordinary injustice. Moreover, both countries attach major weight to their contribution to the defeat of Nazi Germany – as we know, Poles cultivate the memory of the operations of Polish intelligence units, while Ukraine stresses that Ukrainians were the largest nationality group after Russians in the Red Army.

Differences begin to surface when we discuss resistance movement operations and the public attitude to war. An important element of the Polish memory is the Polish fight against two totalitarian regimes – Poland’s enemies included both Nazi Germany and the communist Soviet Union, spawning the cult of the Accursed Soldiers, which has been growing in recent years. From the Ukrainian perspective, the problem seems to be even more complex. Eastern parts of Ukraine continue to cherish the vivid memory of Soviet guerrillas fighting against Germans, while Western Ukraine demonstrates a sometimes apologetic attitude to the Ukrainian Insurgent Army which continued its ruthless campaign against the communists after the war. Ukraine is now witnessing a fierce discussion; its main talking points include: should the country grant veteran rights to former UIA troops and did they actually fight the  Germans? To be frank, most controversies are stirred by the post-war operations of the UIA and its attitude to the communist system.

I would like to take this opportunity to highlight another important issue, often confused in Poland and probably in Ukraine. Ukrainians who condemn UIA operations should not be confused with people who share the Polish view on the Wołyń massacre. Individuals who believe that the UIA was a group of fascist criminals may be also convinced that the Wołyń massacre is a chapter of history that should not be discussed.

The ethnic cleansing known as the Wołyń massacre continued from 9 February 1943 until 18 May 1945. The operation masterminded by the Ukrainian Insurgent Army took approximately 100,000 Polish lives. Polish historians agree that it was a methodical campaign demonstrating characteristic features of genocide. It was undoubtedly one of the biggest crimes against Polish people during the Second World War. Therefore, and this point has been raised by Dr Kazimierz Krajewski, it is the last crime not to be embraced by history textbooks. To identify the reasons for such omission, we should answer the following question: how can one factually and unemotionally describe the event as it unfolded? Contrary to Katyń, Auschwitz or the Warsaw Uprising, where it is easy to pinpoint the crime and the guilt of the aggressors, the Wołyń massacre saw citizens of the same country slaughtering each other. Another factor which makes penning a fair textbook description even more difficult is the fact that Ukrainians actually suffered major injustice in the Second Polish Republic.

And this is the essence of the current discussions being held by Polish historians. It is true that studies on the Wołyń massacre have only been conducted for twenty years, yet there is a consensus that a fundamental set of facts has been sufficiently defined to address the narrative of this event. The situation is different in Ukraine – the evaluation of the Wołyń massacre in  public debate is ambiguous. Some Ukrainian historians fail to negate the organised character of the campaign and merely discuss the legal qualification of acts committed by the UIA. A more common notion of the Wołyń massacre depicts it as a people’s rebellion which evolved into a Polish-Ukrainian war, with both sides of the conflict committing similar crimes. A historical Ukrainian website defines the Wołyń tragedy as ‘mutual ethnic cleansing.’ At the same time, many recent publications argue, often in a very ahistorical way, that the crime was not a methodical operation.

Undoubtedly, attempts at describing the Wołyń massacre as a certain type of social revolution in Ukraine reflect the struggle to maintain the ethos of the UIA as a heroic guerrilla movement. Obviously, this phenomenon casts a shadow on Polish-Ukrainian relations as it leaves little room for history and fully embraces mythology. Having collected key data, Poland is now witnessing the beginning of the ‘textbook process’, while in Ukraine, with minor exceptions, we are seeing attempts to expand the accountability for the Wołyń massacre, an act of desperation considering the records we have accumulated which dispel all doubts.

Piotr Tyma (the Association of Ukrainians in Poland)

I would like to present a perspective slightly different from the dominant ‘Poles-Ukrainians’ perspective which focuses on the historical remembrance of Polish citizens of Ukrainian nationality, or Ukrainians who live in the borderland between Poland and Ukraine. I will try to describe the perception of the image mentioned by Dr Grzegorz Motyka as seen by this community.

Long before the anniversary of the Wołyń massacre, our community initiated a discussion whose leitmotif was how to address the artificial periodisation, which was, by the way, introduced by the title of Dr Motyka’s book From the Wołyń Massacre to Operation Vistula (Od rzezi wołyńskiej do akcji „Wisła”), and to what extent those two events brought together reflect Polish-Ukrainian issues, especially in the context of the borderland population. In my presentation, I will capitalise not only on my own experiences but also studies published in Ukraine to prove that they fail to embrace the memory of Ukrainians from Polish borderlands despite its immense impact on the remembrance of citizens of modern Ukraine.

Recently, a novel about the life of a resident of Carpathian Ruthenia has been published in Zakarpattia. There is one scene in the book when Carpathian Sich POWs are being marched by Hungarians who have just seized the region. One of the soldiers asks his commander, a former Ukrainian Galician Army soldier: ‘What is going to happen to us? Will the Hungarians put us in front of a firing squad?’ The Commander calmly responds: ‘Not Hungarians … but they are handing us over to Poles.’ Published in the 1990s, records of the 2nd Division of the General Staff prove that these were not isolated cases or events steeped in literary confabulation. The documents I have mentioned describe the sabotage operation Crowbar whose objective was two-fold: on one hand, to destabilise Czechoslovakia and on the other, to undermine the Ukrainian influence in Zakarpattia and stifle attempts to establish the Ukrainian state. In my view, operations of Polish sabotage units in Zakarpattia and Zaolzie were no different from German sabotage operations on the eve of the Second World War (the Gleiwizt incident).

The second aspect which is present in both Ukrainian narratives and Polish remembrance, but is never analysed in the context of the root causes of the conflict, is the fact that after the collapse of the Ukrainian state in Zakarpattia, troops of the Border Protection Corps executed Galician volunteers joining the ranks of the Carpathian Sich on the newly established Polish-Hungarian border. Recent exhumations in the Verecke Pass have revealed the bodies of five hundred people shot in a single site. I have mentioned it because these developments give rise to a whole new narrative, which has also been stressed by Prof. Wolfgang Templin; a narrative which sees the source of the conflict in the events of 1928 and early 1939, and not in those of 1 September 1939.

Dr Grzegorz Motyka mentioned the mythologisation of the Ukrainian underground movement. I have an impression that a similar approach has been recently adopted in Poland in relation to the interwar period. In an article recently published on an Internet portal, Dr Lucyna Kulińska declares that the Polish state actually introduced a policy towards Ukrainians as late as in 1938. Everyone who studies the history of this period realises what sort of acts were committed by Polish troops as part of efforts to reinforce Polishness in the eastern territories of the pre-war state. It also seems to me that these elements should be objectively and factually analysed as part of reflections on the Second World War, not in the context of the Ukrainian quest for justification, but in reference to all drivers of the conflict.

I would also like to address the Ukrainian discussion about Wołyń. I have the impression that the Polish perception of its discourse is simplified. Representatives of the current government coalition are determined to put the spotlight on Polish victims – a vital element of the discussion among other numerous issues related to the complicated historical remembrance of the Ukrainians. Giving in to a certain mindset, Poles project their notions into the Ukrainian discussion which is far more diversified.

For the sake of a common discussion, we should agree that the Second World War brought suffering to a number of different communities, not only in terms of the number of victims, but also losses in material culture and the extinction of traditions. Our dialogue will always be imperfect if we fail to adopt this assumption – not only because the Ukrainian party is evading responsibility for the Wołyń massacre, but also because its Polish counterpart continues to see certain issues as taboo.

Dr Andriy Portnov (Humboldt University / Historians.in.ua)

My presentation is intentionally provocative, as I believe that contrary to diplomatic language, the language of provocation gives everyone a better insight into the essence of the problem.

There is no fundamental consensus in Ukraine on the interpretation of the Second World War, which is often overlooked in Poland. What we are dealing with is an enormous fragmentation of the memory about it, whereas the dominant discourse does not focus on the Bandera-led Ukrainian Insurgent Army, but the Soviet narrative of the Great Patriotic War. Shards of this memory form two-way relations, which sometimes compete or reinforce each other. There is the memory of the UIA, the memory of the Red Army, the memory of occupation (not only the German one). Narratives which are neglected in this context include the distinctive memory of the Crimean Tatars, with additional problems posed by the memory of Jews. Finally, we have the Polish theme, subordinated to other elements in the current debate, often mentioned in the wider context of the UIA and the anti-Soviet resistance movement.

Nevertheless, the two dominant narratives include the post-Soviet (or neo-Soviet) and the nationalistic one. In this context, both parties claim their rights to interpretation of the Wołyń massacre. The nationalists see it as a roadblock hindering the development of the national narrative and thwarting the prospects for dissociation from the Soviet tradition. In the neo-Soviet discourse, the theme of the UIA and the Ukrainian underground movement boils down to Wołyń and certain anti-Jewish campaigns, which distorts the social context of the theme. I am also convinced that there is no understanding in Poland for this aspect of the Ukrainian debate.

It also seems to me that the discussion about the Wołyń massacre is now only a Polish-Ukrainian dialogue. Everyone in Poland has heard about it, while few people in Ukraine are aware of the Wołyń massacre. This topic has never been discussed in countries such as Germany, France or Israel. I am convinced that it would be beneficial to have our discussion expanded and publicised on the international scene. We ought to set the Wołyń massacre in the broader context of the war in Europe, pre-war developments and erstwhile ideologies.

To describe the contemporary Polish-Ukrainian debate, I will use the metaphor of the discussion of Ivan Vyshenskyi with Piotr Skarga. Both of them may have apt remarks, yet they are using a different language. We can clearly see it on our website where the text written by the Polish historian, who apparently uses the same terms, is set in a wholy different context that the reply of the Ukrainian historian. It is not a way to conduct a bona fide dialogue as it only reinforces certain stereotypes and political threads.

Finally, I would like to present several ideas concerning the discussion dedicated to the Wołyń massacre – they may appear to be trifling and obvious, yet they are often not articulated directly in various publications and debates. First of all, the criminal nature of the anti-Polish campaign in Wołyń does not mean that the Second Polish Republic had no problems with its nationality policy. Secondly, the contextualisation of the Wołyń massacre is not a denial of this crime, although, obviously individuals who negate the slaughter try to guise their efforts as contextualisation. Thirdly, analysing the discussion itself, we should ask ourselves: are we seeking adequate analytical tools or political gains? Fourthly, the history of the UIA should not be reduced to the Wołyń massacre – just like this chapter of history should never be excluded from the annals.

Photo of the publication We or They
Lavinia Stan, Andrzej Stankiewicz

We or They

21 August 2013
  • totalitarian regimes
  • communism
  • transitional justice
  • remembrance

Interview with Professor Lavinia Stan: The Romanian example has shown that demands for radical accountability can lead to a situation in which hardly any account settling occurs.

Andrzej Stankiewicz: What is transitional justice, especially in our part of Europe?

Lavinia Stan: This is an attempt to settle accounts with the legacy of a dark and gloomy past. The countries of our part of Europe have had a difficult Nazi and communist past. In Romania, this included crimes committed during the revolution, and in former Yugoslavia – during the civil war.

But this is an entirely different fate, a different kind of gloom. Does any common denominator, therefore, exist when it comes to settling accounts with the past?

There are practices and processes that have been common to nearly all the region's countries. It is another matter whether this has resulted from a mutual flow of ideas or taken shape independently. Those common areas pertain to politics, public debate and the legal situation. In most cases account settling has involved judicial proceedings. Access to secret police files was provided. The issue of restitution of illegally taken-over property emerged, although at times little has come of it, as in Poland's case.

Our region's specific feature has been vetting – one of the most controversial instruments of justice in the transformation period. Another important phenomenon has been memorialisation – the destruction of some monuments and their replacement with others, as well as a change of symbols and street names.

You are studying the influence of civil society on account settling with totalitarian systems, and focus on the perspectives of three different groups: victims, the intellectual elite and the totalitarian elite (‘nomenklatura’).

Nearly everyone wants to regard themselves as victims of the former system. But not all of us were victims. Most people supported the dictatorship through their passivity. But how many people of my generation will admit it?

Each of these groups – true victims, the system's dignitaries and intellectuals – perceive justice of the transformation period differently. Let's take Romania. Victims demanded radical vetting, putting secret informers of the Securitate on trial and sacking them from their jobs. To people wronged by the regime, vetting regulations were never sufficiently severe. They wanted to entirely eliminate people of the ancien régime from public life. Punishing collaborators became a symbol of justice to them. Such demands emerged soon after the collapse of the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceauşescu in the Timişoara Proclamation of 1990. These, of course, were never fulfilled by the political class, which in Romania was in a large part rooted in the former Communist Party.

In Poland the former democratic opposition was divided to a greater extent. A portion of the right-wing politicians demanded vetting, whilst centre-left politicians were opposed.

In Romania such harsh rhetoric by the regime's victims resulted from the way the dictatorship was overthrown – in bloody revolution. We lacked ‘round-table’ talks. Because of the bloodshed, the regime's victims did not want dialogue with their former oppressors, and it boiled down to a case of ‘we or they’. At the same time, the Romanian example has shown that demands for radical accountability can lead to a situation in which hardly any account settling occurs.

You ascribe none too flattering a role to intellectuals, accusing them of agreeing to some measure of account settling while blocking attempts to bring the dictatorship to account.

In Romania intellectuals played a significant role because some of them were dissidents, whereas in our country there were few such people. We do not have a civil society; hence nothing like Solidarity ever arose in Romania. After the revolution, intellectuals became very influential. It was they who made public opinion aware of the demands on which accountability was based. But mindful of the victims, intellectuals always softened the demands.

Subsequently, it turned out that some of the intellectuals had a disreputable past by virtue of having collaborated with the regime. Intellectuals politicised account settling and diminished public support for transformation solidarity.

The third group comprised Communist Party dignitaries, people attached to special services and other beneficiaries of the former system. In most of the region's countries they retained significant influence on public and political life for years.

When I initially became involved with transitional justice, my research focused on groups advocating account settling. But in Romania, I saw a different situation with my own eyes.

One of the most vociferous groups were tenants residing in property that had been illegally taken from its former owners. To make things clear, these were not poor workers or rank-and-file hirelings of socialism, but representatives of the former regime's elite. Very quickly they organised themselves, acted very effectively and blocked the restitution of property to the heirs of their former owners.

They convinced politicians to legally safeguard their interests including the right to continued residence in flats confiscated during the communist era and their purchase in the event that their former owners had no heirs.

Perhaps there are countries in our region where transitional justice is only a pretence?

Even in Romania, which has done less in many areas than other Central European countries, there has been clear progress in the realm of transitional justice. In spite of everything, some real estate is being returned, and this process is far more advanced than in Poland. Restitution of the property of the biggest religious denomination, the Eastern Orthodox Church, as well as the Greek Catholic Church is moving forward.

Which country is the most advanced in terms of account settling?

The Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary and the Baltic states have done the most to settle accounts with the past. In Romania and Bulgaria there are regulations on the books enabling account settling, but life is what it is, and a great deal still needs to be changed. Albania and the post-Soviet countries of Central Asia have achieved the least.

What about Russia?

Russia is regressing compared to the Gorbachev era.

When will the administration of transitional justice be completed in our part of Europe?

It will not end as long as a significant portion of society continues to lodge claims that the authorities are unable to fulfil. In Poland, the question of property restitution must be resolved. This issue has far-reaching legal and financial consequences, and thus account settling with communism cannot be completed without resolving it. In Romania, authentic vetting continues to be a problem, Up until 2006, secret files were controlled by the new security services that were largely comprised of former Securitate officers, as there was no verification of special services in Romania. Access to these files continues to be limited. Please do not ask whether vetting makes sense this late in the game – this is an entirely different matter. However, the victims do need a symbol.

Do you support settling accounts with former Communist Party leaders by means of court proceedings?

I know that discussions are also under way in Poland as to whether a dictator who has peacefully handed over power should be absolved of his past transgressions. Personally, I believe dictators should be put on trial if there is evidence that they broke the law.

Interviewed by Andrzej Stankiewicz (Rzeczpospolita)


>>Professor LAVINIA STAN is a Romanian political scientist with books and articles to her credit. She is employed at the Centre for Post-Communist Studies at Canada's St Francis Xavier University. A year ago, together with Dr Nadya Nedelsky, she published the Encyclopaedia of Transitional Justice, the first comprehensive work devoted to the accountability of dictatorial regimes.

Photo of the publication Victimisers, victims and the whole world
Andrzej Stankiewicz

Victimisers, victims and the whole world

20 August 2013
  • totalitarian regimes
  • transitional justice
  • European Network Remembrance and Solidarity
  • genealogies of memory
  • Latin America

Settling accounts with Nazism and communism, even with apartheid and the dictatorships of South America has become a scholarly discipline in its own right. Its distinguished researchers met during a seminar in Warsaw.

By Andrzej Stankiewicz


Research on the mechanisms of what has come to be known as transitional justice got under way in earnest at the turn of the 1990s, when communism in Central-East Europe was headed for the dustbin of history.

Transitional justice is the broadly conceived settling of accounts with receding totalitarian systems, carried out by new democratic authorities. This goes beyond legal regulations alone such as bringing criminals to justice, and also involves social phenomena accompanying the collapse of regimes. At present, this field of study, touching on law, history and the social sciences, encompasses research on the consequences of the collapse of all the world's 20th-century dictatorships, including de-Nazification and de-communisation. It also involves vetting and access to regime files, rehabilitation of political prisoners and restitution of nationalised property.

Plaque with the word ‘murderer’

Researchers of transitional justice met in Warsaw at an international conference titled ‘Legal Frames of Memory. Transitional Justice in Central and Eastern Europe’ (27-29 November 2013). The conference was an element of the Genealogies of Memory project launched in 2011 and carried out by European Network Remembrance and Solidarity.

Genealogies of Memory is one of those important scholarly projects seeking to come to grips with the memory of Central-East European totalitarianism and the transformation period,’ said deputy culture minister Małgorzata Omilanowska while opening the conference. ‘The problem of justice and related legal issues are the key to understanding many processes taking part in the countries of our region.’

Does a single model of transitional justice for countries leaving dictatorships behind them exist? ‘The situation of each country is different, but there are similarities,’ said Professor Adam Czarnota, a legal expert who lectures at universities in Poland, Australia and Western Europe.

The professor has only just returned from Argentina, a country in the process of healing its wounds following the military dictatorship of the 1970s and 1980s. He shows a snapshot he took during a visit to Buenos Aires. It shows a yellow plaque with black lettering hanging on a roadside post, indicating that a ‘murderer’ lives in this house, a collaborator of the former military regime involved in crimes.

This is evidence of what can occur when transitional justice is lacking and victims take things into their own hands. From that perspective, how does he evaluate transitional justice in Poland? ‘Property restitution and penal accountability of representatives of the former regime is still needed,’ believes Professor Czarnota.

Symbols, not money

At the centre of transitional research, both victims and victimisers are studied following the collapse of a regime. According to researchers, there can be no talk of justice until the victims are rehabilitated and the state reimburses them for the losses they sustained at the hands of the dictatorship’s functionaries. Professor Christiane Wilke of Canada's Carleton University warned in Warsaw that justice not rooted in the rule of law can become distorted and deteriorate into revenge against victimisers.

Professor Mark Osiel of the University of Iowa called attention to the way of memorialising regime victims used by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. Based in Costa Rica, it was set up in 1979 to settle accounts with Latin American regimes. ‘The Court seeks to restore the memory of victims by means of proper court rulings. It orders the rehabilitation of victims' memory by publicly honouring them and through apologies made by the state. It also orders changes in school textbooks,’ Osiel explained. ‘Latin America is perhaps making the greatest effort to change collective memory.’

The American professor called attention to yet another matter: research on transitional justice has shown that former victims regard financial assistance as improper and at times downright suspect. In his view, it is far better to honour victims symbolically.

An unquestioned authority on transitional justice, Osiel is the author of several fundamental works on the subject. He advised prosecutors in the case against Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet and on the prosecution of genocide in Rwanda in 1994.

Generals to the barracks?

Researchers disagree as to whether prosecuting dictators who have given up power such as Pinochet and Jaruzelski is proper. ‘I recall the worldwide reaction to Pinochet's detention in London upon a motion of Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón in connection with murder and torture charges. Even former Polish dissidents such as Adam Michnik were opposed. Because it becomes known what your future holds when you lose power,’ Jiří Přibáň, a Czech professor from Cardiff University, explained.

Professor Adam Czarnota recalled that in May the leader of the Burmese opposition and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi told him they did not want to sentence the junta generals but only send them back to the barracks.

But all the discussion participants agreed that settling accounts with a regime looks different in every region of the world. It depends whether a system collapsed amid violent revolution, through the peaceful hand-over of power or – as in the case of Germany and Japan – resulted from a lost war. The latter instance was referred to by Professor Czarnota as ‘victor's justice’, as the victorious powers imposed their order on the vanquished.

According to Professor Czarnota, with the exception of the Baltic states, there has been no transitional justice in the countries of the former USSR. It is no coincidence that the churches of Western Christianity essentially dominate in countries where transitional justice processes have taken place.


Ukrainian Yaroslav Pasko form Donetsk State University admitted: ‘In Ukraine such social will is lacking. This is the result of an underdeveloped civil society. In our country there is no structure that promotes a departure from post-Soviet experiences and sentiments.’

Polish model in Tunisia

Conference participants set the countries of our region up as examples for states making the transition from dictatorship to democracy. Deputy justice minister Wojciech Węgrzyn emphasised that account settling in the countries of the former Eastern bloc has incurred smaller social and economic costs compared to states in, for example, Latin America.

Recently, Poland has even become something of an exporter of knowledge on ‘justice of the transformation period’. Last year, Polish NGOs, backed by the Foreign Ministry, organised training sessions devoted to justice in the transition period for Tunisians who have been trying to build democracy following the Jasmine Revolution at the turn of 2011.


Photo of the publication Unread files
Jarosław Giziński

Unread files

20 August 2013
  • Poland
  • Hungary
  • transitional justice
  • Romania
  • Germany
  • GDR
  • Slovakia
  • Czech Republic
  • Czechia
  • lustration

While other Central European countries initiated lustration before Poland did, none consider it an entirely successful process.

Although more than two decades have passed since the collapse of communism, settling accounts with the old system is anything but complete. This is true regardless of the nature of the revolution: a ‘velvet’ one as in Czechoslovakia, negotiated as in Poland and Hungary or brutal and bloody as in Romania. The lack of complete and credible documentation is the most obvious reason almost everywhere. While the burning of the Polish secret police’s files in Pasikowski’s Pigs is only a movie scene, it is quite close to what actually happened. Developments in the other Soviet bloc countries were no different; just think of the piles of scattered documents filmed by Western journalists in the back yard of the demonstrator-occupied Stasi office in Leipzig.

Dossier game

There was a temptation to use more or less credible documentation against political opponents during the fight for power in post-communist countries, especially in the 1990s. As a consequence, lustration was deprived of its role in dealing with the past and instead created the impression of being a ‘dossier game’ serving the purposes of the powers that be. While in Poland these clashes are symbolised by the ongoing dispute regarding Lech Wałęsa’s past, almost all former Soviet bloc countries have had their share of alleged informers, including the Czechs, who were the first to initiate lustration, and the Germans with their apparently model lustration legislation and the so-called Gauck Office.

Countries, various groups and different institutions have all failed in conducting a complete and consistent lustration process. This includes churches, which the previous system attempted to fight (and infiltrate). Poland’s Catholic Church symbolically completed its lustration at the end of the previous decade but there were no major consequences. Elsewhere, for example in post-Soviet states, no attempts were made to conduct a credible lustration of the local Orthodox Churches. In Bulgaria, it was not until 2011 that the church hierarchy reluctantly agreed to lustration (not surprisingly since, as it soon turned out, the majority of synod members during communism had collaborated with the secret police).

Conducted soon after reunification, lustration in the former GDR was for a long time considered relatively complete. Germany, however, was different because the democratic legislation of West Germany was extended to the former German Democratic Republic, with all the consequences. Established in 1990, the Office of the Federal Commissioner for the Stasi Archives, with a staff of 1,600 (referred to as the Gauck Office after the first commissioner) is still very much in demand. Since 1992, two million people have requested access to the files. Initially the office was to continue until 2011, but the German parliament has extended this period by another eight years.

While the office has been relatively successful and has blocked the careers of former Stasi collaborators and agents at federal level, it has failed at state level in the east of the country. As an example, in Brandenburg’s Landtag every fourth left-wing (Die Linke party) MP has had a spell of what could be qualified as collaboration with the Stasi. Past informers have been found in the police and among Western politicians. In addition, some fifty people with a record of working for the secret services are employed at the Office for Stasi Archives and more than 500 work for various federal agencies. More than two decades into the process, some say that complete lustration in a country where every fiftieth citizen has had some contact with the secret political police is in fact impossible. What was Germany’s universally praised lustration process has turned out to be quite superficial, a claim made by Uwe Müller and Grit Hartmann, the authors of the book Vorwärts und Vergessen!.

Agents and confidants

The Czechs were the first among the former Soviet bloc countries to take lustration seriously, screening as early as 1989for StB (Security Service) agents and collaborators. Prior to the first free elections in June 1990, political parties could run checks on their candidates, thus blocking the political careers of many. Czechoslovakia’s new parliament adopted formal lustration laws in October 1991. One applied to all citizens and the other to those serving in uniformed services. If a person was proved to have collaborated with the communist secret police, they were excluded from posts in public administration, public offices, the army, police and state-owned enterprises.

Early on there were legal and interpretational problems. The Constitutional Court ordered a change in some of the clauses. It was found that some people described as ‘candidate’ or ‘confidant’ in secret service documents may not even have known that agents were using them as a source of information. Following their formal adoption, the lustration laws were to stay in effect for five years. However, just as in all the other postcommunist states, this was much too soon and it was clear that more time was needed. The lustration law in the Czech Republic has indefinite duration.

There were scandals involving people from the front pages. Many were prosecuted following the 1992 publication by journalist Petr Cibulka of a list of 220,000 people from the StB archives. Just as with the Polish Wildstein’s list, the problem was that it included former spies and those of interest to the secret police. With no equivalent of Poland’s Institute of National Remembrance, the mistakes were difficult to correct. It was not until 2007 that the Czech Republic established the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes (USTRCzR).

The Slovaks took a different approach when they established their own state. From early on, Slovak politicians, especially on the left of the political spectrum, were wary of lustration. The joint Czechoslovakian lustration law expired in 1996 and was not followed up by Vladimir Meciar’s HZDS government. The Nation’s Memory Institute (UPN) was not established until 2002 under a right-wing government. Eventually, it was decided that lustration statements were not mandatory, and even if someone is proved to have had a secret police past, moral stigma aside there will be no legal consequences (e.g. exclusion from public office). Gaining access to UPN archives is relatively easy.

Neither were the Hungarians very enthusiastic about dealing with the past. Despite the militant mood among right-wing groups during the collapse of communism in 1989, Hungarians took a long time to adopt lustration laws. The Alliance of Free Democrats had its proposals, as did the first non-communist government of József Antall. Adopted in 1994, the first act offered a relatively mild treatment of former agents. Not only were secret police collaborators kept safe from any serious sanctions, but also legislators wanted to keep communist security service files secret for as long as 30 years. Due to objections raised by the Constitutional Court, the final version of the law was not ready for another two years, to have finally expired in 2004.

Astonishingly, the governing radically anti-communist Fidesz party is reluctant to address the topic of lustration. Some analysts believe that this is due to the fear of possible blackmail due to intense infiltration of the opposition during the 1970s and 1980s. In a recent bid to revisit the ‘agent’s act’ in June this year, the Hungarian Parliament again failed to pass the bill. This time government coalition MPs abstained.

Secret Collaborator politician

Romania was equally slow with its lustration legislation. With strong post-communist influences, the first governments were in no hurry to deal with the past. It was not until 1996 that the right-wing government of Emil Constantinescu started work on Act 187, a law dealing with Securitate (Ceausescu-era security service) agents and collaborators. Passed three years later, the law turned out to be ineffectual. While data about confidants’ pasts were to be disclosed, there would be no consequences. It was up to voters to decide whether people discredited in the past could hold elected offices. As a result, many a former secret police collaborator is pursuing a political career in Romania. While the agent exposure process gained some impetus after 2006 with pressure from president Traian Basescu, the screening of several hundred people a year compared to several hundred thousand former secret police collaborators does not seem like an effective way of dealing with the past.

As we can see, lustration involving painful consequences for former communist secret service collaborators is merely a demand voiced by former opposition groups. Despite the common belief that the new political elites of Germany and the Czech Republic were most consistent in their lustration policies, the process failed even there. What may come as consolation is that while Polish lustration is criticised for being weak and inconsistent, the majority of the countries in our region have achieved even less in dealing with the shameful past of the communist era.


This article was originally published in a special appendix to Rzeczpospolita daily for the 'Genealogies of Memory' conference on 27 November 2013.