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 Justice for all
Marcin Komosa

Justice for all

19 August 2013
  • transitional justice
  • Memory
  • truth commission
  • South Africa
  • Argentina
  • amnesty
  • Chile

The task of a truth commission is an arduous one: it involves creating from a set of subjective memories, often blurred by time and marked by trauma, a common narrative that will no longer divide society.

Over the past three decades, in the course of media and scholarly discussions on settling accounts with the past, the institution most frequently invoked has been the truth commission. The origins of that concept should be sought in the bringing of the military dictatorship of Argentina to account in 1983. However, the truth commission owes its ‘international career’ to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa, which functioned in 1995-2000 under the leadership of Archbishop Desmond Tutu.


The ability for perpetrators to obtain amnesty in exchange for full disclosure of the truth about their crimes, public hearings evolving into religious ceremonies, and finally the charismatic chairman - all this meant that over the years South Africa and its truth commission were presented as a model solution to be used in other countries.

It is worth noting that many of its ideas had been used earlier in committees of inquiry in Great Britain and its former colonies. The popularity of the truth commission and continuing academic deliberation as to what exactly such a commission should be has led to the widespread creation of public and private institutions bearing that name.
Truth commissions have dealt with the causes of slavery in Mauritius (reaching back as far as 1638!), evaluated the issues of doping in cycling or paedophilia in the Irish Church.
The associated devaluation of the concept makes it difficult to determine the number of truth commissions involved in settling accounts with the past. However, 22 truth commissions can be identified, operating in 21 countries around the world. They share several characteristics: they are public institutions (appointed by the State or an international organisation), they are extraordinary, they operated for a defined period of time, they are set up during a time of transformation, also after a period of authoritarian rule, as in the case of post-conflict peace-building; they deal with human rights violations in the past and focus on the victims of these violations. As can be seen, not all of commissions identify the perpetrators of crimes (some even omit this issue), and only two (in South Africa and Kenya) had the right to grant conditional amnesty. The last truth commission was established in Brazil in November 2011.


Historically, the greatest threat to settling accounts with the past is the emergence of the phenomenon known as victor's justice. After a former authoritarian regime has given up power, following the signing of a peace agreement, ‘after every war someone has to clean up’ (W. Szymborska).

The desire to obtain quick redress for grievances leads to self-appointed courts, show trials and witch hunts without guaranteeing the rights of offenders, without seeking to justify their circumstances, without regard for the future.
Revenge by some generates a sense of grievance in others; it creates a vicious circle which in the long term prevents reconciliation. Truth commissions are usually established on the basis of a worked-out compromise that in all appearances may seem unacceptable.

Acknowledging social peace and future reconciliation as the highest values, they try not to violate the agreements of transformation. The former opposition accounted for one-half of the members of Chile's truth commission and people involved in the Pinochet regime made up the other half. The representatives of various racial and religious groups sat next to each other in the commission in South Africa. These commissions were also careful about naming the perpetrators (making it possible to investigate the fate of the victims of the Chilean junta).
Truth commissions are sometimes accused of maintaining the impunity of perpetrators. However, in situations following internal conflict, when any criminal proceedings could threaten a return to violence (such danger existed for example in El Salvador), or if after the departure of authoritarian rule the armed or security forces continued to protect their interests (as in the countries of South America), the establishment of a truth commission becomes the optimum solution - as often pointed out by political journalists - second only to the courts.

The right to the truth

During a period of authoritarian rule, when judges cooperate with the authorities to cover up their transgressions and government officials deny that they ever took place, a truth commission, with the participation of recognised spiritual and secular authorities, seeks to bring this truth to light. Initially, commissions were limited to collecting data from police and military archives, carrying out interviews with the families of the victims and exhumations.

Since the establishment of the commission in South Africa, public hearings have become their most distinguishing characteristic. At such hearings, victims are able to present their truth about the crimes carried out, and the perpetrators are able to explain what guided them. From both of these monologues a truth commission is able to produce a new narrative: the truth about the past. This reference to subjective truths, to people’s memories, has allowed the past to be talked about in a language different from that of dry NGO reports or those found in secret-police files. Hearings held by truth commissions have become spectacles: they have revealed all the drama of what being a victim and a victimiser is all about. Addressing the motivations of individual people is perhaps the greatest achievement in the history of these commissions.

It is not difficult to note that the task of a truth commission is an arduous one: from a set of subjective memories, often blurry after many years and marked by trauma, to produce an intersubjective narrative that will no longer divide society. Although the role of the members of truth commissions has been entrusted to authority figures, this has not protected them from accusations that they lack impartiality in the creation of narratives about the past. Even the model commission of South Africa was seen by the white population, according to a 1999 study, as a tool of revenge.

The voice of victims

In a criminal case, typically the accused is th4e central figure, round whom the proceedings take place. But truth commissions were set up give a voice to the victims. The fact that they were not judicial bodies gave them the opportunity to function on a more flexible basis: they have often been compared to a treatment and healing process. However, giving a voice to the victims has led to two paradoxes which seem to have diminished the popularity of truth commissions as a means of reconciliation in the early twenty-first century.

The first paradox concerned the perpetrator-victim relationship. In Chile and Argentina, the division was clear: the victims were mostly left-wing opposition activists, whilst officers of the security forces and the army were the perpetrators. However, very soon it turned out that these categories were not mutually exclusive. In El Salvador, both parties to the conflict were guilty of crimes; in Sierra Leone it was not possible to even identify which of the warring factions was the government side; the truth commission of South Africa faced the problem of human rights violations carried out by activists as an expression of opposition to apartheid; in Ecuador there emerged the problem of extensive ranks of police informers.

It turned out that being the perpetrator and the victim is not as straightforward as it seemed at the beginning of transformation.

The second paradox is associated with the mechanics of a commission's operation. The more flexible and open the procedure is to the voice of the victims, the smaller the range of guarantees of a fair trial for the perpetrator. Can one then evaluate the past by violating human rights and making the past offender the present victim? Faced with that dilemma, successive truth commissions have developed a set of procedural guarantees, which have ultimately made commission procedures resemble criminal proceedings.

The functioning of a truth commission shows that human rights violations are not made in a vacuum. Its effects do not apply only to the perpetrator and the victim, but cover the whole of society. Therefore, a commission operates in public, it makes its reports available, and its meetings take on a solemn character. A truth commission is the beginning of a new history for the whole of society, in order to prevent it from returning to authoritarianism or conflict.

MARCIN KOMOSA holds a doctorate in political science and is a cultural anthropologist, the author of the monograph Sprawa Pinochet. Odpowiedzialność za naruszenia praw człowieka (The Case of Pinochet. Responsibility for violating human rights) 2005, and the book Komisja prawdy. Mechanizm odpowiedzialności za naruszenie praw człowieka (The Truth Commission. A mechanism of responsibility for human rights violations) 2013.

The text in Polish was published in a special Genealogies of Memory supplement in the latest issue of Tygodnik Powszechny on 11.12.2013.

Photo of the publication The Dynamics of Memory in East and West: Elements of a Comparative Framework
Harald Wydra

The Dynamics of Memory in East and West: Elements of a Comparative Framework

20 August 2012
  • Eastern Europe
  • Memory
  • Westeuropa
  • remembrance


Recent calls for a shift of the centre of gravity of memory in Europe are confronted with a deep asymmetry in master narratives in political societies across the former Iron Curtain. This paper examines the experiential basis under which narrative commitments have been made in Eastern Europe. The major focus here will be on the dialectics between spaces of experiences and horizon of expectation. Like individuals societies acquire habits of remembering, which are transmitted, challenged, and collected across the inter-generational memorial fabric. The basic argument defended here is that societies are initiated into interpreting their past by ‘learning’ specific acts of commemoration, performance, and ritual. The past is thus to be considered not as a by-gone and well defined period but rather a social organism in gestation. This paper first examines how experiences of state-formation, conflict, and practices of communist rule have been stored in Eastern Europe’s cultural memory. It then goes to suggest that the search for constitutive mythologies needs to take into account that in Eastern Europe different ‘initial zeros’ are competing with each other. Experiences of forgetting, the impact of cultural trauma on carriers of memory, and the difficulty to code performative rituals of memory account for a lack of sense of rupture with the past.

Shifting the Centre of Gravity of Memory?

In his address to the Memory at War project at Cambridge in 2010, Jay Winter urged shifting the centre of gravity of memory in Europe. A shift from Paris to Warsaw would make ‘European memory’ look very different. This call, both overdue and necessary, points to the potential integration of master narratives by discovering commonalities and analogies. Such integration would explore the roots of dissonances and conflicts arising from cultural traumas such as world wars and genocide, which are cognitively remembered but whose experiential background is fundamentally different. However, it is also deeply problematic because it potentially relativises the founding narratives of post-war Europe. In Western Europe, the politics of official apologies and regret have progressively instrumentalised the ‘duty to remember’ into political strategies of governing by looking back. Such practices rely not only on moral judgements about the nature of totalitarian regimes and the impact of genocide, but also on practices of transitional justice and policies of compensation, rehabilitation, and the political recognition of collective belonging to the citizenship of minority groups or former victims. Conversely, post-communist Eastern Europe has been characterized by divided memories and systematic attempts at historical revisionism, in which nationhood is rewritten as a constant and finally successful struggle against foreign domination. Historical revisionism addresses a triple task: it aims at genetic interpretations of the origins or beginnings of independent statehood; it focuses on heroic narratives of resistance, liberation, and survival in order to establish and maintain positive discursive and narrative markers of nation-building; and it maintains the centrality of collective victimhood for the political community.

Narrative commitments to specific memory regimes depend on how experiences and expectations are recast and imagined in the evolution of political societies. Such narrative commitments cannot be mastered from the knowledge, practices, and duties that have been generated under specific experiences. Rather, they originate in the cultural memory of each society. Like individuals, societies are initiated into interpreting their past by ‘learning’ habits of remembering, performance, and ritual, which are transmitted, challenged, and collected across generations. My hypothesis is that the experiential basis of narrative commitments is fundamental for understanding the integrative or potentially conflictual nature of constitutive mythologies. In Reinhart Koselleck’s terms, ‘there is no collective memory but there are collective conditions of potential memories’.1 We have first to clarify the conditions under which terminological, ethical, normative, and political dimensions of memory have evolved. Shifting the gravity of memory towards Eastern Europe cannot simply imitate the western model.

The analysis proceeds in three steps. First, taking the departure from an analogy between comparative democratisation studies and memory studies, I suggest that hegemonic models of ‘memory by western design’ unduly discount the communist experience. Second, following Koselleck, I shall suggest that the cultural specificity of memory regimes includes particular forms of making sense of experience and expecting alternative futures. If memory is a carrier of meaning, it is imperative to understand how carriers of memory make sense of violence, trauma, and despair in the tension between experiences and expectations. Finally, the hegemony of western memory models depends on the ways carriers of memories across complex socio-political processes have established ‘founding’ memories by means of performative habit.

Mapping the Field

Aware of the deep asymmetry in European memory, the new members who joined the European Union in 2004 claimed the need for the acknowledgement of differences in historical legacies. A memorandum drafted by prominent historians from Eastern Europe argued that the new Europe has brought new historical experience, new grievances, and new complaints, all ignored in the West so far.2 In their view, the more established western members have not forgotten their past. Rather, they have had the opportunity to reassess it and thus have found more common values to share. Since Eastern Europeans did not participate in the process of ‘constructing Europe’, their experience of the shared values of Europe is bound to be thinner, as is their understanding of the informal rules and meanings. If Europe wants to unite, questions such as ‘What is the full history of Europe?’ or ‘How do we deal with different histories within Europe?’ must be asked.

Such asymmetries are problematic for two main reasons. On the one hand, accepting founding narratives of post-war construction in Western Europe, based on normative claims for reconciliation, apology, and regret, would neglect the ‘eastern’ communist experience. On the other hand, evaluations of Eastern European memory work within conceptual paradigms that are hegemonically western’. To illustrate the notion of hegemony a quick glance at the literature on democratic and capitalist transitions in Eastern Europe may be instructive. Nearly two decades ago, scholars of comparative democratisation argued that, for all its particularity, Eastern Europe could nevertheless be summarised under the conceptual apparatus of the ‘transitions to democracy’ paradigm.3 They were opposed by another group of scholars who suggested that, culturally and historically, the East European experience was unique. Both sides of this literature worked with the axiom that democracy was a normative goal. The transition to a market economy was also assumed to be a central goal, which had to be designed democratically. The problem here was not only how to achieve various transitions – in society, politics, the law, and the economy – simultaneously. It was also the monopolistic status of liberal capitalism by democratic design that was introduced in a fundamentally undemocratic way, making choices or alternatives obsolete.

Can debates about memory politics learn from the controversies about transitions to democracy? An important tendency in Western scholarship has replicated this idea of a normative goal within memory studies. Apologetic forms of political memory based on the hegemonic anti-fascist narrative are fundamental to the legitimisation of the post-war reconstruction of Europe. In Western Europe, this ‘normality’ has been profoundly shaped by the legacy of the transitions from authoritarian rule towards democracy and the normative signposts formulated in international law after 1945. As Jeffrey Olick showed, this politics of regret is the contingent outcome of socio-political processes across the political evolution of western societies.4 From the perspective of citizens of the new Europe, building European identity on strategies of forgetting appears ill-suited. On the one hand, the shaping of collective memory is required as a moral imperative but also as a political necessity, aimed at appeasing identityconflicts between ethnic groups or social classes but also at acknowledging wrongdoings against minorities. On the other hand, memory appears helpless against the challenge to commemorate crimes of absolute evil, to remember as ‘it truly was’. Precisely because memory is inherently contentious and partisan, authors such as Tony Judt argued that only the historian can ensure that Europe’s past can furnish Europe’s present with admonitory meaning and moral purpose.5 In the centre should be an ‘austere passion for fact, proof, evidence’.

Both positions share a central characteristic: evaluations of the past limit memory to a function of the present, an affair of the living. Memory by ‘western design’ evokes a programme of pedagogical assistance based on a greater degree of maturity, knowledge and societal development. The ‘western experience’ has not only a well-established anti-fascist narrative of European integration in place. The politics of enlargement also include the ingredients for a moralising narrative of the duty to remember based on the idea of reconciliation around the genocide perpetrated by the Nazis.

Conversely, the ‘eastern experience’ in the guise of the ‘double legacy’ of Nazism and Soviet communism has recently been used to magnify the level and gravity of victimhood in the ‘bloodlands’ of eastern Europe.6 Rather than being seen as the contingent outcomes of a specific experience, ’dealing with the past’ and the drawing of history lessons follow paths of memory politics by western design. As Judt argued, since 1989 Europe has been constructed upon a ‘compensatory surplus of memory’. The focus was on institutionalised public remembering as the very foundation of collective identity. For Judt, this will not endure. Some measure of neglect and even forgetting is a necessary condition for civic health.7 Garton Ash suggested that the path of history lessons and ‘truth-telling’ may be more promising than trials or purges. Historians would be the professionals best equipped to teach these lessons.8 He advocates putting texts into historical context, applying intellectual distance but also essential imaginative sympathy with all the men and women involved. Only historians with their impassionate, objective, and scholarly scrutiny are able to achieve history lessons. If purges, trials, or rehabilitation programmes are impracticable, is it the historian’s duty to teach people lessons of remembering? The claim for history lessons has an air of normality around it. Rather than succumbing to myths, narratives of heroic sacrifice, or ever-present memories of martyrdom, the idea is to become a normal country.

Experience and Expectation

Narrative commitments are made by carriers of memory who give meaning to experiences. Fundamentally, cultural and social forms of memory also define new expectations that make life worth living, political dreams realistic, and construct the foundations for a better future. In the transitions to the capitalist market economy and to political democracy, people in Eastern Europe craved the normality of the West. The experience of communism could be overcome by reaching out for the expected bright future, characterised by democracy, capitalism, freedom, and normality. The idea of approaching 1989 as the overcoming of some specific experience and the opening up of new expectations raises interesting analogies with the establishment of communism in the region. More fundamentally, however, it opens up the question of how to understand memory regimes in the tension between experience and expectation.

I would like to introduce here a categorisation developed by Reinhart Koselleck, which is the distinction between experience and expectation.9 Koselleck’s hypothesis is that the temporality of history and of human beings depends on anthropological foundations such as experience and expectation. The weight of each and their mutual relationship have changed across the course of history and thus enabled potential histories and different perceptions of time. Koselleck originally suggested that modernity – besides many other particularities – is characterised by specific perceptions of time. He located in the French Revolution a movement that would leave spaces of experience (Erfahrungsraum) behind, whilst focusing attention and energy on horizons of expectation (Erwartungshorizont). Experience can be understood as a contemporaneous past, whose events have become internalised and can be remembered. This accounts both for rational thinking and for unconscious attitudes. Even very ‘minor’ occurrences in personal lives can produce big effects. Individual memory is always social memory, insofar as anyone’s own experience contains experience of others mediated through distant historiographical sources, inter-generational narratives, institutions, or the media.

Similarly, expectation is related to individuals and to collective groups. Expectations are formulated in the present; they are a contemporaneous future, aiming at the not yet experienced but at what can be hoped, feared, or anticipated, through rational analysis or through diffuse and hazy expectation. Yet, the presence of the past is different from the presence of the future. For experience, it is adequate to use the metaphor of ‘space’ because, despite chronological specification, experience is seen as a totality that assembles different layers of earlier times. It can be likened to the glass front of a washing machine, where various bits appear but are contained in the same drum. Conversely, expectation is closer to the metaphor of the horizon. The future confronts an absolute limit that can only be anticipated, not experienced.

Spaces of experience and horizons of expectation are socially reconfigured with the passage of every generation. The crucial point is that biological decline and renewal are the conditions that enable meaningful connections between present and past, and perception of historical continuity across the longue durée. Carriers of memory grow old and die whilst new people are born and enter the social world. In a seminal essay on the links between the transformation of language and event-history, Reinhart Koselleck made the case for the meta-historical biological preconditions for history, which precede and remain outside language.10 The time span between birth and death determines human finitude. Diachronically, the constant transitions between earlier and later are crucial for any history to be perceived as a meaningful sequence of occurrences. This perception of temporalities is not a matter of either individual recollections or collective forms of commemoration. Rather it is structured by the sequence of generations.

New generations usually enter into conflict with the values and aims of their parents and the established generation. If the parental generation has failed miserably, this conflict may become very polarised. The fact that most Germans nowadays consider Nazi Germany’s surrender in 1945 not as a defeat of the nation but as the liberation from a dictator owes a crucial debt to the generational conflict after World War II.11 In West Germany the fathers’ generation – who had held responsibility during Weimar and the Nazi regime – had to cope with individual guilt and self-blame. The young post-war generation, however, had to face not only military defeat but also the stigma of belonging to a nation responsible for barbaric acts. The collective guilt imposed on Germany by the outside world made people born just before or after 1945 emphatically reject what had been most sacred and meaningful to their fathers: patriotic glory and national greatness. Experience is transformative. Living through critical junctures changes states of consciousness and shapes ways of remembering and forgetting. Any society, nation, regional community, or generational unit has its own formative experiences that will support the constitutive imagination in cultural memory. I shall briefly discuss the Eastern European experience of state-formation, the tension between admiration and resentment in relations with Western Europe, and the impact of the Yalta system. Eastern Europe has been a transitional zone between Western and Eastern models of state-formation. The dominant role of the state contrasts with the subordinate role of society, which could not develop spheres of economic and legal autonomy similar to societies further West. The late achievement of independent statehood for some countries, and the frequent dismemberment, invasions and foreign rule as well as territorial instability of others, would shape expectations in the cultural unconscious, which focused on redemption from servitude and backwardness but also on the return to some form of normality. In the particular case of Poland, different institutions symbolically maintained the notion of the nation in cultural memory in the absence of a territorially independent state between 1795 and 1918. In Poland, meanings of power (władza) have been strongly linked to foreign domination, whereas society (społeczeństwo) carried connotations of an independent nation. The nation was associated with imagination, a reality to be aspired to rather than an existing collective reality that could be engineered by the tools, devices, and educational policies at the disposal of a central state. The central goals of social movements such as Solidarność were formulated as aspirational utopias focused on romantic ideas, strongly embedded in cultural memory, of gentry democracy or the myth of the subjectivisation of the nation. The fundamental characteristic of many Eastern European societies after 1989 could be seen in a schismogenic dynamic where versions of the ‘miracle myth’ promised a better future and a ‘return to normality’. This better future would be provided by the economic, technological, and socio-political benefits of western capitalist democracy. Meanwhile, key events in the nation’s pre-communist past would mobilise memories that would shape identities through discursive strategies such as ‘back to the truth’, ‘back to the nation’, ‘back to normality’, ‘back to Europe’, or ‘back to the present’.12

Another founding element in the cultural memory of many eastern European nations is the experience of a civilisational divide: Few ‘westerners’ conceive of the ‘enlargement’ of the European Union other than in terms of a generous gift offered by Europe. ‘Europe’ here means ‘western’ Europe, the free and civilised part, which was not the Europe behind the Iron Curtain. From the ‘inside’ perspective, however, Poles, Czechs, Latvians and others subjectively regarded themselves as an integral part of (Western) Europe. If they already belonged ‘naturally’, the notion of enlargement was either offensive or nonsensical, and possibly both. As former Hungarian prime minister József Antall put it, Eastern Europe had won the third world war for the West without firing a shot, but this expression of love was unrequited. Not unlike the adoption of market capitalism and the transition to democracy, Eastern Europeans have looked towards the West in a mix of admiration, neediness, and resignation in order to be recognised as ‘equals’.

Major turning points in the twentieth century have produced different social memories. The collapse of empires in 1918 became the opportunity to re-establish the Polish republic and to achieve independent statehood in the Baltic republics. Czechoslovakia appeared on the map as an independent state, whilst Hungary lost two-thirds of its territory, a cultural trauma it has not yet overcome. Recently, Adam Michnik compared the round-table negotiations in 1989 with the beginnings of the Second Polish Republic under conditions of extreme contention, mob violence, and political assassination.

The often evoked moralisation of international politics after World War II, which can be exemplified in the Nuremberg trials, the genocide convention, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, was not a founding experience of states on the eastern side of the Iron Curtain. Due to the socialisation of warfare, the extermination of enemies of the people or entire collective groups due to their racial, ethnic, and political difference, trauma was not to be communicated to the outside world, expanding knowledge and creating empathy. Besides a heavy blood toll, devastation, and mass expulsion, the end of the war bequeathed deep moral confusion, leaving many of these societies in an in-between condition, between victory and defeat or ‘victory in defeat’.13 For much of non-Russian eastern Europe, World War II cut off ties with the West.

Memories of threats to the nation produced particularly strong narratives, which narrowed down the nation to ethnic and racial conceptions with disastrous consequences.14 Experiences of state-formation, of perceived backwardness in relation to the west, and of ‘defeat in victory’ after a world war produced expectations that were based on cultural memories of experiences of humiliation and suffering but also on redemptive myths of belonging and new beginnings. One could certainly make the case for seeing the ‘memory boom’ in the social sciences and in Western Europe as a reflection of a somewhat opposite dynamics. The disillusionment with expectations would focus societies back onto their experience. The demise of ideology, the dissolution of utopian promises, the lack of alternative models to established capitalist modernity, and the growing uncertainty about the future have fuelled the discovery of memory. The distinction between Eastern and Western Europe was reinforced by the establishment of communist regimes during and after World War II. Their practices of fashioning experiences and expectations systematically eliminated elites, destroyed the built environment, and promoted mythic time dimensions. These practices placed serious difficulties in the way of making narrative commitments to constitutive mythologies, and on the contrary entailed schismogenetic forms of contested narrative commitments.

Following Nietzsche, only that which is burnt into a human being and does not cease to cause pain can remain in memory.15 Human beings build identity and the possibility of life in general on the capacity of forgetting. In eastern Europe, a series of socially traumatic experiences led to the disintegration of identities, forced expulsion, foreign domination, and the impossibility of mourning victims and commemorating traumatic events. The systematic destruction of elites was a central element of Nazi occupation, in particular in Poland. The systematic uprooting of people by communist regimes destroyed experiences by transforming language into meaningless Newspeak in the service of power. As a consequence, narrative and performative commitments to critical self-assessments or the acknowledgement of guilt have been rare. The implementation of communism in Russia after 1917 and in Eastern Europe in the wake of two devastating world wars failed to establish a firm narrative commitment to one founding generation.16 In Russia, the Bolsheviks had grown up as outsiders, exposed to exile, persecution, and suffering. Bolshevik communists aimed to uproot people by systematically attacking the very foundations of interpersonal links, cultural reference-points, and sociability. Not only did the Communist party apply rigorous forms of self-confession, purges, and trials. Stalin’s Great Terror was also a terminal assault on the revolutionary generation of the original Bolsheviks. Elites in the inner circle of Stalinist power lived in fear of annihilation as potential victims of their enemies and recipients of suffering, a condition that only came to an end after Beria’s death in 1953.

The establishment of communism in post-1945 Eastern Europe coincided with the social revolution of the mass killing of elites, expulsion of minorities, border changes, and failed uprisings. The annihilation of the Polish state in 1939 was accompanied by the ruthless occupation regime and the extermination of approximately two million members of the professional and intellectual elites. The self-sustained, society-wide underground state and the ultimately unsuccessful resistance movements added to the failure of the Polish elites to redeem the country from the double invasion of 1939. This moral confusion fell on fertile ground in a region where myths of victimhood were particularly pervasive. Although the post-totalitarian system abandoned the practice of purges, it relied heavily on ritualistic self-censorship and dissimulation in behaviour typical of Soviet citizens, making the switching of faces a ritualised skill. The line of culpability ran through individuals themselves.

Communist regimes were anti-modern in ideology but hyper-modern in the ways they aimed to reconfigure states and societies in practice. As a consequence of the way state-building processes have worked in Eastern Europe, as well as of the establishment of Soviet communism after 1945, time regimes have privileged future utopias as opposed to spaces of experience. Communism appeared in an economically backward society. Whilst rejecting capitalism and democracy as organizational forms of modernity, it was hyper-modernist in embracing ideas of social engineering and progress in order to catch up with and overcome the West. One central focus of social engineering was to uproot people from their habitual locus, traditional living environment, and social habits. In the Soviet Union, the social upheavals in the 1920s and 1930s left a durable effect on demography, industry, urban life, and agriculture. Stalin’s revolution from above transformed a rural country, where on the eve of the First World War between 80 and 85 percent of the population lived in the countryside, into a country where, in 1990, 66 per cent of the population lived in cities. The destruction of the built environment and the uprooting of people from their homes in the industrial revolution resulted in a ‘car pulled by a horse’, whilst the urban revolution led to ‘cities without citizens’.17

As Paul Connerton has argued, modernity is characterized by forgetfulness.18 The major source of forgetting is associated with processes that separate social life from locality and from human dimensions. The increased scale of human settlement, the production of speed, and the repeated and often intentional destruction of the built environment have all generated a diffuse yet all-encompassing and powerful amnesia. In Connerton’s view, locus is a more important carrier of place memory than memorial. The memory habit of being ‘at home’ is very inexplicit, experienced daily and therefore inattentively, in a state of distraction. Conversely, remembering by establishing places of memory speaks of fears of amnesia. ‘The threat of forgetting begets memorials and the construction of memorials begets forgetting.’19

Finally, the falsification of history by organised forgetting would promote mythical time-dimensions. The ‘permanent revolution in one country’ imposed a latent civil war on Soviet society, producing a recurrent loss of memory.20 In Solzhenitsyn’s words, ‘we forget everything. What we remember is not what actually happened, not history, but merely that hackneyed dotted line they have chosen to drive into our memories by incessant hammering… It makes us an easy prey for liars.’21 As Connerton put it, ‘to remember, then, is precisely not to recall events as isolated; it is to become capable of forming meaningful narrative sequences. In the name of a particular narrative commitment, an attempt is being made to integrate isolated or alien phenomena into a single unified process.’22

According to Katherine Verdery, for instance, time regimes in Romania kept people permanently off balance.23 This etatisation of time undermined the sense of a ‘normal order’ and entailed a yawning gap between elites and the population. While party elites lived by promised images of a radiant future, the populace lived with an impression of flattened time and endless repetition. Communism stripped history of its eventfulness, squeezing societies between a promised utopia and a range of foundation myths. Heroic narratives and narratives of martyrdom and victimhood led not only to practices of screening, retribution, or disqualification, but also to a pervasive sense of domestic ‘enemies’ and the escalation of ethnic violence.24 After 1945 Yugoslav state propaganda used myths of anti-fascism, the founding partisan experience, and the idea of brotherhood and unity as the dominant drivers of official memory. A central ‘fact’ in history books was to fix the total number of Yugoslav dead during World War II at 1.7 million, considerably higher than the historically more accurate 1 million. In the climate of growing tensions amongst the federal republics and after Tito’s death in 1980, the second post-war generation, especially in Serbia, would use these numbers to ‘prove’ the huge numbers of Serbs killed by Croatian Ustasha. In the memorandum of the Serbian Academy of Sciences of 1986, Yugoslav history was portrayed as a systematic persecution of the Serbian minority, threatened by physical annihilation.25

The Search for Constitutive Mythologies

What has become clear from this outline is that the legacy of communism or the ‘eastern experience’ of memory has to be addressed by looking at different layers of spaces of experience. Notions of ‘western’ and ‘eastern’ experience are much more than narratives of collective suffering, collective heroic resistance, or the incapacity of dealing with the past would have it. The ‘legacy of communism’ is, therefore, not only a space of experience that needs to be overcome. The communist experience produced dialectics between death and birth, decay and renewal, violence and the sacralisation of its victims, all of which have engendered different habits of memory. The evolution of communism was punctuated with liminal moments in which experiences and expectation were decisively re-imagined or forgotten, but also incorporated into new habits.

As Michel de Certeau has argued, historiographical discourse engages with the modalities of what was once a liminal in-between situation, an ‘initial zero’.26 Because the beginnings of the history of nations, classes, or empires are lost objects, the task of historiography is to represent a scene of violence which is concealed and erased from memory. In other words, the death that made it all possible is kept alive by historiography in order to play an ‘active’ role in the sense of structuring social relations. Potential ‘initial zeros’ abound in Eastern Europe. As Tony Judt put it, Eastern Europe is scattered with islands of the past: 1918, 1938, 1939, 1940, 1945, 1948, 1956, 1968, 1980, 1989; it is difficult to point to a clear hierarchical order of decisive turning-points which would become markers of certainty in social imaginaries.

We are not only the past that we (can) remember but we are also the past that we can forget. Communist manipulation of history could organise forgetting for the purpose of distorting historical truth, but it did not produce blessed acts of oblivion. In contrast to the memory of Auschwitz in Germany, memories of key events such as World War II, the Polish Solidarity movement, or the Round Table are anything but unequivocal. Frank Ankersmit made an interesting distinction between four types of experience of forgetting. The first type of forgetting refers to those aspects of the past that are devoid of any relevance for our present or future identity. The second type concerns forgetting something that is truly relevant to our identity and our actions, though we were unaware of this importance. The third refers to events that put too much of a strain on collective consciousness, causing pain or trauma. The outstanding event of that type in the twentieth century is the Holocaust, which was ‘forgotten’ in Germany and elsewhere over approximately two decades. In the fourth type, this forgetting of a trauma is arguably not possible. One may think of the great transformations such as revolutions or socialised warfare. What is relevant here is the distinction between the third and the fourth types of forgetting as to the quality of the trauma and the possibility of creating a new identity. In the third type of forgetting, however dramatic, two identities may coexist (the former one and a new identity, crystallising around the traumatic experience), whilst in the fourth type of forgetting historical transformations cause feelings of a profound and irreparable loss, of cultural despair, and of hopeless disorientation. Traumatic experiences become more dramatic, since a former identity is irrevocably lost forever and superseded by a new historical or cultural identity. Consequently, the new identity is constituted by a trauma for which no cure is to be found and which leads to a permanent loss of the former identity.

In Eastern Europe, the competition between victims for a higher status of victimhood exemplifies the difficulty of forgetting. In Poland, the spirit of defeat in victory after 1945 propelled myths of martyrdom and active heroism. The different expectations of Poles and Jews after 1945 led to competing and often conflicting accounts of sufferings during the Nazi occupation. Essentially, ‘the Poles competed with the Jews for [the] palm of martyrdom. Both sides accuse each other of the heinous theft of suffering.’27 As Meike Wulf has pointed out, two narratives are central to the new anti-communist memory regime in the post-Soviet space. These are the ‘narrative of collective suffering’ (of nations oppressed by Soviet Russia) and the narrative of ‘collective resistance’ (against foreign occupation). The former was the prevailing political narrative of the 1990s, whilst the latter came to be prominent around the time of EU accession. The narrative of collective suffering is an attempt at redressing the imbalance caused by one-sided Western approaches which place a greater emphasis on the suffering caused by Fascism.

In post-communist Estonia, the narrative of collective suffering concentrates on the Estonian suffering under Soviet rule while issues of collaboration with the occupiers are being blanked out from the national martyrology as part of the externalization of the communist past.28 The narrative of collective resistance glorifies national heroes and is exemplified in the new Victory Cross on Tallinn’s Freedom Square, which was intended to be unveiled in time for the 90th anniversary celebrations of the Estonian Republic in 2008 commemorating the Freedom Fighters of the war of independence (1918-20) and by extension all the Freedom Fighters of subsequent wars, such as the anti-Soviet partisans (the ‘Forest Brethren’), the Estonians fighting in the Finnish Army, and indeed in German uniform. This shift from suffering to resistance may further be explained by the fact that in the long run, national identity cannot be consolidated on a negative self-image of suffering (and the trope of victimhood), but needs a positive basis instead. When comparing this to the situation of postreunification Germany, a reverse process can be observed as an increasing focus was placed on the suffering of the German perpetrators and more broadly of German civilians during the war (while the question of German guilt has been increasingly re-contextualised in a European context). After 2003, Polish public opinion was deeply critical of tendencies in Germany to create a Zentrum gegen Vertreibungen (centre against expulsions). It was felt that these commemorative efforts by Germany signified a grave form of historical revisionism or relativism that would turn ’perpetrators into victims’.

The recent Katyń catastrophe symbolises this strong tension in diametrically opposed interpretations.29 The heroic interpretation sees the deaths of president Kaczyński and his fellow passengers in a plane crash in Smolensk on April 10, 2010 as another heroic sacrifice in the on-going struggle against the evil empire of Russia. The rival interpretation takes Kaczyński’s determination to pay a visit to the Katyń site three days after prime minister Donald Tusk’s visit at the official invitation of Vladimir Putin, and to force a landing there in critical weather conditions, as an indication that the victims are Kaczyński’s victims. Ultimately, the sense of imagination of Polish victimhood, martyrdom, sacrifice, and living in the past hinder Poland’s turn toward a future in Europe and the country’s liberation from its own past.

Storage forms of memory point to the resonance of the cultural unconscious. A large part of our memories, in a Proustian twist, ’sleeps’ within our bodies until it is awakened or triggered by some external, often haphazard, stimulus. The learning of memory is often an unconscious and non-agentive process. The Prague Spring, for instance, would mean different things to different age-contingent communities. In Czechoslovakia, the Prague Spring did not arise as a spontaneous happening but was, in Vaclav Havel’s words, the result of a gradual awakening, a sort of creeping opening up of the ‘hidden sphere’ of society.30 The defeat of reform attempts within socialism would, by the late 1970s, mark a radical shift.31 Whilst before 1968, young radicals wanted to reform socialism, the formative experience of their generation – the failure of the Prague Spring and the Soviet invasion - would become central to the political identity of dissidence per se. However, much as western radicals did not see that the real event of 1968 was, in Rudi Dutschke’s words, not Paris but Prague, so too many radical easterners also failed to see its meaning. In Hungary, for instance, opposition figures would become convinced that the defeat of the Prague Spring finally revealed the ’true meaning’ of the destruction of the Hungarian uprising in 1956. After 1989, memories of the domestic ’small revolutions’ were sidelined from official memory. With regard to 1968, shame loomed large as the source of the lack of interest professed by the Czechs for their recent past. This shame or even cynicism might stem from the irreconcilability of two histories or truths that were inherent to 1968: on the one hand, the account of a civic, human, and spontaneous Prague spring; on the other, the representation of 1968 as a failure rooted in the political naivety of Czechoslovaks.

Such a position casts doubts on propositions by historians who have suggested the need for coming to terms with the past by learning ‘history lessons’. Historians are after all products of generational chains with key formative experiences. Their professional work also reflects their search for meaning amidst passions, constraints, and social and individual memories that resonate in their expectations. In a recent study on post-Soviet historians in Estonia, Wulf and Grönholm used generational group identities among Estonian historians to examine how professionals engage actively in the transformation processes and support nation-building processes.32 They elaborated on four different strategies Soviet historians used in response to the new conditions of historical research - conformism, opportunism, withdrawal, and passive resistance – and relate these strategies to different generational groups of Soviet historians. Their post-1991 biographic accounts show how various modes of talking about past experiences, such as glorification, denial, self-justification, apologetics, distancing, resignation, and destiny reveal strategies of coping with loss and of generating new meaning.

Finally, Eastern Europe lacks a sense of rupture with the past. The collapse of communism occurred not in a war or a violent revolution, but by means of peaceful, negotiated pacts. Unlike the authority vacuum of Germany, a distinct set of backward movements aimed to retrieve expectations for the future from an often by-gone past. The Polish writer Gustaw Herling- Grudziński deplored the fact that Poland in 1989 lacked a cathartic rupture with the past such as occurred in post-World War II Europe. Purges such as in post-war France or Italy or trials such as Nuremberg were impossible. The only systematic trials occurred in reunified Germany, a special case given the ‘colonisation’ of East by West Germany. In this sense, the peaceful transition from communism became a curse because the dividing lines between friend and enemy, victim and perpetrator, judge and accused were blurred. It is often said that memories became unfrozen only once communism had collapsed. There is some truth to this. However, the opposite perspective is legitimate and even more instructive.

The violent repression of the Hungarian revolution in 1956 and the Prague spring in 1968 have bequeathed social and communicative memories that would become instrumental in the peaceful transition after 1989.33 Much of the work on memory politics in Eastern Europe has focused on difficulties in overcoming the double legacy of Nazism and communism. Memory is often associated with pangs of conscience, cultural trauma, and the difficulty of forgetting. Yet memory, more generally, binds people to commitments in the future. This relates not only to the reliability in relationships and trustworthiness in business, but also to key formative experiences that occurred in the particularly sensitive times of late adolescence and early adulthood.

Appeals to integrate the eastern experience into the founding narrative of European memory abound. In 2008 the signatories of the ‘Prague Declaration’ demanded the formulation of a common European approach regarding crimes of totalitarian regimes and the acknowledgement of the common legacy of Communism and Nazism.34 In line with the ‘Prague process’, an open letter to the EU justice commissioner was authored two years later by six-post communist states (Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Latvia and Lithuania) demanding that the denial of any totalitarian crime should be treated according to the same standard as Holocaust denial.35 In 2009, the European Parliament passed a resolution to commemorate the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of August 23, 1939 as the European Day of Remembrance of the victims of all totalitarian and authoritarian regimes, in a compromise solution rather removed from the demands of various post-communist countries to treat Soviet crimes according to the same standards as the Holocaust, and to put the two totalitarian regimes on an equal footing. Indeed these countries would have chosen a different wording, namely the European Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Stalinism and Nazism. All these attempts at the inclusion of the East European wartime experience into the (western) European memory of the war are not so much a question of political will or crafting of collective memory.

How do memories become lasting markers of foundation or moral markers of certainty? We recall revolutions, wars, or major transitions in a country’s history through personal memories in literary expression, autobiographies, memorials, or semantic symbols. Yet a far more important claim to memory is the fact that social experiences create ritualised habit memory. Habit memory is the capacity to undertake acts of performance. The key idea of a wide range of recent studies in memory is that memory can no longer be seen as a reflection, or a cognitive record of the past. Rather it should be seen as performative. It comes into existence ‘at a given time and place through specific kinds of memorial activity’.36 Theorists of memory such as Paul Connerton and Jan Assmann have provided strong accounts of how commemorative rituals, bodily practices, and the coding of memory allow for remembering such bodies of generative mythology. Jan Assmann suggests that Judaism – in an age of extreme uncertainty – established memory techniques in the service of bonding memory.37 As exemplified in the book of Deuteronomy, symbolic representations and ritual commemoration bind people through techniques such as learning by heart, conversational remembering, oral transmission, or canonization of the text of the covenant (Torah) as the foundation of ‘literal’ adherence.

Such ‘coding of memory’ can become culturally hegemonic. According to Connerton, commemorative ceremonies engage members of the community by enacting cults, encoding gestures, and ritually repeating movements. The aim is to remind the community of its identity. Revolutionary periods leave an extraordinary impact both on the self-definition of the regime and on the social memory of citizens. The emotional intensity of the French Revolution would, as Kant realized at the time, never be forgotten. The Revolution generated rituals as symbolic representations, which unfolded in opposite directions. The trial and execution of Louis XVI was enshrined in a ritual performance of extraordinary power, which not only killed a king but revoked a ruling principle.38 Conversely, the triumph of the people would be remembered through rituals of triumph such as the storming of the Bastille, and also through public festivals.39

We remember how to ride a bike, mow a lawn, or assemble furniture. The memory of these performative acts is like learning a lesson. As Paul Connerton put it, ‘the better we remember this class of memories, the less likely it is that we will recall some previous occasion on which we did the thing in question.’40 This type of memory sustains by far most of our actions in daily life but it is based on forgetting, i.e. on disconnecting with the personal memories of when it was learned or the cognitive memories of how to do it. Yet unless we encounter a problem and have to consult a manual, we would not necessarily recall when, how, or where we learnt it. The emergence of performative habit memory is often rooted in founding or strategic generations. Such carriers of memory will - often with a considerable delay in time – produce a variety of testimonies that they will communicate to their kin, the wider public, and even across national boundaries. This habit memory will inscribe and incorporate its experience into national consciousness through literary expression, semantic symbols, and ritual performance.41

Ritualised habits in West Germany included forgetting values such as glory and patriotism, and learning the internalisation of guilt. In German habit memory, representations of patriotism have become practically impossible.42 The central memorial of the Federal Republic of Germany at the Neue Wache in Berlin now is dedicated to the ‘victims of war and tyranny’ (Den Opfern43 von Krieg und Gewaltherrschaft).44 Referring to the passive Opfer (the victims), it reinterprets the motivations and feelings of German soldiers. Their sacrifice for the nation, i.e. their active Opfer, is ex-post replaced by the idea that they were seduced, corrupted, and died for the wrong cause. It is even more problematic when the term Opfer is applied to the Jews. There is no doubt that the Jews objectively were a passive victim. They were killed practically without resistance; they were not given any chance to commit acts of self-sacrifice. However, official commemoration of the Jews as victims in a not insignificant way subscribes to central elements of Nazi ideology. The Nazis insisted on the necessity to make the Jews the victim par excellence with the aim of ‘liberating’ the world from them. According to Koselleck, this very ambiguity of Opfer indicates the limit of patriotism, which is no longer capable of being represented by monuments (denkmalfähig).


We can now return to some of the implications of a shift of memory’s centre of gravity in Europe. In the social sciences, comparisons usually aim at establishing analogies amongst clearly distinct cases. After 1989, the ‘liberal consensus’ eviscerated historical experience and cultural specificity in the name of hegemonic models. As much as the liberal-capitalist model of development aroused a state of expectation in post-1989 Eastern Europe, ‘memory by western design’ appears to have become the default master narrative, a sort of normative standard by which to ‘judge’ memory regimes. Is the post-communist condition of contested memory regimes yet another scenario in which Eastern Europe has no choice other than to follow western designs? The temptation is great to see contested memories in Eastern Europe as pathological, a continuing nightmare from which it is difficult to awake. Arguments about the incapacity and immaturity to deal with the past abound. The question, however, is whether such claims are intellectually sound and historically tenable.

Memory by western design may suggest a ‘return’ to a normality that cannot be imagined without the ‘western’ experience. The promotion of a ‘return to normality’ by accepting western master narratives as opposed to the various eastern counter-narratives carries the risk of reducing ‘eastern experience’ to the darker sides of communism and pre-communist ‘backwardness’. Such a position would deliberately ‘forget’ about the courageous and exemplary actions that turned acts of violence, humiliation, and indignity into dignified means of protest, national mobilisation, and the voicing of expectations in a way that proved capable of overcoming a despotic dictatorship. Conversely, both the West German and French memory regimes have gone through periods of ‘communicative silencing’, the mourning of victims, and heroic resistance myths. Only gradually – and not without decisive shifts in the self-imagination and performance of political leaders, artists, intellectuals, and the wider public – could the victim syndrome undergo a transition in the direction of a diversity of memories, an increase of official commemorations, and a more critical understanding of the forms of coming to terms – or failing to come to terms – with the past. This paper has attempted to focus on the legitimately ‘eastern’ experiential basis of memory regimes. By attuning habits of memory to the tensions between spaces of experience and horizons of expectations, common forms of memory in Europe need to embrace the changing forms of cultural meanings ‘stored’ in a nation’s memory.


Harald Wydra, a fellow of St Catharine’s College at the University of Cambridge. After studies of history and political science at the Universities of Regensburg and Salamanca, he took a PhD in Social and Political Sciences from the European University Institute in Florence. Before coming to Cambridge in 2003 he taught Political Science at the University of Regensburg. He held visiting fellowships at the International Political Anthropology.



1 R. Koselleck, ‘Gebrochene Erinnerung? Deutsche und polnische Vergangenheit’, in: Deutsche Akademie für Sprache und Dichtung (Jahrbuch 2000, Gottingen 2001), pp. 19-32 (20).

2 W. Roszkowski, G. Schopflin, T. Valdo Kelam, G. V. Kristovskis and V. Landsbergis, United Europe – United History: A Mission to Consolidate a Common Memory.

3 P. Schmitter and T. L. Karl, ‘The Conceptual Travel of Transitologists and Consolidologists: How Far to the East should they attempt to go?’, Slavic Review Vol. 53, No. 1 (1994), pp. 183-194.

4 J. Olick, The Politics of Regret (London: Routledge, 2007).

5 T. Judt, Postwar, A History of Europe Since 1945 (London, 2005), pp. 830-1.

6 T. Synder, Bloodlands (New York: Basic Books, 2010).

7 Judt, Postwar, p. 829.

8 T. G. Ash, ‘Trials, Purges, and History Lessons: Treating a Difficult Past in Post-Communist Europe’, in J.-W. Muller (ed.) Memory and Power in Post-War Europe (Cambridge, 2002), pp. 265-82.

9 Koselleck, Vergangene Zukunft (Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 1989).

10 R. Koselleck, Begriffsgeschichten (Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 2006), p. 38.

11 See Elias, The Germans.

12 Mikko Lagerspetz, ‘Postsocialism as a Return: Notes on a Discursive Strategy’, East European Politics and Societies Vol. 13, No. 2 (1999), pp. 377-390.

13 K. Kersten, The Establishment of Communist Rule in Poland 1943-1948 (Berkeley and London: University of California Press, 1991), pp. 469-70.

14 See Adam Michnik’s analysis of the ‘Polish gutter’ and the extreme version of Polish nationalism in the early days of the Second Polish Republic, in A. Michnik, In Search of Lost Meaning (Berkeley, London: University of California Press, 2010).

15 F. Nietzsche, Werke in Drei Bänden, Band 2 (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1997), p. 802.

16 For a more systematic development of this argument see H. Wydra, Communism and the Emergence of Democracy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), pp. 111-61.

17 Quoted in K. Pomian, ‘Anatoli Vichnevski. La faucille et le rouble’, Le Débat 107 (1999), pp. 59-60.

18 P. Connerton, How Modernity Forgets (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

19 Connerton, How Modernity Forgets, p. 29.

20 H. Wydra, Communism and the Emergence of Democracy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), pp. 122-28.

21 A. Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago: An Experiment in Literary Investigation, Vols I and II, translated from the Russian by Thomas P. Whitney (Boulder, 1998), p. 299.

22 P. Connerton, How Societies Remember (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 26.

23 K. Verdery, What was Socialism and What Comes Next? (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), pp. 54-57.

24 Wydra, Communism and the Emergence of Democracy, p. 232.

25 Wydra, Communism and the Emergence of Democracy, p. 201.

26 M. de Certeau, L’écriture de l’histoire (Paris: Gallimard, 1975), p. 74.

27 P. Wrobel, ‘Double Memory: Poles and Jews after the Holocaust’, East European Politics and Societies, Vol. 11, No. 3 (Fall 1997), pp. 560-74.

28 J. Mark, The Unfinished Revolution (New Haven, London: Yale University Press, 2010).

29 See A. Nowak, Memory at War Newsletter, 2011, 3-4.

30 V. Havel, ‘The Power of the Powerless’, in J. Keane (ed.) The Power of the Powerless: Citizens Against the State in Eastern Europe (London: Hutchinson&Co., 1985), p. 43.

31 P. Apor and J. Mark, ‘Mobilizing Generation: The Idea of 1968 in Hungary’, in B. Weisbrod (ed.) Generational Belonging and the 68ers in Europe (Gottingen: Wallstein Verlag, 2011), 99-117.

32 M. Wulf and P. Gronholm, ‘Generating Meaning Across Generations: The Role of Historians in the Codification of History in Soviet and Post-Soviet Estonia’, Journal of Baltic Studies, Vol. 41, No. 3 (2010), pp. 351-382.

33 For detailed analysis see Wydra, Communism and the Emergence of Democracy, pp. 219-43.

34 See for the full text of the document defending history.com/Praguedeclaration.

35 See: www.radio.cz/en/section/curraffrs/czech-mep-throws-damper-onappeal- for-eu-ban-on-denial-of-communist-crimes (accessed 30.09.2011).

36 N. Wood, Vectors of Memory. Legacies of Trauma in Postwar Europe (Oxford: Berg, 1999), p. 2.

37 J. Assmann, Religion and Cultural Memory (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000), pp. 16-21.

38 P. Connerton, How Societies Remember (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), pp. 7-9.

39 W. H. Sewell. Logics of History(Chicago, London: University of Chicago Press, 2005), pp. 225-70.

40 P. Connerton, How Societies Remember, p. 23.

41 For an analysis of generations of English poets and writers as makers of national consciousness, see B. S. Turner, ‘Strategic Generations: Historical Change, Literary Expression, and Generational Politics’, in J. Edmunds and B. Turner (eds) Generational Consciousness, Narrative, and Politics (Lanham: Rowman&Littlefield 2002), pp. 13-29.

42 Koselleck, Begriffsgeschichten (Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 2006), pp. 232-3.

43 The German word Opfer combines the meaning of victim and sacrifice.

44 It features the sculpture Mother and Her Dead Son by Kathe Kollwitz and was inaugurated in 1993.


This article has been published in the first issue of Remembrance and Solidarity Studies.

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


Photo of the publication Presentation of the House of European History
Andrea Mork

Presentation of the House of European History

20 August 2012
  • 1989
  • First World War
  • Museum
  • 20th century history
  • Second World War
  • European memory
  • 1990
  • European history
  • House of European History
  • European identity

The text was originally presented by dr. Andrea Mork during 'European Remembrance' Symposium in Gdańsk on 15 September 2012.

Szanowni Państwo, Ladies and Gentlemen, meine sehr verehrten Damen und Herren,

Thank you for inviting me. I very much appreciate this opportunity to present the key aspects of the new museum project of the House of European history in Brussels to you. I am very pleased that for the first time since we started working I am able to fully explain the concept of the permanent exhibition to an external auditorium.

Is there such a thing as a common European history? The answer to this question is decisive to the realisation of our project. If the answer is no, any further discussion would be superfluous. Of course there is a common European history. It is about a shared history in the dual sense of the word: at the same time both uniting and dividing. Common European history has bound us together and it has divided us.

Our common history is not in competition with national narratives, but it is their corrective and supplement. It is a contribution to a European public space that does not yet exist.

Even though our work is still very much in progress and even though we are currently in a turbulent phase of work, I should like to provide a short overview of this embryonic project and describe: 

1. a short history of its formation
2. the theoretical basis of our concept
3. the narrative and structure of the permanent exhibition.

1. The formation of the project

• The project to establish a House of European History was initiated by the former President of the European Parliament Hans-Gert Pöttering in his inaugural speech in February 2007: "It should be a place where a memory of European history and the work of European unification is jointly cultivated, and which at the same time is available as a locus for the European identity to go on being shaped by present and future citizens of the European Union."
• In December 2007, the European Parliament set up a committee of experts, historians and museum professionals to draft a 'Conceptual Basis' paper.
• As set out in the paper, the museum will contribute to a better understanding of European history with a special focus on the 20th century since WWI, paying special attention to European integration after WW II.
• The HEH will be housed in the Eastman building and contain a permanent exhibition of 4000 m2 and a temporary exhibition of 800 m2.
• With the aim of transforming this former dental clinic, currently an office-building, into an exhibition building an architectural competition was organised in 2009.
• In 2010, the architectural consortium Chaix et Morel from Paris was selected to carry out the transformation of the Eastman building into a museum building.
• From January 2011 onward, an academic project team - now composed of 20 historians, museum professionals and assistants - started to work on the project, discussing the exhibition and collection policies, the mission and vision of this House and the historical content and narrative of the exhibition. (content team 14, the whole group covering 14 languages)
• An Academic Committee advises the project team. A Board of Trustees, with representatives of the political groups in the EP and from its parliamentary committee for culture, from the European commission and representatives of the Brussels authorities acts as a supervisory body.
• The highly ambitious plans for this project foresee that the building will be finished at the end of April 2014. In late spring 2014, we will begin the installation of the exhibition.

2. Theoretical basis

The project team started its work by defining a theoretical basis. First of all the methods and objectives needed to be spelled out. Let´s start with the provocative and emotive term "Identity" which is already at the centre of the perception of the HEH in public debate.

Can the House of European History create a European identity?

In today's theory of culture, the question of collective identity seems to have become central to any understanding of history. Since the 1990s this key concept has had an overwhelming success. But it can also be seen as the sign of deep-rooted crisis. In a situation of crisis, the call for a stronger sense of community and of awareness of belonging together, of binding people in a community of shared values - beyond political imperatives and economic interests - is altogether understandable.

But the term “identity” is highly debatable. ‘Identity is the prototype of ideology’. (Negative Dialektik: 115) These words of warning from the philosopher Theodor W. Adorno, accentuate the fundamental criticism of the idea of identity:
• There is no truly general, universally accepted definition of what European identity is supposed to be. Attempts to describe it are so general that they lose all concrete meaning. A clear-cut definition of European identity is too simplistic and reductionist. European culture cannot be described as a homogeneous entity. The concept is too static.
• Finally: Having the House of European History define a European identity would be an authoritarian step that would block rather than foster the necessary social debate on this highly meaningful question.
• So our answer had to be this: the concept of identity is unsuited for the laying of a theoretical basis. The House of European History cannot be a stage for the presentation of a pre-defined European identity.

Can the House of European History be a reservoir for a collective European memory?

Instead of defining an identity ‘from the top down’, it seems more appropriate to us to single out the idea of ‘collective memory’, which was developed in the 1920s by Maurice Halbwachs and was reintroduced into the German and international debate from the 1990s onwards by Pierre Nora and Aleida and Jan Assmann.

For our theoretical concept, the definition expressed by the Swiss writer Adolf Muschg, is defining our route: ‘What binds Europe together and what divides it, is quintessential: the common memory...’ (NZZ, 31.5.2008)

The HEH should become a "reservoir of the European memory" as the basis for the evolution of a common consciousness. The advantage of this concept lies in its multiple perspectives and its critical potential. Its particular appeal is the twofold perspective that leads us in very practical terms to the following questions. These should be formative for the permanent exhibition:

• What binds Europe together? What are the core elements, characteristic features and key events of European culture and civilisation, social and political history?
• What are the historical experiences, interpretations and memories that bind the various nations and social groups to these central events and developments in European history, each of the nations and groups having been involved in a different way? What experiences, traditions and achievements could present-day Europeans recognise as the basis for their awareness of a shared past?

As a consequence the House of European History will not be just an addition or the representation of the multiplicity of national histories. It will be a reservoir of European memory, containing experiences and interpretations in all their diversity, contrasts and contradictions. Its presentation of history will be complex rather than uniform, more differentiated than homogeneous, critical rather than affirmative, but it will be one with a synthetic perspective towards the European Community which itself seeks to combine views and ideas in such a way as to forge a common European self-awareness.

3. Narrative and structure of the House of European History

What is the central theme of the House of European History and what are the ideas that guide it?

Two narratives will run through all of the exhibition:

• In line with the conceptual basis paper, the 20th century will be the centrepiece of the permanent exhibition, with particular attention paid to the process of integration after WW II.

• Even if we reject any teleological approach to this process the exhibition should explain that European integration is based on foundations, achievements and traditions whose roots reach far back into history. Thus, the documentation of post-war history will be embedded in a broader context aiming at explaining the long-term developments of European history.

Doing this the exhibition will focus on phenomena,
a) which are originally European,
b) which have spread all over Europe and
c) which are relevant up to now and considered as distinctive marks of a common European civilisation.

Even though the museum will have a special focus on the history of the European integration, the HEH will not restrict its narrative to the outer borders of the European Community or European Union. Such a limitation would not be deserving of the notion of “European history”. Our perspective and the radius of our presentation encompass all of European.

In the meantime we have worked out the narrative of the permanent exhibition. At the same time we developed together with Arnauld Dechelle, a French architect living in London, first ideas how to present the content in the framework of the highly difficult architecture of the building.

Now, let´s have a look how the narrative is organized.

Introduction: Shaping Europe

'Shaping Europe' has as its purpose to engage visitors with the fundamentals of Europe and to familiarise them with core issues of its history. As the starting point of the permanent exhibition, this theme will provide an introduction into the subject matter of the House of European History.
Geographically, Europe is not a self-evident entity – the perception of Europe, its images and concepts have changed radically from antiquity until today. Maps determine and reflect the image of Europe and the political self-image of the continent. They are not defined by sharp-edged geographical boundaries, but rather by cultural characteristics and distinctions.
Europe is shaped by history. It has a common heritage, meaning that it is characterised by particular features, traditions and achievements, which distinguish it from other continents.
The introduction makes the visitors aware of the fact that memory is formative for mankind, as the basis of its self understanding and of its learning, whether as individuals or as members of a social group. The visitor will become aware of the fact that memory is inextricably intertwined with oblivion. Memory is never fixed and is continually changing. That is why any reflection on cultural identity and any description of history are, essentially, constructions.
Europe owes its name to the ancient myth of Europa and the Bull. The tale of the Phoenician princess, robed by Zeus, has become the emblematic figure for the continent and has been interpreted in a multiplicity of ways throughout history. Viewed from a modern standpoint, the myth hints at the fact that European culture has ancient roots beyond Europe. It can be related to the fact that the Greeks adopted the Phoenician script and developed their own full alphabet from it.

The 19th century

The narrative, in the proper sense of the term, begins within the 19th century. In the 19th century Europe entered modernity - politically, economically, socially and culturally. The concepts of human and civic rights, self-determination, industrialization and liberal market economy were the leading factors in this transformation process. Before WWI, Europe reached the peak of its global power. The exhibition will point out that social and political tensions and international rivalries led to the build-up of an enormous and multifaceted potential for conflict, which then exploded at the beginning of the 20th century.

The Age of Destruction

The first half of the 20th century was an 'Age of Destruction' - shaken by two traumatic world wars, an economic crisis of unprecedented depth and the decline of liberal democracy, while totalitarianism advanced. The rivalry between three social systems (Fascism, Communism, and Parliamentary Democracy) was the signature of the interwar period. The dialectics of modernity became manifest in the mutation from extreme rationality, as it had been developed in modern times, into the extreme irrationality which became apparent in the different scenarios of mass war and totalitarian terror.

The topic entitled 'Rise and Fall of Democracy' is the centrepiece of this theme, pointing out the wave of political change in the aftermath of World War I on the one hand and the rapid decline of the new democracies created by the Versailles Treaties in the interwar period on the other hand. In this context the comparison between National Socialism and Stalinism is a constituent part of the exhibition. These two extreme manifestations of totalitarian systems should be placed face to face in order to explain both their similarities and their differences.

The exhibition pays special attention to the memory of the Shoah. As the 'break of civilization', the Shoah is the beginning and the nucleus of the European discourse of memory. For a long time, not only did German society repressed its guilt, but also other nations were equally silent about their failings. In the meantime, the recognition of the Shoah as a singular crime against humanity has become the negative reference point of European self-consciousness.

Fragile Stability

The third theme encompasses the period of time from 1945 to 1973.
In 1945 Europe was a landscape of ruins, disempowered and divided,
the theatre of the Cold War between two antagonistic political systems. Nevertheless, for nearly 30 years, on both sides of the 'Iron Curtain', Europe experienced a period of unexpected economic growth. The idea of European integration marks a turning point in European history, laying a political path towards the principle of supranational cooperation.

After World War II, Europe had hit rock bottom. It was transformed from being a leading global power into a devastated continent, dependant on the two superpowers even in decisions on its own future. The 'Iron Curtain' became the historical divide of the continent. The United States and the Soviet Union each emerged with antagonistic programmes corresponding to their mission: economic liberalization and democratization on the one hand, modernisation via state-planning and the leadership of the communist party, on the other hand.

Western Europe experienced a phase of international reconciliation, economic prosperity and consolidation of democratic institutions and structures. On the other hand the Socialist states under Soviet control underwent a period of forced industrialization, alphabetization and social security, under duress from varyingly brutal dictatorships, stabilized under the pressure and military support of the Soviet Union.

The European Economic Community, an entirely unique form of organization with the aim of integrating the economies and to some extent the legal systems of a number of independent nation-states, marks a turning point in the history of the continent. It prevents Western Europe from falling back into previous chauvinistic, aggressive, imperialistic mechanisms. The exhibition will focus on the key events of this process: Extending from the Hague Congress in 1948 to the European Coal and Steel Community, the failure of the European Defence Community, the Treaties of Rome, as well as the establishment of a common agriculture policy, the Elysée Treaty, the 'Empty Chair Crisis', and the first enlargement of the E.C. in 1973. Thus, the exhibition points out that the European integration was a “child” of the Cold War.

Breaking Boundaries

The 1970s mark the end of the post-war era. Western Europe entered a period of long-term economic transformation and far-reaching political and social diversification. The Socialist countries, already concerned about their relative economic backwardness, were now confronted with systemic problems and the decreasing legitimacy of their socio-political system. Since the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989 and the following enforced globalization, the process of European integration has undergone considerable acceleration and deepening.

In relation to the constant confrontation of the two antagonistic camps in Europe, the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe was a turning point bringing about a ‘change through rapprochement’ in this period of time.
The Helsinki Final Act (1975), which largely through the initiative of the European Community established human rights as a basic norm for relations among European states, became the reference point for dissidents and opposition in Eastern Europe. It serves in the exhibition as the starting point for the description of the final phase of Socialist countries. Stagnation, the growing discrepancy between promise and reality and the erosion of public authority were palpable. People mobilized for more freedom, social justice and political reforms, later on encouraged by Gorbachev´s reforms in the USSR and the recall of the Brezhnev doctrine. These movements finally led to the 1989 revolutions and to the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Cold War, which had dominated and had frozen the political situation in Europe for 45 years, came to an end.

The collapse of the Soviet Empire accelerated the European integration process. This became most evident in the enlargement 'marathon'. In deepening the supranational structures and the expansion of its competence to more and more fields of politics, the Europe Union has been breaking political, geographical, economical and mental boundaries.

1989 was the starting point of a phase of a serious and seismic re- interpretation of history, a time of fierce debate, which continues to this day. This will require another detour into the domain of memory in this part of the exhibition. In the last two decades, the Shoah and the GULAG have become the central points of reference in European history. On the one hand, the exhibition will reflect the fact that the memory of the two dictatorial systems of the 20th century did not unify but, very clearly, divided the continent. On the other hand, the interpretations of the two most brutal dictatorships of that past 'century of the extremes' reveal astonishing similarities in their deep structures. Because we deal with history on the basis of a set of mostly common values the visitor should be able to learn to be able to tolerate very different interpretations of history and memories on this basis.


To summarize: There are three devices, which are fundamental to our project:
1. It is our firm conviction: Memories both divide and unify us. This is the basis of our research. Shared memory can be the starting point for a learning process in which different experiences and diverse interpretations are mirrored and related to each other in a new way.
2. The HEH should become a platform for the dialogue on European identity. The refusal to give a complete answer does not make the question of identity redundant. On the contrary: We will not offer complete answers but rather, historical interpretations competing for acceptance.
3. Since Eric Hobsbawm (The Invention of Tradition, 1992) we know about invented traditions. It was not only nation-states which sought legitimacy by inventing a fictional past and which made great efforts to create a particular bond that held people together. In contrast to these historical precursors, the construction of a transnational, pan-European memory should take place through a process of communication, in the light of public discussion - as Jürgen Habermas would put it. (Jürgen Habermas, Jacques Derrida: Nach dem Krieg: Die Wiedergeburt Europas. FAZ, 31.5.2003)

It is our view that the House of European History will be a good place for a public debate on this topic!


Photo of the publication Następne kroki? Informować, zmieniać świadomość. Wystąpienie wygłoszone na konferencji „Jak rozliczać zbrodnie komunizmu?”
Jan Rydel

Następne kroki? Informować, zmieniać świadomość. Wystąpienie wygłoszone na konferencji „Jak rozliczać zbrodnie komunizmu?”

20 August 2012
  • komunizm
  • totalitaryzm
  • Europejska Sieć Pamięć i Solidarność
  • zbrodnia komunizmu
  • nazizm
  • RFN
  • NRD
  • PRL
  • IPN

Wystąpienie wygłoszone przez Prof. Jana Rydla na konferencji „Jak rozliczać zbrodnie komunizmu?”

Idea stworzenia instytucji międzynarodowego wymiaru sprawiedliwości, zajmującej się ściganiem i karaniem zbrodni komunizmu jest słuszna, bardzo ważna i godna poparcia. Jeśli wolno tę kwestię ująć w sposób odrobinę publicystyczny, to powiedziałbym, iż same tylko prace planistyczne i przygotowawcze, mające doprowadzić w przyszłości do powstania takiego instrumentu międzynarodowego wymiaru sprawiedliwości zburzą niezmącony – do tej pory – spokój sprawców, którzy wydawali zbrodnicze decyzje polityczne, popełniali zbrodnie sądowe, torturowali, zabijali pracą i mordowali więźniów itd. Sama tylko wizja, że kiedyś w przyszłości będzie się ich oglądać na ekranach telewizorów w takim kontekście, jak Ratko Mladicia, Slobodana Miloševicia czy Ante Gotovinę, będzie źródłem wielkiego dyskomfortu dla nich samych i całego ich środowiska. Nie powinno to bynajmniej martwić demokratów w Unii Europejskiej. Nota bene nie wykluczam, że taki efekt psychologiczny wywrze – w jakimś stopniu – nawet nasza konferencja.

Nie zmienia to jednak faktu, że zamiar stworzenia międzynarodowego wymiaru sprawiedliwości do spraw zbrodni komunistycznych, nad którym tu dyskutujemy, jest i będzie niezmiernie trudne. Przewidując te trudności, możemy odwołać się do przykładu obrachunku z nazizmem. Naturalnie, czyniąc to nie zapominamy o fundamentalnych różnicach między tymi totalitaryzmami.

Otóż można zaryzykować twierdzenie, że procesy nazistowskich przestępców, jakie miały miejsce w pierwszych latach po wojnie przed Międzynarodowym Trybunałem Wojskowym oraz przed sądami alianckimi, doszły do skutku tylko dlatego, że Niemcy były bezsilne, skapitulowały bezwarunkowo i utraciły suwerenność. Procesy te, podobnie jak i ambitne plany denazyfikacji spotkały się w niemieckim społeczeństwie z daleko idącym niezrozumieniem i powszechną dezaprobatą. Procesy te ustały, gdy w warunkach zimnej wojny Niemcy zaczęły być potrzebne Zachodowi i Wschodowi i odzyskały podmiotowość. Pomimo kilku poważnych wcześniejszych prób niemiecki wymiar sprawiedliwości potrzebował w zasadzie 30 lat, aby zacząć wydawać wyroki odpowiadające poczuciu sprawiedliwości opinii międzynarodowej. Przypomnijmy też, że w Republice Federalnej Niemiec większość społeczeństwa aż do połowy lat 70. opowiadała sią za przedawnieniem zbrodni nazizmu.

W sumie obrachunki ze zbrodniami nazizmu, prowadzone zarówno przed sądami międzynarodowymi i alianckimi, jak i przed sądami w RFN oraz w NRD (z innych względów) uważane są za bardzo niedoskonałe. Wynikało to przede wszystkim z braku akceptacji społeczeństwa niemieckiego, które przez całe dekady nie rozumiało, dlaczego dociekanie prawdy przed sądami i wymierzanie sprawiedliwości zbrodniarzom nazistowskim jest konieczne dla jego własnego zdrowia i dla dobra jego przyszłości. Przypomnijmy w tym kontekście fenomen wydarzeń 1968 roku w RFN, a później terroryzmu lewackiego Rote Armee Fraktion, który interpretowany jest jako – w dużym stopniu – następstwo zaniechania obrachunku z nazizmem i jego zbrodniami.

Obecnie, ponad dwadzieścia lat po upadku komunizmu, dysponujemy również wieloma własnymi doświadczeniami, jak chodzi o sądowe obrachunki ze zbrodniami systemu totalitarnego. I nie są to doświadczenia pozytywne. Pamiętam, że latem i jesienią 1989 roku – gdy upadały rządy komunistów w moim kraju, Polsce, oraz w całym naszym regionie, a potem także w ZSRR – byliśmy pewni, że – znając przyczyny niepowodzenia obrachunków z nazizmem w Niemczech – będziemy potrafili uniknąć tych samych błędów i prędko uporamy się z balastem naszej przeszłości, stawiając przed sądem osoby winne zbrodni komunizmu. Rzeczywistość pokazała, że myśląc tak, byliśmy po prostu prowincjonalnymi naiwniakami.

Główna Komisja Badania Zbrodni przeciw Narodowi Polskiemu i jej współczesna następczyni, będąca od 1998 r. częścią Instytutu Pamięci Narodowej, pomimo kompetentnej i wytrwałej pracy prokuratorów, doprowadziły do sformułowania około 600 aktów oskarżenia i skazania może około stu osób. Pan Prezes Łukasz Kamiński zna niewątpliwie precyzyjne dane. W każdym razie nie są to liczby, które by pozostawały w jakimkolwiek stosunku do przestępstw i zbrodni systemu komunistycznego w Polsce i mogły wywołać wrażenie, że w Polsce dokonuje się sprawiedliwe rozliczenie z totalitaryzmem i jego zbrodniami. Co więcej, od wielu lat atmosfera otaczająca działania Instytutu Pamięci Narodowej nie jest dobra, a opinia publiczna nie dowiaduje się z mainstreamowych mediów na ten temat prawie nic o ściganiu i procesach procesy z oskarżenia o zbrodnie komunistyczne, nigdy też nie słyszałem, aby procesy te były na przykład tematem zajęć z wychowania obywatelskiego i wiedzy o społeczeństwie w szkołach.

Pewien rozgłos, ale raczej negatywnego rodzaju, zyskał jedynie proces zabójców dziewięciu górników z kopalni „Wujek”, czyli najsławniejszej zbrodni związanej z okresem „Solidarności”, które trwał 17 lat i doprowadził do skazania szeregowych milicjantów i ich bezpośredniego dowódcy, nie dotknęły natomiast w najmniejszym stopniu ich przełożonych i faktycznych rozkazodawców. Procesy sprawców masakry robotników na Wybrzeżu w 1970 roku i proces członków Rady Państwa z oskarżenia o nielegalne wprowadzenie stanu wojennego w 1981 roku przeciągał się przez cztery lata, między innymi z powodu życzenia sądu, aby przesłuchano Margaret Thatcher, i zakończył się dla części oskarżonych przed kilkoma miesiącami wyrokami uniewinniającymi, lub decyzjami o odstąpienia od wymierzania kary. Zaiste sądownictwo słabo wspiera polskie społeczeństwo na drodze do rozliczenia się z totalitarnym komunizmem. Nic też nie wskazuje, aby Polska mogła liczyć w tej sprawie na efektywną pomoc sądów zagranicznych. Wspomnijmy opór rosyjskiego wymiaru sprawiedliwości przy rozpatrywania zbrodni katyńskiej, czy niepowodzenia polskich wniosków o ekstradycję osób oskarżonych w kraju o zbrodnie komunistyczne. Jak się wydaje, Polaków sądzących, iż rozrachunek ze zbrodniami komunizmu jest słuszny i pożądany, ogarnęło przeważnie zniechęcenie i zobojętnienie. W 1994 roku pewien zwolennik „Solidarności”, rozczarowany podejściem państwa do kwestii winny komunistów, zaatakował generała Jaruzelskiego i poważnie go zranił: dziś wypadki takie się nie zdarzają. Emocje się wypaliły!

Jak mi się wydaje, inne dawne kraje komunistyczne nie odnotowały w tej dziedzinie znacząco lepszych rezultatów od Polski. Dotyczy to nawet zjednoczonych Niemiec, gdzie – ze względu na dominację Niemców z dawnej RFN w życiu publicznym tego kraju – można by się spodziewać, że sądowy obrachunek ze zbrodniami komunizmu przebiegnie szybciej i sprawniej.

Jak mi się wydaje, nawet gdyby już za chwilę, dziś lub jutro, jak za dotknięciem czarodziejskiej różdżki, powstała instytucja międzynarodowego wymiaru sprawiedliwości, mająca ścigać i sądzić zbrodnie komunizmu, w obecnych warunkach misja jej byłaby niemożliwa do zrealizowania. Mechanizmy paraliżowania sądów ze względów formalnych, dezawuowania ich za pomocą mediów, przewlekania procesów, podważania oskarżeń o przestępstwa polityczne etc. są przecież znane od dawna i wielokrotnie, z powodzeniem wypróbowane. Względny sukces międzynarodowego sądownictwa, działającego wobec osób winnych zbrodni w byłej Jugosławii i Ruandzie nie powinien prowadzić nas do mylnych wniosków w odniesieniu do kwestii, którymi zajmujemy się podczas dzisiejszej konferencji. Międzynarodowy obóz przeciwników sądowego rozrachunku ze zbrodniami komunizmu ma znaczny potencjał polityczny i jeszcze większą siłę we współczesnych mediach. To – po prostu – bokser zupełnie innej „kategorii wagowej”, niż serbscy czy chorwaccy szowiniści.

Czy takie ostrzeżenia powinny być powodem do pesymizmu i zaniechania działalności na rzecz osądzenia zbrodni komunizmu? Z pewnością nie! Trzeba wszakże mieć świadomość, że równocześnie z działaniami politycznymi na rzecz utworzenia instytucji międzynarodowego wymiaru sprawiedliwości, mającej ścigać i sądzić zbrodnie komunizmu, równocześnie z odpowiednimi analizami prawniczymi, definiowaniem właściwości sądu itd. trwać musi intensywna i konsekwentna akcja informacyjna i edukacyjna.

Musimy nadal badać i dokumentować historię zbrodni komunizmu, ale przede wszystkim upowszechniać wiedzę o nich wśród społeczeństw Europy. Tylko w ten sposób osiągniemy efekt powszechnego zrozumienia dla konieczności wymierzenia sprawiedliwości sprawcom. Tylko w ten sposób stworzymy atmosferę akceptacji i przychylności dla nowej instytucji międzynarodowego wymiaru sprawiedliwości, o której dziś dyskutujemy.

Organizacja, którą tu reprezentuję, czyli Europejska Sieć Pamięć i Solidarność, włączyła się w organizację obecnej konferencji, aby podkreślić, iż właśnie badania, dokumentacja i upowszechnianie wiedzy o mrocznych rozdziałach historii XX wieku są jej właściwym obszarem działania. Z tego względu jesteśmy gotowi we współpracy z Platformą Europejskiej Pamięci i Sumienia i innymi miarodajnymi organizacjami zaplanować i przeprowadzić wspomnianą tu wielką, międzynarodową kampanię informacyjną i edukacyjną, dotyczącą komunistycznych zbrodni, która jest – co pragnę raz jeszcze podkreślić – conditio sine qua non – sukcesu nowej instytucji międzynarodowego wymiaru sprawiedliwości.


Photo of the publication Generation 1989? A critique of a popular diagnosis
Martin Gloger

Generation 1989? A critique of a popular diagnosis

19 August 2012
  • 1989
  • transformation
  • Germany
  • post-Wall generation
  • post-'89


This article assumes patterns of interpretation which are intended to describe social and historical circumstances. One such pattern is that of the generation, popular above all as a category in essays that analyse the times. In particular, Douglas Coupland’s novel Generation X (1995) can be seen as the inspiration for further studies, literature, and film devoted to painting a picture of the generation of youth of the early 1990s. Among the numerous classics of the film productions of this generation are Slackers, Clerks, and SubUrbia. With Everything’s Gone Green(2006), Coupland presented his own portrait of a generation in film. The generation portrayed has little hope of attaining the prosperity of its parents, but despite these prospects it stays cool. This diagnosis has global validity: although these sketches were designed for North America, their motifs are also relevant in other regions of the world. Although both the USA and Germany are described as countries which have a ‘unique path’ to follow, the question of a Generation X has also been taken up in Germany. Of particular interest are the fall of the Berlin Wall and the process of reunification as apparently the last historical events that could shape a generation. The attempt to depict a ‘Generation ’89’ or ‘Children of the Wall’ (Pannen: 1994) shares, at the same time, the background of the diagnosis of Generation X. Descriptions are made of the conflict of a young generation which must find its way amid the uncertainties of late modernity. The parents’ generation enjoys a prosperity of which their children can only dream. This narrative can be found in portraits of both Germany and the USA.


The rapidly changing attempts at applying labels offer an insight in terms of diagnosing the times. The problem of generations ends when a generation ends (Neckel: 1993). The problem might be that the model of the overweening parents’ generation (the protest generation of West Germany) blocks our view of the shape of the younger generation. There have been a great many attempts at diagnosis in Germany: as a result of the particular course the country has taken and its historical rifts, attempts at portraying generations are particularly popular there. The last great historical event seen as relevant for a generation is the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1990. Alongside the theoretical reflection that one could speak of a generation shaped by the ‘great political event of the fall of the Wall’, a different tone in criticism and a new political style of the generation can be perceived, which, deviating from the model of the protest generation, was possibly prematurely assessed as the ‘coming out’ of a new generation (cf. Leggewie: 1995). Parallel to the diagnosis of a ‘Generation ’89’ in sociological research on youth and generations, the self-narrative of such a generation can also be observed (cf. Gloger: 2008). What seems especially puzzling is the disappearance and renewed flaring up of these assertions. The selfnarratives were first visible in the mid-1990s. After a period of silence over this label, a leading article published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung depicted the ‘Eighty-Niners’ as the main losers in the economic crisis (Satar: 2008). The CEO of IG Metall, Berthold Huber, was quoted in the weekly magazine Der Spiegel as saying ‘I am more Eighty-Niner than Sixty-Eighter’ (Tietz: 2009). These examples demonstrate the special power of this generational rhetoric.

This paper is intended to recount an exploratory study in which the generational pattern of interpretation is considered at the level of self-narrative. The interpretation suggested is that the generational shape of the Eighty- Niners be treated as a felt community that, in any case, involves little in the way of obligations to act. The emphasis in this paper is on methodological considerations. The sociologist Norbert Elias says that what he calls ‘destroying myths’ is a fundamental task of his discipline. There are many prescientific interpretations and explanations in circulation relating to social life. It is up to the sociologist to test, criticize, or expand upon them. Such academic progress can lie in the better coordination of theory and practice, the discovery of new contexts, the confirmation of a vague presumption, or something similar (Elias: 1970). In my study, the thesis of a Generation ’89 is seen as a prescientific declaration which, on the one hand, won out through the power of persuasion. At the same time, no conclusive answer can be given to the question of where the particular commonality among the people belonging to these age groups lies. On the contrary: categories of social inequality, such as social group and class, deliver more accurate explanations in respect of the questions of late-modern uncertainties (precariousness). It may be that talk of a Generation ’89 can be understood as the rhetoric of an intelligentsia becoming self-reflexive, without being embraced by the majority of the age groups in question. It is also striking that the generational rhetoric on 1989 is counterintuitive: although it might at first be assumed that this is first and foremost about an East German generational rhetoric – the generation of witnesses to the fall of the Wall – most statements in fact come from Western Germany. The Eighty-Niners are prominent in the Green Party, while many West German authors have attempted to portray their own generation. We can mention, for example, Stefan Pannen’s essay on the ‘Children of the Wall’, and Susanne Leinemann’s travelogue from the area of the former GDR and account of friendships made there. Not specifically on the Eighty-Niners, but on the shape of a ‘youth generation’ of the 1990s, numerous further reflections have been forthcoming, the most prominent of them being the essay ‘Generation Golf ’ by Florian Illies. In this paper, I first offer a few methodological considerations on generational studies, before going on to crucially examine the generational rhetoric of an Eighty-Niner generation.

Methodological remarks

If we consider the contemporary debate on generations, a number of attempts to explain it come up, which on the one hand might exhibit a certain power of persuasion, as it is not without reason that the concept of generations has entered the language of advertising. Alongside the generational labels X and Y, the German-speaking countries have their own versions: Generation Golf, the Eighty-Niners, Generation XTC, Generation Internship, and many others. On the book market we find a number of corresponding publications every year. In spite of their evident popularity, these ideas remain controversial to many. Can we speak of a core of experience, or are the protagonists of generational rhetoric on a post-’89 generation simply the victims of a PR fad? As a result of the conditional power of persuasion of current generational rhetoric, along with the inflationary appearance of concomitant new publications, certain voices would more or less banish the concept of generations from academic discussion. This paper aims to argue the contrary: it is the supposed weakness of the concept of generations – its inflationary usage – that is in fact its strength; this popularity – including journalism and advertising – is a sign that this rhetoric can represent a part of reality, even if it is not entirely or universally persuasive. While some contributions may be criticized as analytical snapshots, they are worthy of a closer look as part of the social reality.

What turns the issue of a generation into a ‘generation’? The issue of a generation begins when a generation ends. This has been the case following ’68 (Neckel: 1993). Some time after the anti-authoritarian revolts of the 1960s, the protagonists of the movement appeared as representatives of a generation. A carrier group can be identified from which the protest emerged and which exhibits a common direction that is articulated with identity formation in mind. The question of what comes after the revolt is always at the same time a question about the carrier group for new waves of protest. Later social and political movements must face up to comparison with the anti-authoritarian movement, and the result is not to their advantage - there appears to be no single political successor generation to the protest generation of the 1960s, younger age groups appear shapeless, and the question of commonalities turns out to be diffuse and contradictory. It is for this reason that there are so many attempts to describe this generation. The discursiveness of the respective ‘youth generation’ is the expression of its shapelessness. If the essence of this generation were clear-cut, then no narratives would need to be developed for it.

When looking at the question of a new political generation, uncertainties should be pointed out which are of significance for the narrative of a post-Eighty-Niner generation, and therefore a post-Sixty-Eighter generation too. These theoretical and conceptual uncertainties are part of this self-referentialism - the statements that are made are based on the awareness of living in fluid times. Theories, interpretations and narratives – in examination of oneself and others, and many narratives on the ‘experiences’ of one’s own generation as well as many studies on youth – can be seen after a short time as in need of adjustment or even entirely obsolete. This shortened half-life of narratives ultimately leads to a half-life of identity. A further uncertainty conducive to the popularity of discussion on generations lies in the increasing theoretical clout of the previous types of identification. The plausibility of ‘well-worn’ patterns of interpretation such as social group, class, and nation-state has abated. A reason for this is, on the one hand, the political burden of these concepts, and on the other the difficulty in using them to describe and explain complex social contexts.

In particular for the diagnosis of a post-Sixty-Eighter generation, the increasingly complex social reality is of significance. Since it appears barely possible to fit the many diagnoses of contemporary society spawned by the social sciences into one binding formula, portraits of a generation can only be convincing for part of society. As I will show in the next part of this paper, this is particularly true for the East German part of the rhetoric. How is sociological analysis reacting to these matters?

Research on the topic of generations in the social sciences exhibits a comparable development to that of sociological biographical research, in which the analytical focus of the biography has shifted towards ‘biographication’, where the analytical interest lies in the process which forms events during someone’s life into a biography. Instead of speaking of generations and generational positions, it is now the self-description of a generation that is discussed. Following the formula of the political scientist and communications theorist Harold Lasswell, this research program can be described as ‘Who examines the generation, in relation to which circumstances, and over which channel?’

People examining the topic of generations negotiate the common experiences of an age group which can be seen as decisive for a community shared with people of the same age. These common formative experiences can lead to a generational consciousness which can also contain converse interpretations. Karl Mannheim’s classic conception, with the categories ‘generational location’, ‘generational context’, and ‘generational units’, continues to be relevant (Mannheim: 1964). The generational location describes one or several age groups in the historical context. From this common location come certain influences which Mannheim describes as ‘pressure’ or ‘opportunity’. The econometric category for these circumstances is the concept of cohorts.1 The generational context now describes the special ‘fate’ of these age groups in the historical space. This is the generational context. Classical formative events are war, revolution and inflation, whose consequences are difficult to escape. The question of which experiences members of particular age groups are exposed thus leads to the question of the examination of these circumstances. In analyses examining the topic of generations, the focus is now shifted from generational location – i.e. the characteristics of specific age groups – to the examination of them. No conclusive or entirely convincing portrayal of a generation is intended to be drawn, but the process of the formation of a felt community should be understood. It is assumed that there are a number of diagnoses, partly contradictory, but which concur with the experiences of many people. Individuals enter society and undergo more or less predetermined experiences (school, university, training, national service, etc.) allowed by the institutions and norms of society. According to the relevance allotted by society to the category of ‘age’ in the organization of social life, a generational consciousness emerges to a more or less distinct degree.

A good and accessible metaphor for imagining the development of a generational consciousness against its social background can be a view of the vibrant traffic of a city by night. Individuals can be imagined as the vehicles travelling through the streets. Year groups can be imagined as a ‘wave’ in the cityscape. Regulations and institutions direct the course taken by these vehicles through the city. On the edge of this course are signs which make the place one passes memorable. There are points that everyone remembers: major junctions, traffic lights, and so on. Yet the question of which further landmarks are remembered is negotiated discursively. If one compares one’s experiences with others – even with personal memories – it is also a question of comparing which memories are seen as relevant. Major junctions, traffic lights, and so on apply to all. The question that remains negotiable is whether it is shops by the side of the road, striking architecture, electronic advertising or other things that are compared. This would apply both to the compilation of an official ‘street map’ and to individual description.2

Transferred to social narratives, this means that there is a rich store of circumstances on which these narratives can feed. In this context, we again return to the aforementioned theoretical uncertainties: the array of findings in the social sciences on today’s society does not make convincing narratives on memory, society, and so on impossible, but they are becoming more complex and therefore more difficult. In his study on acceleration, Hartmut Rosa shows that, with the increasingly short half-life of knowledge, identities also acquire a shorter half-life (Rosa: 2006). The multitude of diagnoses and essays can therefore be seen not as a sign of the dwindling power to make the category of generation convincing, but rather as an expression of the difficulty in describing the increasingly complex, fast-changing world through well-known concepts – and this problem is true not only for the category of generation. I return to the metaphor of how memory can be imagined in its social context in the last section of this essay in order to depict two discursive motifs which appear in the selfnarrative of the Eighty-Niner.

The Anatomy of a Pattern of Interpretation

The appearance of a new political generation known as the ‘Eighty-Niner’ generation was first discussed in Germany at the beginning of the 1990s. The political style of the younger generation was perceived as deviating from the overwhelming standard of the protest generation, and the tones evident in literary criticism and artistic representations (prominently in pop literature) were also seen as signs of the appearance of a new generation. The attention of the mass media was directed to this generation label by Ulrich Greiner’s challenging response to critical reviewers of Botho Strauss’s volume of stories Wärmen – Wohnen – Lügen / Living – Glimmering – Lying. Raising the conflict between the Sixty-Eighter Strauss and the young reviewers of his book to a matter of principle, Greiner postulated a generational conflict between the two groups. Is a linguistic creation by a possibly wrong-headed person in a genre that in any case evokes controversial theses powerful enough to initiate a debate on generations? Greiner’s diagnosis of Generation ’89 has a prehistory prior to the great historical event of the fall of the Wall. In the public sphere of the end of the 1980s, a turning point in history was posited which can be conceived as representing a premature millennial turning point well before the year 2000. This is an atypical fin-de-siècle discourse: the end of somewhat familiar and old certainties is diagnosed, but this diagnosis leaves it unclear what should be brought in to replace the familiar (Rosa: 1999). Analyses from the 1980s recognised this ‘no-longer’ that continues to shape the debate today more strongly than it did in the mid/late 1980s: the journalist Reinhard Mohr recognizes in the description of his own generation – the ‘onlooker generation’ – a successor generation, ‘Generation ’88’, which is more active than its predecessor, but decidedly less political (Mohr: 1992). The psychoanalyst Klaus Theweleit writes that what was in ’68 love is in ’86 death (Theweleit: 1991). Whereas free love in the 1960s was a counter-strategy against the dowdy, conservative hegemony, the threat of AIDS brought with it the threat of an attempt at a conservative counter-revolution. The sociologist Hans- Jürgen Krysmanski comments ironically on this debate on the essence of a post-’89 generation that the debate on Sixty-Eighters and Eighty-Niners is in fact boring; far more important is what happened to the ‘386ers’ and ‘486ers’ – and the following cohorts of Pentium processors (Krysmanski: 2001).3 Notable in some opinions is the view that the expectation of a turning point in history was already there before the actual great event for the end of the 1980s, the fall of the Wall. The common diagnosis of a nolonger – as in the loss of social certainty, ‘precariousness’, the absence of role models and formative historical events, the powerlessness of criticism, and much more - can be described as a discourse of absence.4

The fall of the Wall is the last great German historical event to be interpreted as a possible shaper of generations after 1968. The question now arises as to whether and how this event is convincing for the self-narrative of an Eighty-Niner generation, as most comments on self-narrative come from the Western part of the country, while biographical rifts after 1989 are most likely in the former East. It is here that the events of the systemic upheaval have changed every biography: existing work contracts were torn up, curricula in schools and universities were changed, and finally even the social elites in the former GDR were transposed. ‘Unique characteristics’, for example in law, were entirely scrapped after 1990. With this diagnosis of ‘new times’, the discursive comparison between ’68 and ’89 becomes especially prominent. We can speak of a mythologisation of the Federal Republic of Germany, as the events of the year 1989 had at most a moderate influence on the diagnoses of the times in question, but could not be seen as causes. The content-free signifier ’89 is filled up with various contents which symbolize a no-longer but cannot directly be connected with the event.

Generation 1989? Two Discursive Motifs

Looking at the self-narrative of the protagonists of an Eighty-Niner generation, two discursive motifs can be identified which I will characterize as the genealogy of the Federal Republic of Germany for West German self-narratives and as a rhizome of a vanished society. Starting from the debate on the diagnosis of an Eighty-Niner generation, there has been a series of self-narratives as protagonists of the Eighty-Niner generation. A Generation X, which has adopted the base year of 1989 in Germany, is the third political generation after the ‘Flakhelfer Generation’ (also known internationally as the ‘Silent Generation’) and the Protest Generation. As was shown in the previous section, this is above all a symbolic opposition to the idea of a ’68er generation. The rhizome is a non-hierarchical, nonlinear discursive motif. A genealogy, on the other hand, is based on clear boundaries and classifications; it is clear which part of the ‘concept chain’ refers to which other link and exactly where the relationships between the individual members lie.

The rhizome is an anti-genealogy: whereas in a genealogy the relationship between the described and describer is based on reliability and clearness, in a rhizome a great many different identifications, interpretations and crossreferences occur, hence the metaphor of network or roots. I would now like to explain more closely the specific generational rhetoric of a post- Eighty-Niner generation using the two concepts genealogy and rhizome. If one imagines the model of traffic flowing through the nocturnal streets, a few fundamental differences occur between the situation in West and East Germany. The clarity and reliability which the West German rhetoric refers to can hardly be assumed with East German statements; unlike in the West, the historical schism left real incursions here, with existing career paths interrupted, curricula at schools and universities altered and the need for everybody to become accustomed to a new system, especially young people and adolescents of the GDR of the late-1980s. This incursion did not affect everybody in the same way, but instead ’89 triggered a number of movements; for some people it was a breakout and liberation, while for others it meant a setback. Economic fortunes also went in various directions. On the one hand many new opportunities sprang up after 1989, but at the same time there were also new uncertainties.

However, no genealogy can be recognized from the East German selfnarratives as Eighty-Niners, but in fact the turbulences of the historical schism dispersed and stirred up all existing structures so that there was no fertile ground for a collective narrative to be sown; unlike in West Germany, there is no continuity of tradition to refer to, since many intellectual, cultural and political ‘unique characteristics’ of the GDR (e.g. in law) have not survived since 1989. The events of 1989 do, however, remain important reference points in the respective biographies. From among the many and varied changes of fortune following the system change after 1989, numerous voices of self-narrative have emerged which are able to recount their fortunes and those of their contemporaries against the background of a common experience. The system change is the common denominator of the experiences, but not a narrative that can yield a commonality of memory.

At the beginning of this paper came the observation of the self-narrative of a post-Eighty-Niner generation. From an initial exploration, two discursive motifs of an Eighty-Niner generation were introduced, which show that the events of 1989 in the West represent above all a symbolic point of reference; no other event of the late 1980s was able to illustrate the discourse of ‘no longer’ better than the fall of the Wall. The actual effects of this event were not enough for the witnesses to form a distinct ‘we society’ from this experience. Their discursive motif is that of a rhizome. There are many diverse biographies whose reference points are the year 1989, and the biographical consequences left in the biographies by the fall of the Wall were too numerous to postulate a commonality from the event. This coexistence of two discursive motifs is an important hypothesis for further studies with witnesses after 1989.



Martin Gloger, University of Kassel. Studied Sociology, Political Science and Philosophy at the University of Gottingen. After graduation he worked as teaching assistant at the same institution. He received his PhD from the Department of Sociology at the University of Kassel, with a thesis about the ‘1989 Generation’. In his research he is focusing on cultural sociology and media studies.




1 Classical questions of studies of cohorts would include how opportunities on the labour market for graduates develop over a longer period, as well as which labour market measures and institutional changes have which effects, whether high-birth year groups are advantaged or weak, and many other questions.

2 In the sociology of knowledge ‘cognitive mapping’ is also spoken of.

3 The generation of new generations from technical innovations in fact offers an interesting opportunity for using the concept of generations. It is important to note, however, that concepts like ‘youth’ and ‘generation’ are social terms, not statistical ones: it is not about emphasising commonalities from the 14-30 age group, but rather asking how the consciousness of a commonality is formed from this age group. The same is true for generations and cohorts: here too we ask how a consciousness of commonalities is formed within one year. In this way, a generational rhetoric can also become detached from the biological basis and include people who are actually younger or older than the centre of the year groups who are perceived as the real active anchors of the generation. Thus, the typical means of communication and network formation of those born under the sign of digitalisation must be looked at, as well as the differentiation of usership by age groups.

4 The philosopher and sociologist Jean Baudrillard is one who brings this motif to the forefront of his examination of the time.


Coupland, D. (1995) Generation X. Geschichten für eine immer schneller werdende Kultur (Munchen: Goldmann).

Deleuze, G. and F. Guattari (1977) Rhizom (Berlin: Merv Verlag).

Elias, N. (1970) Was ist Soziologie? (Mu: Juventa).

Gloger, M. (2008) ‘A generation to end all generations. Zur Entmythologisierung des Generationenlabels „89er”’, Vorgänge 2, pp. 139- 147.

Greiner, U. (1995) ‘Die Neunundachtziger. Der Streit uber Botho Strauss und die Verrisse seines jungsten Buches sind Ausdruck eines Machtkampfes’, in: F. J. Gortz et. al (eds), Deutsche Literatur 1994, (Stuttgart: Reclam), pp. 283-291.

Krysmanski, H.-J. (2001) Popular science. Medien, Wissenschaft und Macht in der Postmoderne (Munster, New York: Waxmann).

Leggewie, C. (1995) Die 89er: Portrait einer Generation (Hamburg: Hoffmann und Kampe).

Martin, M. (1995) ‘Am liebsten ist mir 69’, Wochenpost 43 (19.10.1995).

Mannheim, K. (1964) ‘Das Problem der Generation’, in: Wissenssoziologie: Auswahl aus dem Werk, new edition (Berlin: Luchterhand), pp. 509–565.

Mohr, R. (1992) Zaungäste. Die Generation, die nach der Revolte kam, original edition, 2nd printing (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Verlag).

Neckel, S. (1993) Die Macht der Unterscheidung. Beutezüge durch den modernen Alltag (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Verlag).

Pannen, S. (1994) Wir Mauerkinder. Eine Generation bricht auf (Weinheim: Beltz, Quadriga).

Rosa, H. (1999) ‘Am Ende der Geschichte: Die „Generation X” zwischen Globalisierung und Desintegration’, in: K. Fischer (ed.), Neustart des Weltlaufs. Fiktion und Faszination der Zeitenwende, first German edition, first printing (Frankfurt am Main), pp. 246–263.

Rosa, H. (2005) Beschleunigung. Die Veränderung der Zeitstrukturen in der Moderne (Frankfurt am Main: Surkamp).

Sattar, M. (2008) ‘Eine Generation in der Krise. Die besten Jahre’, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (18.10.2008), available at: www.FAZ.de.

Strauß, B. (1994) Wohnen, Dämmern, Lügen (Munchen: Hanser).

Tenbruck, F. (1965) Jugend und Gesellschaft: soziologische Perspektiven, second edition (Freiburg: „Soziologie”. Schriftenreihe zu grundsatzlichen und aktuellen Fragen).

Theweleit, K. (1991) Orpheus (und) Eurydike. Buch der Könige, second edition (Basel: Stroemfeld, Roter Stern ).

Tietz, J. (2009) ‘Heavy Metal. In der Krise avanciert IG- Metall- Chef Berthold Huber, 59, zum gefragten Partner von Vorstandsbossen und Politik’, Der Spiegel 30, pp. 72-73.


This article has been published in the first issue of Remembrance and Solidarity Studies.

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Photo of the publication Conference Report: The Loneliness of Victims. Methodological, Ethical and Political Aspects of Counting the Human Losses [...]
Rudolf Paksa

Conference Report: The Loneliness of Victims. Methodological, Ethical and Political Aspects of Counting the Human Losses [...]

18 August 2012
  • conference
  • report
  • Loneliness of Victims

The Loneliness of Victims. Methodological, Ethical and Political Aspects of Counting the Human Losses of the Second World War

Date and place: 9–10 December 2011, Buda Castle, Budapest

Organizer: European Network Remembrance and Solidarity, Berlin-Karlshorst German-Russian Museum in collaboration with the Institute of History of the Hungarian Science Academy


A conference on the human losses of the Second World War took place on 9–10 December, 2011, in Buda Castle, organised by the Berlin-Karlshorst German-Russian Museum and supported by the Institute of History of the Hungarian Science Academy. The conference was held in three languages, with simultaneous interpretation: English, Polish and Hungarian. (It is a mystery why German was not one of the official languages. Firstly, Germans had an important role as founders and main supporters of the initiative. Secondly, participants in the conference often talked to each other in German.)

In the introduction, Attila Pók, the host of the event, told participants that the aim of the conference matches that of the hosting institution, the Institute of History of the Hungarian Science Academy, in that, first, analysis should be preceded by solid empirical data collection, and second that local events should be interpreted in a wider regional or international context.

The organizing institution, the European Network Remembrance and Solidarity, was introduced by Rafał Rogulski. He said that the conference was the fruit of the co-operation of the German, Polish and Hungarian ministries of culture, joined by the Czechs and Austrians. The idea originated with Germany and Poland, who were also the main financial supporters of the event. The Network was founded in February 2005, and started operating in 2008. The organizational framework was formed in 2010, with the establishment of the Secretariat, which took on the coordinating and logistic tasks. The aim of the Network was connecting already existing research institutions, memorial sites, and NGOs. The institution supports the organization of conferences and exhibitions, and the preparation of scientific materials, translations, publications, and television and radio broadcasts. This conference was the third of its kind. The first one took place in Bratislava, and was themed around Memories of Central and Eastern Europe, while the second one took place in Warsaw, and was themed around the Genealogy of Central and Eastern Europe. Rogulski highlighted the fact that the aim of the initiative was not to divert focus from old crimes, or ignore memories, but to address the truth wholeheartedly, without causing harm to others.

Next, participants were greeted by Géza Szőcs, Hungarian Secretary of State for Culture. He said that he considered the counting of the victims of the Second World War important, because the European Union was born out of the fear caused by the horrors of the war, which makes all those victims pillars of the Community. The Secretary of State reminded the audience that there is uncertainty in Hungary regarding the numbers, and that this uncertainty is often exploited in popular politics. Were 450,000 or 600,000 people deported to malenkij robot? Did half of them return, or only a third? Were 450,000 or 600,000 Jews handed over to Nazis, and how many of those returned? How many prisoners of war died of hunger? During the war, how many people were killed by the occupying Germans? And by the liberating Russians? How many people became victims of ethnic cleansing? Secretary of State Szőcs also mentioned that the Second World War had more civilian victims than military. These were victims of air raids, epidemics, famine, retaliations, and expatriations. He also wished the participants a successful conference, but warned them that empirical data are not everything – subjectivity is just as crucial, because it can move people and make them realize how important each victim was. Richard Overy’s introductory presentation drew attention to problematic aspects of the conference topic. First of all, the exact number of Second World War victims is unknown to this day. Global estimates of 50–55 million are presumably incorrect, as the number of victims in the Soviet Union and China were considerably underestimated. The Soviet Union alone lost 27 million people, while China lost 16 million. These numbers exclude people who suffered irreversible physical or psychological damage, who are hard to count and therefore were never listed. One thing is alarming – the estimates vary considerably, from 50 to 80 million victims. One of the problems is that, in war, losses occur not only among well documented army troops, but also in unlisted civilian populations. (For example, does the death of an elderly, starved patient count as natural or as a result of poor war conditions?)

Overy also pointed out that militarized wartime communications considered the loss of civilians as natural and, what is more, expected the population to bear sacrifices, even in human lives. Another side effect of war is that people become hardened by conditions and develop a sort of moral numbness, which can often lead to atrocities and genocides. People can accept ideas that lead to the torture or extermination of the enemy, out of ideological, ethnic, or national motives. This is why new socio-psychological research focuses on the question: How can ordinary people become mass murderers? (The speaker did not mention it, but, based on this observation, it would be worth re-examining the causes of the indifferent behaviour of the civilian population during the persecution of the Jews.) And this is why, after the war, the re-establishment of moral and legal norms became a priority. He also mentioned that geographical areas under constant occupation or frequent change of authority were the worst affected. At the same time, he drew attention to other problems, such as unor poorly documented murders, which are hard to count later (for example, partisan combat actions or bombings). Counting is rendered difficult by other factors too, such as the high mobility in Europe at the time, the general fear of providing personal data, and the unintentionally or intentionally distorted memory of witnesses or perpetrators. In addition, German victims were not counted after the war. Official statistics are often unreliable, as evidence of war damages was manipulated by political propaganda, both during and after the war. One good example is the of Rotterdam in 1940, where official communiques spoke of 20,000 victims, whereas the real numbers were only 850–900. The most accurate data comes from Great Britain because, being an island, it was affected by considerably lower mobility, not to mention the fact that it avoided occupation. However, in many other places, there were no official registries, or there was secrecy. For example, the Auschwitz death lists were regularly destroyed. The exact numbers of victims from air raids were not revealed in order to avoid panic. Another obstacle to certainty is the fact that the political importance of this issue is still very high. For example, when the USA recently erected a memorial 175 of its soldiers who died in the Second World War, Bulgarians were outraged because the 1943–1944 bombing of Sofia resulted in 1,400 Bulgarian civilian victims. The bombing of Dresden is another notoriously politicized historical event. In the former East Germany it was considered to be imperialist aggression, aimed at intimidating the liberating Soviet Army, whereas in the former West Germany it was considered an unnecessary retaliation, as the war was already ending without it. As for historians in the West, some criticized it and some defended it, while others looked at it as a prelude to the Cold War. Based on propaganda data of the time, David Irving speaks of 135,000, and later of 250,000 victims. On the other hand, new research from 2010 speaks of 18,000–25,000 victims, which raised serious concern as it seemed to belittle the sufferings and sacrifices of Germans, as well as demeaning the tragedies of the Second World War. Others use the data to make claims for compensation to Germans. Overy also reminded participants that, from a moral point of view, there is no real difference whether there were 25,000 or 100,000 victims. Still, it is important that national memories not rest on false numbers. Nevertheless, another question is how one is supposed to remember people who have fallen victim to conquering powers. Overy said that certain political groups (the left and liberals) refuse to include such victims in the national memory. Furthermore, how is one supposed to remember people who fell victim to opposing forces – our own and their enemies? This dilemma is strongest in countries where the population was already deeply divided, like Ukraine, where more people died in the war than in the Holocaust, and the country suffered further losses under German and Soviet occupation. Another problematic aspect is that the Soviet Union killed its own people in the Gulag and through famine. Overy pointed out, referring to Other Losses by James Bacque (1989), that the death rate in prisoner-of-war camps in certain Western European countries was unusually high. In his final words, he referred to the fact that not only the dead can be considered victims, but survivors too (who were victims of torture, trauma, expatriation, confiscation of assets, prison, etc.), but they are never remembered in memorials. He emphasized the importance in research of professional integrity, which means that counting victims should not be a ‘competition’.

It is also important to remember that the Second World War had military as well as civilian victims. In new historical literature, especially in Italy, a new expression, ‘war victims’, is spreading, regardless who they were killed by, whether they were military or civilian victims, and which side they were on. ‘The motivation behind this new trend is that historians do not think in terms of good or bad, and they are not trying to serve justice in retrospect to one side or the other, but they are trying to count overall, common losses’, Overy concluded.

The next part was a press conference, where Attila Pók, Rafał Rogulski, Jan Rydel and Géza Szőcs briefly summarized the goals of the conference. Szőcs said that his presence testifies to the Hungarian government’s good intentions, which means it is welcoming efforts to discover facts about the recent past in an objective manner. In a decisive tone, he declared that ‘exact and credible facts are important so that public discussions do not drown in stupidity and lies’. He also said that every European country suffers from this phenomenon, whereas mutual knowledge of facts is the basis of reconciliation. Jan Rydel summarized the thematic diversity of the conference by categorising the presentations into three types. In the first group, the lectures dealing with significant numbers aim to banish political influence, and correct accepted but manipulated data (for example in Poland). In the second group, the lectures aim to define ‘victims’. In the third group, the lectures focus on certain case studies. Rogulski briefly informed journalists about the history of the organization, and also expressed his hope that more countries will join the network in the future. He also stressed that one of the main aims of the initiative is documentation of the facts.

Several questions were raised after the speeches. Regarding the questions about significant discrepancies in data, speakers tended to emphasize the role of false political motivations, and warned participants of their danger. For example, they mentioned that ‘Holocaust-relativist’ ideology stems from the fact that victim number estimates provided by Soviet troops liberating Auschwitz in 1945 (4 million in Auschwitz alone) were highly exaggerated, yet these figures were insisted upon for over 30 years, for purely political reasons. Another question dealt with the means of documenting and disseminating the findings the organization was using, and whether these findings will find their way into textbooks. From the response, journalists learned that the primary information method was the web page of the organisation (www.ENRS.eu), where all the materials would be available, at least in English, but possibly in every other participating language. In addition, the Network wanted to act as a supporter and coordinator of related public events (memorials, school information days, etc.). However, it is a long and winding road until findings find their way into textbooks – much of the research is still in an initial phase. Nevertheless, it is a promising sign that the work of the organization is supported by participating governments, which means that false information in current textbooks can be corrected. In the case of Hungary, it is true that textbooks are already being updated on the basis of recent empirical findings, although there is still room for improvement in the case of certain (mostly foreign-related) facts. One journalist focusing on the particularities of the Hungarian legal framework was trying to find out whether a conference dealing with victims of totalitarian regimes goes against a recently passed Hungarian law. In his response, Géza Szőcs said that he was not a lawyer and therefore could not give an accurate answer, but in his opinion, historical research based on empirical findings could not be against the law. (The law mentioned was Article 269c of paragraph 16 of the Penal Code, under the title ‘Public denial of the crimes of national socialist and communist regimes’, which reads: ‘Those denying, questioning or falsifying in public the genocide and other crimes against humanity committed by national socialist and communist regimes commit a crime and should be punished with a sentence of up to three years in prison.’) Regarding the same question, Szőcs emphasised that empirical scientific findings must be legitimized by public discourse in every case. Participants were also reminded that one of the key supporters of the initiative was Andrzej Przewoźnik, who tragically died in last year’s Smoleńsk plane accident, whose memory was preserved in an exhibition open until May 2012 in the House of Terror in Budapest, and then in Warsaw. Another key figure, from the German side, was Markus Meckel, last minister of foreign affairs of the former East Germany. In the first part of the conference, there were four presentations. The first two speakers talked about the number of victims in Russia, the third about those in Germany, and the last about those in Hungary. Vladimir Tarasov said that, in 1946, the Soviet Union acknowledged 10,845,546 Soviet victims (military and civilian together), which did not include Soviets who died outside the borders of the Soviet Union. An estimate in 1960 significantly corrected this number by putting estimates at 20 million. This estimate was widely accepted until the 1989 fall of the Soviet regime. In the past two decades, there was an increased need for more exact estimates. Comparing the 1939 and 1945 Soviet censuses, there is a difference of 37.2 million. From this number, demographers deducted people dying a natural death (11.9 million), and added the number of births (1.3 million). It added up to 26.6 million people unaccounted for by natural death. In the past few years, the Russian Ministry of Defence formed a committee, whose role it was to verify the number of 26.6 million victims. The speaker was a member of this committee, so his claims represented the official Russian position. The committee found the estimate of 26.6 million Soviet victims correct. Nevertheless, there were some grey areas, for example whether Nazi collaborators should be counted as victims. Tarasov said that they set up an online database of the dead and the missing, and they would also like to create a specialized national archive. Responding to a question, Tarasov also mentioned that there is significant research activity in Russia and post-Soviet states.

In his presentation, Boris Sokolov drew the attention of participants to the fact that previous Soviet data significantly underestimated the number of Soviet victims, which makes official counts unreliable. For example, in only German, Finnish and Romanian POW camps, over 4 million Soviet prisoners died out of the 6.3 million captured. This estimate includes those, who, in hope of liberation, joined the enemy and died in combat. In their case, the question is: Whose victims are they? Sokolov also pointed out that it is quite common for a victim to be claimed by more than one nation. (For example, Sub-Carpathian Hungarian soldiers forcibly enlisted in the Red Army are listed not only as Soviet victims, but also as Ukrainian, based on territory, and Hungarian, based on ethnicity.) Sokolov believed that it is impossible to tell the exact number of Soviet victims; estimates can only be made on the basis of demographic processes, statistics, and comparisons. According to his own research, actual Soviet losses are higher than the present 26.6 million estimate, and stand at 26.9 million. The victims were categorized by nationality in his publications, so he did not refer to them in detail in his lecture.

Rüdiger Overmans talked about the number of German victims. At the beginning of his presentation, he also pointed out that it is impossible to give final, exact numbers. Reasons for this include the lack of empirical data and vague definitions. For example, identifying German victims raises considerable problems. German Jews and expatriated Yugoslav Germans are a perfect example to illustrate that there are victims who are counted in several categories (for example, as German victims, victims of the Holocaust, and also as Yugoslav victims). Consequently, the number of victims of the Second World War cannot be established on the arithmetical basis of national statistics. In the past few decades, for example, German losses were estimated at between 3 and 9.4 million. It is questionable whether German victims should include Germans who fell victim to expatriation after the Second World War or German Jews, and to decide who counts as a German (those of German nationality, or of German ethnicity). Overmans said that victims of air raids were easy to count, but victims of ethnic cleansing and expatriation are not, although there has been extensive research in these areas. It seems certain, however, that previous estimates of expatriation victims at 2 million were an exaggeration, as in reality they rather numbered around 100,000–200,000. Focusing more strictly on the theme of the conference, participants learned that, according to the Wehrmacht’s own statistics, total military victim numbers were around 3.35 million, but this estimate excludes victims of the last few months of the war and POWs. By adding the latter two categories, Overmans counts 5.3 million military victims. Nevertheless, research is hindered by the lack of data sources, which was further aggravated by the fact that Soviet archives were closed to public inspection for a long time. For example, the former East Germany consistently blocked research of this sort, whereas the former West Germany wanted to identify every single German victim. Overmans pointed out that certain literary works (for example novels by Günter Grass) have had a significant role in forming the historical public consensus. However, historical science has to be able to provide credible data. Today, there are data collections that fulfil this criterion, and thus are used by hundreds of researchers. Nevertheless, more sponsors are needed to be able to continue the work.

Tamás Stark informed participants about the Hungarian situation. In his introduction, he said that the number of victims has been a political question for a long time. Typically, Second World War victims were not given memorials between 1945 and 1989, and Jewish victims could only be remembered in cemeteries. Soviet captivity was an obvious taboo. Military victims were overemphasised in textbooks, illustrating the cruelty of pre- 1945 fascist or fascist-friendly regimes. The question began to be properly answered in 1984, when Lajos Für, an agrarian historian, published an article in a daily paper estimating the total number of Hungarian victims at 1.2 to 1.4 million for the geographical area of the time. However, this was demographic speculation, based on data from before and after the war. Stark started methodically counting the victims in 1989. Based on his experience, we will never know the exact numbers, and our estimates will always produce worst and best case scenarios. Another important lesson is that most people become victims not of the war but of the governing dictatorial regime. The exact number of military victims in Hungary is estimated at 256,000, but documentation extends only to October 1944. This number includes 37,000 killed, 125,000 missing persons (some of whom were later found), 88,000 wounded, and 6,000 documented war prisoners. According to Stark, these latter numbers, together with military victims counted after the events of October 1944, add up to 100,000–160,000, of which 70,000 are known by name (these names were published in a book and are available online). Civilian victims total 45,000. Regarding the latter, the number of victims of the Yugoslavian ethnic cleansing is uncertain (10,000–20,000). The exact number of Holocaust victims also remains unknown, just as we do not know how many Hungarian nationals were affected by antisemitic laws. What is certain though, however, is that about 710,000 people of Jewish faith lived in Hungary in 1941. (It is important to note that Stark’s figures always refer to the geographic area of the time, which was about twice the present size.) We do not have exact survivor numbers either, as people who returned afterwards were always afraid of being persecuted, and so did not register. Based on all this information, Stark puts the total number of Hungarian victims of the Holocaust at between 440,000 and 560,000. Of these, 140,000 have been identified by name by the Hungarian Holocaust Memorial Centre (according to their website). Former prisoners of war make up another category. Soviet documents speak of 540,000, while Hungarian documents speak about 600,000 victims who were in captivity, including both soldiers and civilians. Of these, 420,000 returned alive, based on Soviet documents. However, Hungarian war prisoner registries started in July 1946 list only 220,000 people. As to people who returned before that time, there are only estimates. To sum up, the number of war prisoners who went missing in the Soviet Union was about 120,000–230,000. Of these, the Russian Federation acknowledges only 66,272, who were registered by name. However, these numbers do not include prisoners captured before 1944, people who died while being transported, prisoners kept in Romania, and probably those who died during epidemics at some point. Based on his research, Stark put the total number of victims at between 700,000 and 1 million, compared to a Hungarian population of about 14 million at the time.

In the second session on Friday, participants heard four more presentations. The first two concerned Polish victims. As an introduction, Łukasz Kamiński said that the official number of Polish victims of the Second World War, which was 6 million, was the result of a political decision. And although these numbers were later modified to 5 million in secret, official estimates stayed at 6,000,028. Furthermore, these numbers only included Polish and Jewish victims, and whether or not they included victims from the Soviet-occupied territories was not revealed. Katyn and the 1939–1941 deportations could only be mentioned in exile, and the 6-million estimate was never formally challenged. This symbolic number remained official even after the fall of the Soviet regime, but historians suggested that they should include victims of other nationalities and people from the Soviet Union. The reason for this was that different research projects (about Auschwitz, the Warsaw Uprising, and the deportations) indicated that the numbers from after the war were severely exaggerated. In 2009, historians published exact figures showing that the German occupation accounted for 5.5 million victims and the Soviet occupation for 150,000. The Poles consider it a moral obligation to identify every victim by name, a tremendous undertaking and one that, according to Kamiński, is more of an ethical than a scientific issue.

Mateusz Gniazdowski told participants that, in 2004, the Polish parliament asked the government to carry out an official survey of Polish war losses, in terms of both property and human lives, as a basis for compensation. The 2007 survey declares that the estimate of six million is only symbolic. Although a compensation office was established after the Second World War and kept official registries, the lists included only Polish and Jewish victims, and were closed in the spring of 1946 (which is important, because communist influence was limited at the time). Nevertheless, the occupiers probably tried to falsify the figures. In the end, the compensation office concluded that the total number of victims for the Polish territories of the time was 4.8 million (of which 1.6 million were unregistered, and thus uncertain). In addition, a demographic study found that some 1,225,000 thousand children were ‘unborn’ due to the war. These counts put the total number of Polish victims at 6,025,000. Following political orders, historians started to talk about 6,028,000 victims, which meant 22% of the population at the time. The numbers were not detailed. The final conclusion of the official research was that Poland lost the same number of people as the Jews. This was not true, but it helped to keep antisemitic feelings at bay. Research between 1949 and 1951 counted one million fewer victims, but the results were not made public. In 1970, it became evident that exact numbers would never be available, as too much data had disappeared or gone unregistered at the time, and historians accepted the official figure of 6,028,000 victims. Gniazdowski stressed that the Polish people will never know the exact numbers.

Peter Jašek informed participants about the Slovak situation. Describing the circumstances of the period in a schematic manner, he said that Slovak historians differentiate between direct and indirect (behind-the-lines) losses. Slovak military victims add up to 125,000 against the Soviets, 40,000 (!) against the Poles, and 18,000–22,000 (!) against the Hungarians. The Soviet figures include deportees. Against the Germans, from 2,000 to 10,000 died, out of an insurgent movement numbering 60,000. The number of people who died in exile and in partisan action was around 2,300. The speaker emphasized that the exact number of victims is unknown in many cases. The German occupation accounted for 5,300 civilian victims, whereas the Slovaks killed around 500 German collaborators. Exact Holocaust victim numbers are unknown, but it is sure that very few of the 70,000 deportees survived. Roma victims were around 311. The number of victims in the civil resistance movement against the Germans was about 2,000, while the number of people who died in the final stage of the war was about 7,000–7,500. Many people died in the Gulag. Air raids claimed some 1,000 civilian victims. From the above data, it is obvious that it is impossible to provide exact numbers, only estimates. By the end of the war, Slovakia had lost about 150,000 people. Putting together detailed name lists is the task of today’s historians, Jašek stated in conclusion.

Beata Halicka talked about the political exploitation of the ‘Eastern Documentation’ (on Germans expatriated after the war). According to her, it is unacceptable that, out of the approximately 11 million deported, exhibitions on the subject in the Historical Museum in Berlin mention only 2 million. She also highlighted the fact that Germans talk about Polish, Czech, and Yugoslav perpetrators, and the responsibility of Stalin, Churchill and Truman, but fail to mention what triggered the incidents. According to the speaker, this approach stems from reliance on the Eastern Documentation consisting of survivors’ testimony. Halicka questioned whether Germans can be considered as victims of persecution, and whether previous aggressors can subsequently be regarded as victims. (This question was answered by a clear “yes” from the audience.) The presentation, somewhat lacking in empathy, also questioned the credibility of witness statements. (Participants in the conference must have wondered whether this tone would be permitted in reference only to Germans, or to other nationalities as well.) The audience also learned that the number of victims was estimated at 2.2 million in 1958, at only 880,000 in 1977, and was never officially made public. In conclusion, Halicka stated that the 2 million German expatriation victims are a myth, just like the 6 million Polish victims. Her presentation evoked palpable unease in the audience. Overmans responded that the corrected estimates of the 1970’s were not kept a secret, as Halicka stated, but kept low key, in order to preserve peace in the Eastern bloc. (Here we note that it would have been useful to inform the participants about the data analysis at the beginning of the presentation.) Stark asked what expatriated Germans can be called, if not victims, and his question did not receive a proper response.

Friday closed with a presentation originally scheduled for Saturday. Its subject was victims of the Holocaust. Alexander Avraham introduced the ‘Names’ project of the Yad Vashem institute, which aims to identify victims by name. He said that the estimate of 6 million Jewish victims was made public at the Nuremberg Trials, and then disseminated and accepted worldwide. In reality, this number is only an estimate, and a high-end estimate. The real numbers must be between 5.1 million and 6 million. Yad Vashem has been counting victims and collecting names since its establishment in 1946. (From the presentation, it was not evident when the speaker meant victims who were dead and when he meant victims who survived. This vagueness of definition was typical of all the lectures.) Avraham told the participants that survivors and their families had been surveyed by questionnaires since 1956. The introduction of computers facilitated the creation of databases. They started digitizing their data in 1992. At present, the registry numbers 2,535,000 dossiers, 138,000 photos, and 6,440,200 names. However, some of these are inevitably duplicates, and the actual number is around 4 million. So far, only 250,000 have been processed. The database has been available to the public since 2004. The institute is planning to identify 4,700,000 victims by 2014. On the other hand, Avraham emphasized that registries only recorded people who were demonstrably deported. Other victims are harder to identify, as the perpetrators did not leave any official lists behind. The speaker also drew attention to the fact that it is extremely hard to filter duplicates, as names can be recorded in different forms. For example, the Berkovitz surname is present in 132 different forms, and Abraham in 137. As a result, the name Abraham Berkovitz can be written down in 18,000 different forms. The same thing applies to geographical names (Vienna, Wien, Bécs, etc.). At present, their database counts 4,305 first names in 141,894 forms, 90,049 family names in 372,287 forms, and 92,994 geographical names in 145,335 forms. As a consequence, the exact number of victims and all their names will never be known, but it is our moral responsibility to collect as many as possible. Responding to the questions, Avraham confirmed that those Jews who were fighting in the Allied forces, and were immediately executed by the SS upon falling into captivity, were not considered victims of the Holocaust, but military victims. However, the collection of their names is also under way.

Piotr Setkiewicz talked about the number of Auschwitz victims. As participants learned, the first victim number estimates were made by investigating units, based on witness testimonies, with the aim of prosecuting the perpetrators. Initial estimates put victim numbers at between 2 million and 6 million (or more). Even rumours circulating in the camp during the Holocaust referred to 4 million victims. More accurate research was hindered by the fact that documentation was destroyed by the perpetrators, who either refused to give statements or falsified their testimony. For example, Rudolf Hoess spoke about 2–3 million victims in Auschwitz, but only testified to 1.3 million at his trial. In the Nuremberg Trial, expert reports by the Polish government gave an estimate of 1.3–1.5 million. On the other hand, the Soviet Union was of an entirely different opinion, and tried to overestimate the number of victims. They tried to calculate the maximum killing capacity of the camp, which was 4,000 people per day. This led them to put total victim numbers for the duration of the war at 5 million. This data was made public in May 1945. The Soviets took into account the fact that the death factory could not operate on full capacity all the time, and thus regarded 4 million as a more realistic estimate. In the end, Rudolph Hess was charged with killing 2.8 million of these victims. The estimates based on capacity were problematic for several reasons. First, transport was not continuous, but occurred in waves. Second, as the crematoriums sometimes could not cope with the numbers, burning pits were also employed. Several measures were used to make the estimates more accurate, such as trying to derive estimates based on the amount of coal burned in the crematoriums, but coal was used not only to heat the crematoriums. Other researchers tried to base their estimates on the amount of Zyklon B used, but it was used for disinfection as well as killing. Furthermore, Zyklon B was not used exclusively until 1943. Some based their estimates on the changes in Sonderkommando numbers, which proved to be the least reliable method. Finally, the profession declared Franciszek Piper’s method the most accurate in the 1990s. Piper tried to determine how many people arrived in the transports, and how many were transported out. He concluded that out of the 1.3 million who arrived, 1.1 million died in the camp (out of which 1 million were Jews). However, we know that this estimate is not entirely accurate either, because many Hungarian Jews were unregistered or taken to labor camps straight away. The Piper estimates survived the storm, even in the light of documents which surfaced later. However, today’s historians would like to see the Piper estimates re-evaluated, and decreased by a few percentage points, but not greatly. Responding to questions, Setkiewicz said that the construction plans of crematoriums destroyed in the last few days before the allied invasion still existed, but the buildings are unlikely to be rebuilt at Auschwitz, in part due to Holocaust deniers, and will rather be preserved as they are. However, because it is possible to reconstruct the camp, scale models have been made, as well as visual reconstructions.

The chair, Judit Molnár added that between May and June 1944, 440,000 Hungarian Jews were deported, of whom 80 percent were killed in Auschwitz. This means that every third victim in Auschwitz was Hungarian.

The last presentation in this session was given by Robert Jan van Pelt. The speaker, who was trained as an architect, first became interested in the architecture of the death camps, and only later was drawn into the subject. He believes that it is justified to call Auschwitz the capital of the Holocaust, as out of the 1.6 to 1.7 million brought there, 1.1 million perished at the site. In his presentation, he referred to Holocaust denial; he was one of the expert witnesses at the trial of David Irving. Based on his account, Holocaust deniers all operate the same way. First, they try to discredit witnesses. For example, Irving testified that Auschwitz survivors tattooed themselves with registration numbers in New York, in order to qualify for compensation. This is not true, as the numbers can be verified systematically. Second, deniers argue that only Auschwitz should be acknowledged because other camps were destroyed. This is unacceptable from a scientific point of view. Furthermore, why would the perpetrators have insisted on destroying the evidence if no crime had been committed? Last but not least, why have Holocaust deniers claimed that the crematoriums did not have enough capacity to kill so many people? In conclusion, they are trying to deny the scope of the Holocaust, as Irving does. In his expert testimony, van Pelt concluded that up to 1.3 million people could have been killed in the crematoriums. On this basis, he examined how much time it would have taken to burn a body, how frequently the crematoriums would have needed to be reheated, how many corpses could have been transported in the lifts, and so on. Finally, he added that the capacity of the crematoriums, according to their factory manual, exceeds the estimated number of people who were burned in them. However, sometimes (as at the time of Hungarian deportations), they were used beyond their capacity.

In the first session of the second day of the conference, presentations focused on projects which aim to identify victims by name. In the first presentation, Dariusz Pawłoś informed participants about a database available on the www.straty.pl home page. The aim of the initiative is to register every Polish victim who died in during the 1939–1945 German occupation, and make the database available to the general public. The speaker said that they intend to explore events in detail, in a method similar to that used by historians researching victims among Parisian intellectuals. The project has been joined by 34 institutions (museums and archives) and 10 sponsoring bodies. However, the research has encountered certain problems, such as the fact that the former and present Polish borders differ, or that the database is not consistent, especially as researchers move further East in their work. The database includes military victims who fell in combat as well as POWs, members of the Polish underground movement, prisoners of German camps and ghettos, victims of the Holocaust, victims of some form of ‘peace protest’, victims of deportations, child victims, and people buried in unmarked graves. So far, three million victims have been identified by name, but these include duplicates, as some victims belonged to several different categories. In order to make the project widely known to the general public, it has even been advertised during daytime television and soap operas; according to the sharp rise in website visitor numbers, this was their most successful publicity strategy. The project collects data from several sources: through online and paper based surveys; through the integration of other, already existing databases, such as the one of Auschwitz victims; through the integration of data from other publications; and through data from all sorts of community surveys, such as a national competition for schoolchildren to discover family memories of the war (which was very successful). The speaker highlighted the interactive role of local communities. The project is supported by German institutions as well, and holds the Yad Vashem project in high regard. Responding to questions, the speaker said that the research started as early as 1945, but database building only became possible with the spread of computers. In addition, archives in the Eastern bloc only opened after perestroika.

Maciej Wyrwa introduced a project which aims to identify Polish victims of Soviet oppression. This database contains victims from the period 1939–1956 (1956 was the official date for the end of repatriation). Participants learned that the initiative started in the 1980’s, began to operate under the auspices of the Eastern Archive in 1988, and then moved to the framework of the Karta Centre. At present, the database numbers 860,000 entries, which have not been published for reasons of personal data protection. (It was not clear why victims of German terror are treated differently from victims of Soviet terror.) This project collects data from several sources, mainly from official archives (Soviet archives have been open to research since 1991) and online and paper based surveys. Results have been released in 20 publications, as well as in an online index that has been operating since 2001 and now includes 300,000 entries. The main aim of the program is providing data, organising memorials, gatherings, and exhibitions, and publishing.

Barbara Stelzl-Marx informed participants about a project that aims to identify Soviet army casualties who were buried in graves in Austria. We learned that Soviet military victims could be found in 200 graves in Austria, each marked by a red-starred obelisk. The most well known of these is on Vienna’s Schwarzenbergplatz. Ninety percent of the victims, or some 600,000 people, can be identified. Most died in combat (especially the battle of Vienna), and some in Austrian prisoner-of-war camps. The speaker highlighted the fact that the mortality among Soviet POWs in Austria was only 10 percent, whereas it was generally 60 percent elsewhere. Research is hindered by the fact that documents are written in the Cyrillic alphabet, which must be romanized. The aim is to integrate German, Austrian and Soviet lists, as well as to identify the resting place of each and every victim. Stelzl-Marx also spoke about the dismal state of the graves. After their victory, the Soviets exhumed POWs who died before 1945, and reburied them in central sites in Austrian cities. When the Soviets left, the graves were emptied again, and the victims reinterred in local Soviet cemeteries where they were given proper memorials. The speaker also informed participants that results of the research will be published in a bilingual (German and Russian) edition, and will be available on the internet.

Tadeja Tominšek Čehulić spoke about Slovenian victims. (His co-author, Vida Deželak Barič, could not participate in the conference.) The speaker used highly informative tables and charts to introduce their project on the number of Yugoslavian and Slovenian victims. The first lists, drawn up in 1964, included 600,000 Yugoslav victims, of whom 41,000 were Slovenian. This list was never made public. In the 1970’s, historians estimated the number of Slovenian victims at 65,000. According to today’s results, the official number is 97,506, with deaths recorded during and soon after the war (that is, taking account of post-war ethnic cleansing). Out of these victims, 31,714 died under German occupation, 6,415 under Italian occupation, 217 under the Hungarian occupation, 9,192 in partisan operations, 14,817 in ethnic cleansing after the war, 4,397 in so-called counter-revolutions, and 30,754 in other, unidentified circumstances. The speaker was part of a six-member group, which is also studying archives, military registries, and the relevant literature. We also learned that research is hindered by lack of access and financial difficulties. Information on the project is available on www.sistory.si.

In the second section, presentations focused on victims of the Holocaust in different countries. Judit Molnár informed participants about research in Hungary. She said that, within the borders of 1941 Hungary, the 14.7 million population included 800,000 Jews. Hungarian Holocaust researchers estimate the number of dead at 500,000–550,000. Eighty to eighty-five percent of the victims died in Auschwitz. We can thus conclude that about one-tenth of Holocaust victims and one-third of Auschwitz victims were Hungarian. The so called Jaross lists, which were made in Spring 1944, contained the names of 437,000 Jews slated for deportation. However, lists were not made everywhere, were not used by everyone, and included people who avoided deportation in the end (for example, by being taken to labour camps). Hungarian Holocaust victims include people who died in the Summer of 1941 in Kamenec-Podolsk; people who died during forced labour on the Eastern front (25,000–30,000); Jews killed in Novi Sad (1,000); people who committed suicide in Hungary or died when they were trying to flee; and people who were deported during the Arrow Cross regime, were shot on the banks of the Danube, or died in the ghetto. The project has been conducted by the Hungarian research group (of which Molnár is a member) of the Yad Vashem Institute since 1994. The research focuses on the period between 1938–1950, and collects every document that includes the term ‘Jewish’ or ‘Gypsy’. (The first anti-Jewish law was introduced in 1938, and people’s courts were closed in 1950.) Recovered documents are copied and sent to the Yad Vashem Center, where the data are analysed under the supervision of Kinga Frojimovics. The work will presumably have to continue for several more decades, under the present circumstances. The presentation was very comprehensive and informative, and also told the participants about future plans and tasks, but failed to give detailed information about concrete results and the database.

The second presenter in the session, Stefan Troebst, who would have talked about the Bulgarian Holocaust, had to cancel.

Alexandru Muraru’s presentation introduced the subject of the Romanian Holocaust through informative case studies. The speaker pointed out several antisemitic incidents that occurred during the Jewish expulsion from Bessarabia and North-Bukovina. Jews were thrown out of moving trains even as troops were withdrawing, and they also fell victim to pogroms in Dorohoi and Galaţi. While the violence on the trains was spontaneous, the pogroms were organized. Nevertheless, no one was held responsible, even after 1945. Military propaganda and rumours fostered the image of “communist Jews” and spoke of Jews welcoming Soviet troops and conspiring against Romanian troops. Such tales were untrue. However, they sufficed to prompt Romanian soldiers and civilians to take out their frustrations on the Jewish population. One comment from the audience mentioned a Polish instance of Jews welcoming Soviet troops as liberators, for which they were punished with pogroms.

Adrian Cioflanca’s presentation focused on data from the Romanian Holocaust. The speaker told participants that the number of victims was estimated at 280,000–380,000. Several factors account for the spread between the numbers. One of them is that official documents are unreliable, as they were often destroyed and falsified. In addition, some documents disappeared even after 1945, for example those used in people’s court trials. Communist narrative was equally distorted, either reflecting indifference or intentionally lowering estimates of the number of victims. Finally, the lack of access to military archives is another problem. Cioflanca illustrated his presentation with documents of the time, which proved that instead of the 500 victims mentioned in one set of official records, the actual figure was 14,000. Research after the fall of the Soviet Union started to provide more realistic estimates and to identify names where possible. Comments after the presentation informed participants about the fact that Romania established two committees, one on the Holocaust in 2004, and one on Communist terror in 2007.

In the last session on Saturday, Harald Knoll gave a presentation on a database on Austrian war prisoners of war who were deported to the Soviet Union, which is under preparation. The project started twenty years ago, with the opening of the Moscow archives. According to Soviet documents, 140,000–150,000 Austrians were taken prisoner, of whom only 120,000 were documented. Based on archives, about 7,000–20,000 people died or disappeared. The speaker pointed out that ongoing the project aims to inform the Austrian public about the location of their relatives’ graves and how they got there. Consequently, beside the list of victims by name, cemetery maps and documents of the time are equally important.

Aleksander Gurjanov’s presentation focused on Polish victims of Soviet occupation during the war, in great detail. He started with a definition of the word ‘victim,’ which made it obvious that it is not only the deceased who fall into this category, but also all victims of political persecution, such as those in detention or deported (which is typical of Russian practice). Most of these people survived the incidents. There is plenty of Soviet research material. The People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs made detailed reports, which include extensive statistical data, all well documented and dated. It is remarkable that Polish victims of political persecution from 1939–1941 far outnumbered Soviet victims, when in general the Soviet Union persecuted its own citizens with great zeal. For example, out of the 370,000 people arrested on territory annexed to the Soviet Union by the Molotov–Ribbentrop pact, 320,000 were Polish. The speaker also said that war prisoners are not normally considered victims of political persecution, but in the Polish case, doing so is justified. Soviet persecution of Poles during the Second World War counted more than half a million victims, of whom more than 60,000 died. The speaker also pointed out that these data were received unfavourably among the Polish public, as they gave an estimate only one-third as high as official Polish figures. The numbers can be verified by comparing lists with exact names, which is being done by a Russian-Polish joint research committee. The first results of this work indicate that the lists are not complete, as they include fewer names than either the Russian or the Polish estimates. However, calculations at this point indicate the correctness of the Russian estimates.

Marek Kornat opened his presentation by informing participants about the dispute in Polish history writing centred around whether the takeover of the eastern Polish lands by the Soviets should be considered as aggression or an act of undeclared war. He also pointed out that the Polish public thought at the time that there were between 900,000 and 1,600,000 million victims on this territory. Such views reflect significant exaggeration. In reality, around 42,000 POWs died, and 170,000 were deported. Polish publications still talk about 800,000 victims, even after the fall of the Soviet regime. However, the latest research puts the numbers much closer to Russian estimates. According to these, 1.8 million people fell victim to repression, of whom 320,000 underwent inhumane treatment and 150,000 died. The two most significant institutions involved in the research are the Polish Karta Institute and the Institute of National Remembrance (Instytut Pamięci Narodowej, IPN). However, investigations have encountered uncertainties. Were all deaths documented? How reliable are Soviet documents? Finally, the speaker said a few words on one of the most significant grievances in Polish history – the interpretation of the Katyń events. In Polish public opinion, Katyń was not only considered a war crime but also genocide and a crime against humanity. The speaker said that even the Soviet Union acknowledged it as a crime against humanity in 1946, but only as long as the Germans stood accused. Kornat himself is uncertain whether Katyń was genocide, but insists it was a crime against humanity.

After the presentations by Gurjanov and Kornat, a heated debate broke out in the audience. The minimum number of Poles killed by the Soviets was at least 60,000. However, the Russians considered the upper estimate of 150,000 to be exaggerated, and pointed to possible overlaps (e.g. people forcibly enlisted in the Red Army). It is difficult to agree on the number of Polish victims because researchers carry out their analyses within different time frames (Who counts as war victim? Do post-war events count? Is the era of communist dictatorship included?), and because they work with different categories (for example, Poles forcibly enlisted in the Red Army are counted as Russian victims by the Russians, while Poles consider them victims of Soviet oppression, not to mention the fact that Russian researchers count civilian and military victims separately).

The last presentation was given by Łukasz Adamski, who raised the question: Where do victims belong? At present, some people are counted in different categories (mostly minorities, who are claimed by their mother country based on their geographical location and nationality). According to Adamski, the solution would be to count each victim based on their nationality. However, this was disputed by some participants, as Jews and Roma were killed based on their ethnicity, not their nationality, so it would be misleading to put them in the same group as those who fell victim to political persecution under occupation. Similarly, it is problematic to count a minority politician in opposition to the mother country as a victim simply on the basis of his or her nationality (for example, members of the Ukrainian Resistance did not consider themselves Polish, even if they lived under Polish authority).

At the end of the conference, participants engaged in a heated discussion. In his conclusion, Attila Pók said that all data which might be accepted today, but were once subject to political manipulation, should be re-examined. It is evident that victim numbers were overestimated in various cases. Based on general difficulties in research, it is not easy to provide the final and exact data for which the public clamours so adamantly.

Richard Overy added that it was sometimes the other way round, as victim numbers in the case of some groups were intentionally obscured and significantly underestimated. What is certain is that Polish textbooks need to be rewritten. At the moment, it is unclear under what criteria one can be considered a victim, and how people with multiple identities can be categorized. There is no disputing the fact that the last victims of the Second World War did not die at the time of the cessation of hostilities, but rather in the course of post-war retaliation and deportation. Overy also pointed out that it is not right to consider only dead people as victims. However, this makes the work of the statisticians even more complicated. Alexander Avraham’s conclusion was that there will never be final, exact numbers. The public has to understand that the number of victims can only be an estimate. One way to make such an estimate is to provide numbers at both ends of the scale, or rounded numbers that measure the whole scale. However, he warned participants of the dangers of correcting false numbers that are already embedded in public opinion too quickly, as they have a symbolic value that reaches beyond their exact magnitude. He also expressed approval of the fact that the Yad Vashem Institute considers survivors of atrocities as victims too, and collects data about them. New research has had many successes, but the work is not well coordinated and researchers often contradict each other or the facts. Avraham strongly opposed relativisation and encouraged the definitive separation of victims and perpetrators in the counting. (Participants were divided over this issue because, alongside innocent victims, there were many who had been sentenced to prison for serious crimes sometimes carrying the death penalty, who only enlisted in the army to save their necks; this means they were aggressors and victims at the same time, and so on.) Avraham insisted on a separate status for victims of the Holocaust, as they are victims of a different kind.

Tomasz Szarota thought it noteworthy that the research lacked comparative ambitions. For example, nobody has examined the reasons for the significant differences in death rates between different POW camps, or why the history of the Parisian resistance is so well documented when there is barely any information about the Warsaw resistance. Regarding Holocaust denial, he said that the Nazis realized in 1942 that the victims could not be left buried in the ground and that they needed to destroy this evidence of their crimes. This would seem to prove that they knew they were committing a grave crime. It is important to emphasize that there is a great difference in scale between the numbers of victims of the German and the Soviet invasions, and it can be affirmed today that the German invasion was the more serious. It is also unacceptable that today many Polish people think that at least there was law and order under German occupation, whereas the Soviets wreaked havoc and raped women. And it is totally absurd that it can be the commonly accepted opinion that the Germans were more humane because they killed their victims more quickly. (Nevertheless, two questions remained. First, if not only dead people count as victims, but also women who were raped and men who were deported, is it so certain that there was a big difference between the German and the Soviet invasions? Second, what Szarota referred to were Polish particularities.

In Hungary, the German invasion accounted for far fewer civilian victims when victims of the Holocaust were excluded. This is partly why the German invasion is seen so differently by victims of the Holocaust and their supporters, and by those were unaffected.) Szarota also pointed out that the Endlösung was a ‘final solution’ because previously the Germans were only trying to expatriate Jews from Europe. However, neither America, nor Palestine, nor the Soviet Union took in Jews. Finally, Szarota said that he would have preferred more mention at the conference of the victims of air raids.

The Canadian van Pelt found it strange that in Europe there is no shared celebrating, memory, culture, or identity.

Tarasov raised more concerns from the Russian side. Firstly, he noted the absence of representatives of several countries, such as France, Italy and the USA, without whom these questions cannot be debated in their entirety. He pointed to a lack of comparisons and conclusions from all the comprehensive and wide-ranging research. He was also disappointed that Russians were only considered as oppressors, while they were also victims and sufferers of the Second World War and Stalin’s regime. He pointed out that German and Russian occupation was on a different scale in the war, and German occupation was far more serious.

Rydel said that the main task should be to identify more of the victims by name, where Yad Vashem is doing an excellent work. Only after this can victims be categorized properly. (One understands that identifying victims by name and publishing them in comprehensive databases helps public reconciliation, and encourages peace between nations, but it is important to take into account that the only aim of such research projects, which take up a lot of money and time, is to serve political values. In different societies, there is varying demand for such a thing – for example, in Poland where, in the eyes of the public, every family is affected, the need is huge, whereas it is far smaller elsewhere. The scholarly value is far less significant, compared to the amount of work put in. Sometimes it even seems that these are merely exaggerated scholarly [?] reactions to today’s relativism and political demagogy.) Rydel also pointed out that the Soviet invasion more accurate.

According to Stark, a sharp distinction must be drawn between the different types of victims. Jews are victims of the Nazi Endlösung. People who died in air raids are victims of the war. It is more complicated, however, when we ask whether Polish deportation victims are victims of the war or of Stalin’s terror, or whether Sudeten and other minority Germans were victims of the war or of ethnic conflicts. Were Hungarians deported to the Gulag victims of the war or of the Soviet regime? Stark believes that perpetrators are equally varied. What is more, some perpetrators could later become victims.

The organizers of the conference concluded that, besides the war, totalitarian regimes should receive some attention in the future. Their victims, how they worked, and how they evolved. A general lesson of the conference is that research should be more harmonized, but it is evidently difficult to talk about painful memories of the past. The presentations at the conference will be published shortly, and the Network will continue its work, drawing conclusions. However, it is a fact that the participants represented only the countries that volunteered to take part in the conference, and thus gathered only selective research experience, despite the ambitions of the organizers.

Finally, let us draw a few conclusions ourselves. First of all, the speakers should have been warned that presentations involving a great many statistics should have made use of data projection in some form. The participants and interpreters would have appreciated fewer numbers, because data in rapid sequences are extremely hard to follow. Abbreviations of institutions, people’s names, and references considered normal by researchers are not necessarily known to ordinary audiences or among foreigners.

The organisers should perhaps have paid even more attention to detail than the speakers. First of all, it would have been useful to publish a short summary (maximum two pages) after each conference, summarizing its lessons in a short and comprehensible manner. This could then be sent to the press. This communication cannot be replaced by publishing the presentations or studies involved. In this case, the communiqué should briefly summarize difficulties of research (lack of data, unclear definitions), or let us know that the exact and final numbers will never be known, and only might still be surrounded by so many myths because the processing of the archives has only just begun. Regarding the latter, Korat pointed out that other research might provide information that helps make German data estimates can be given (so it is important to make clear whether numbers refer to a scale or give the extreme ends of a scale). Furthermore, it should be made clear that much of the data is politically motivated (with concrete examples), and provide estimates which are more up-to-date and seem more precise (including concrete examples). Finally, the websites of victim databases should be listed. In addition, the organizers could add a one page sheet with information about the organization. Without these, it is difficult to expect the press to give an accurate account of the conference.

In addition, the organizers should learn a few more lessons. First of all, two 9–10 hour long conference days are too exhausting. It might have made more sense to do the conference in three shorter days. Another remark concerns the advertising of the event. Among the audience we could not see university students, teachers, or members of the public. What is more, the profession might have been more broadly represented. (For example, it was rather surprising that the House of Terror from Budapest did not send anyone.) It might be worth considering that conferences that could be of interest to a broader public should be held in places that are more accessible to the public (e.g. university halls, not research institution conference rooms).

Simultaneous interpreting was an excellent idea, although the lack of German interpretation is incomprehensible and unjustifiable. It would be worth setting the bar higher for interpreters. Sometimes, participants felt that they were given only raw translations, or had to listen to a female interpreter with an unpleasant voice. Finally, it would be worth paying attention to the fact that the conference participants must be able to fit into the conference hall and not just the buffet. It is commonly assumed but not necessarily true that breaks are just as important at a conference as the presentations because they provide participants with valuable networking opportunities.



Rudolf Paksa, Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Historian, Junior Research Fellow and Funded Research Assistant at the Institute of History of the Research Centre for the Humanities of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. He received his PhD in 2012 with a thesis ‘The Hungarian Far Right Elite from the 1930s to 1945’. His research fields: Right wing extremism in the Horthy era; Modern Hungarian historiography; The history of the Eötvös Collegium (the first Oxford-style college in Hungary).



This article has been published in the first issue of Remembrance and Solidarity Studies.

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Photo of the publication Conference Report: Region – State – Europe: Regional Identities under Dictatorship and Democracy in Central and Eastern Europe
Anna Opitz

Conference Report: Region – State – Europe: Regional Identities under Dictatorship and Democracy in Central and Eastern Europe

18 August 2012
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Region – State – Europe: Regional Identities under Dictatorship and Democracy in Central and Eastern Europe

Date and place: 18-20 April 2012, Embassy of the Slovak Republic, Berlin

Organizer: European Network Remembrance and Solidarity (ENRS, Warsaw), Federal Institute for Culture and History of the Germans in Eastern Europe (Bundesinstitut fur Kultur und Geschichte der Deutschen im ostlichen Europa – BKGE, Oldenburg), German Society for East European Studies (Deutsche Gesellschaft fur Osteuropakunde – DGO, Berlin), Johann Gottfried Herder Research Council (Johann Gottfried Herder-Forschungsrat, Marburg)


The goal of the interdisciplinary conference was the comparative analysis of the cultural and historical factors relating to the emergence of regional identities as well as the discourses surrounding them in the 20th century. In this spirit, questions arose regarding the effects of national socialist rule, of war, flight and expulsion within Central and Eastern Europe, the persistence or transformation of regional identities under real socialism, and whether these regional identities experienced a revival under democratic auspices after 1989. The goal was to compare and contrast the relationship between the centre and regions as well as to understand continuities and changes with regard to their sociopolitical effects during each phase of the post-war period.

In his opening remarks, Igor Slobodník, Ambassador of the Slovak Republic, pointed to the complex issues surrounding the history of the 20th century. The experiences of witnesses to history with different ethnic and national backgrounds led to often conflicting historical accounts and interpretations, which still influence the relationships of the states in question today. This shows the importance of dialogue when it comes to conflicting historical accounts.

Rafal Rogulski (ENRS) and Matthias Weber (ENRS, BKGE) opened the conference. Rogulski briefly discussed the origins of the European Network Remembrance and Solidarity, founded in 2005, which focuses mainly on the history of 20th century totalitarian dictatorships, with an emphasis on the experiences of victims. The topic of European cultures of remembrance will continue to play an important role within ENRS.

Weber pointed out that European integration and globalisation processes have strengthened the identification of inhabitants with their regions. By way of example, he pointed to the Federal Republic and the countries of East-Central Europe for the ways in which politics has drawn on historical regional structures since 1989, as well as attempts to implement regional constructs ‘from above’ (the Euroregions, for example). At the same time, he pointed out that regions were also flashpoints of conflict in the past, and can continue to be so in the future. The Polish deputy minister for culture and national heritage, Małgorzata Omilanowska (Warsaw), referred to Gdańsk as one of many East European regions and cities whose multiethnicity and important cultural heritage had been constantly and acutely threatened by violent demographic transformations in the 20th century, yet nevertheless consistently retained their role in identity formation.

By way of introduction, Burkhard Olschowsky (ENRS) spoke about the grave consequences of the Second World War, and of forced migration and real-socialist regulatory policies for the different regions, as well as the collective consciousness of the ethnic groups there. In many cases, it was only after the East-West conflict came to an end that reconstructing and constructing ethnic and regional identities became possible. This process is still not complete and requires further investigation.

In her moderation of the first panel, Heike Dörrenbächer (DGO) stressed that it was only in the late 1980’s that the political and social processes in East-Central Europe under National Socialism became the subject of research in historical and cultural studies. Therefore, it is even more important to pursue these questions now, in order to spur approaches to a common European policy of remembrance.

Dieter Pohl (University of Klagenfurt) touched upon National Socialist territorial aims. He stressed that the National Socialists did not pursue any specific regional policy in Eastern Europe, but nevertheless immensely and violently altered the social fabric of the regions through the destruction of regional identity and multi-ethnicity, above all during the Holocaust. In many cases, the elimination of regional political elites eased the transition to the establishment of Soviet rule after 1944/45.

According to Ryszard Kaczmarek (University of Katowice), Upper Silesia is an exception to the National Socialist regional and annexationist policy, the far-reaching effects of which are in this case still much discussed today. The actions of the National Socialist administration were distinctive compared to other East European regions, due not only to the notion of the ‘Germanic’ origins of some Upper Silesians, the categorization of various groups of ‘Volksdeutschen’, and conscriptions into the Wehrmacht, but also to membership in the NSDAP as well as the (wartime) economic usefulness of Upper Silesia.

Through a case study of the region of Pomerania and the newspaper Pommersche Zeitung, Tomasz Ślepowroński (Szczecin University) discussed an example of the means by which deconstruction of regional identity – as measured against the National Socialist ‘people’s community’ (Volksgemeinschaft) – was pursued. In the 1930s, one of the primary goals of the abovementioned newspaper, an organ of the NSDAP, was to denigrate terms positively understood in Pomerania – such as republicanism, pluralism and regionalism – through a negative depiction of the Weimar Republic and glorification of the National Socialist present.

Natalya Lazar (Clark University, USA) examined attempts to come to terms with the history of the Bukovina region. Bukovina, characterized by multi-ethnicity, experienced a strong homogenizing influence under Soviet dominance after 1940. It was not until the end of the East-West conflict that a return to the multicultural past was possible. Today this is being encouraged by museums and institutions and used as part of the tourist scene. One problem has been that certain aspects of the past, such as the deportations and violence towards the Jewish population, have not or have only rarely been the focus; rather, historical writing tends towards a onesided, positive, and multicultural picture of Bukovina.

Along the same lines, Stanislava Kolková (Herder-Institut, Marburg) presented a talk on the levelling of regional differences leading towards the creation of a homogeneous nation state in the Spiš region. The history of this historically multi-ethnic region had been ‘Slovakized’ after the Second World War. Since the 1940’s, institutions have been created solely for the purpose of heightening the identification of the population with the Slovak nation state and propagating the Slovakian character of the region.

The significance of language in the Spiš region was examined by Justyna Joanna Kopczyńska (University of Warsaw). She pointed out that, with the changing cultural and national influences, a particular plural identity emerged over the course of the centuries. It is still favoured today over a national Polish identity, and constitutes an identifying factor for the local population. A central aspect of this identity is the Spiš dialect—a regional dialect rooted in Polish grammar, which even at present remains the colloquial language of the region and is perceived as the mother tongue.

Jaroslava Benicka (University of Banska Bystrica) described a further example of regional structural ruptures in the post-war period, namely the resettlement of the population of the Javorina region as part of the creation of a military training ground for the Czechoslovak army. Over the course of this violent resettlement, which involved roughly 490 families, plots of land and private property were destroyed and the social structure of the region underwent long-term alteration.

In these four lectures, the phenomenon of discontinuity and dynamics pertaining to certain historical, regional, and multi-ethnic entities after the Second World War was apparent, according to Aleksandr Jakir (University of Split) in his comment. This shows that the comparative analysis of different ethnicities and multi-ethnic groups in Eastern Europe should receive greater attention within the field of historical regional studies. In the Bukovina region, with respect to its ethnic minorities and above all the Jewish communities, a ‘policy of forgetting’ has long prevailed and should now be scrutinized. The simultaneous alteration and preservation of cultural identity, as well as the central importance of languages and dialects as a way of conferring identity, become apparent in the case of the Spiš region in the Polish borderland. The threats and repressions that ethnic minorities were subjected to during the Soviet years are illustrated by the resettlement of the population in the Javorina region. These examples show that memory and the culture of remembrance cannot be seen solely as static and objective representations of past events, but rather are much more a product of social and political processes which everyone interprets and communicates according to their own perspective. The turning of a blind eye to the crimes committed against the Jewish population in Bukovina shows that the culture of remembrance can also be instrumentalised to serve ideological ends. With respect to the flight, expulsions, and resettlements in Eastern Europe, one can also speak of memories in conflict. According to JAKIR, it is all the more important, therefore, that a multiplicity of perspectives within historical writing be encouraged.

In the introductory paper to the first panel, Klaus Ziemer (University of Warsaw) referred to the numerous modes of identification conferred through language, religion or politics. Thus, revolutionary transitions lead time and again to the destruction of historical regions in order to cut off ties to pre-revolutionary regional identities, values, or traditions. This was the ultimate goal pursued by the Soviet leadership in the states of Eastern Europe, for example in Poland, which after the Second World War was divided into 14 provinces (voivodeships) with new names. This certainly also had the desired effect of weakening the local administration in favour of the central administration.

Paul McNamara (University of Galway) concerned himself with the ‘repolonisation measures’ of the Polish central government in the former German regions in the 1940’s and 50’s. In this way, the categorization of the population according to descent and language as well as the resettlement of Poles and cooperation with the Catholic Church were implemented with the ultimate goal of forcing identification with the nation state. This policy had clear limits: on one hand, it had to do with the heterogeneity of the affected population, and on the other with the social insecurity and the expectation of a new war or further border revision in western Poland.

Kerstin Hinrichsen (University of Erfurt) illustrated the encounter of citizens with history and identity in the ‘recovered’ territories through the case of the Lubusz region. Indeed, efforts to come to grips with the region’s history dated from the 1950s. However, this was exploited on the part of state institutions primarily to demonstrate the region’s Polishness. A first, intensive engagement with the historical German heritage of the region was only possible after the political transition of the 1990s. Over the course of this intensification, carried out through citizen initiatives, new research institutions were also created.

Milan Olejník and Soňna Olejníkova-Gabzdilová (both of the Slovak Academy of Sciences, Bratislava), described the consequences of the homogenisation efforts of the East European nation states on the resident population through the example of Czechoslovakia and its Hungarian minority in southern Slovakia. Between 1940 and 1960, the Czechoslovak authorities attempted to create a homogeneous Slovak population through violent resettlement and the ‘Slovakisation’ of the Hungarian population. Only in the late phase of the ČSSR were certain minority rights granted. Until 1989, differences motivated by ethnicity between Hungarians as well as Slovaks and Czechs persisted under the camouflage of the much- ballyhooed ‘proletarian internationalism’.

In his comment, Burkhard Olschowsky stressed the significance of the above-mentioned themes for East and Central European post-war history. It became clear that regional diversity and identity were not desirable during the period when real socialism was being established. Rather, the main focus was on the creation of national identity. Olschowsky reminded us that the centralized organization of the GDR mentioned by Ziemer was only gradually introduced. Initially, a federal system existed, among other things in order to facilitate possible reunification, but this was gradually undermined so as to weaken regional party and administrative units vis-à-vis the centre. Furthermore, the research on regional history in the Lubusz region demonstrated that the need for coming to grips with the past and the remembrance of German-Polish coexistence in the border region was already in evidence by the 1960s. The exchange of populations between southern Slovakia and Hungary illustrated the problem of the newly emerged nation states of Eastern Europe with respect to their ethnic minorities, as was also made clear by Operation Vistula. Under Stalinism the problem of minorities, referred to as ‘internationalism’, was declared obsolete.

In the post-war period, when the Communist rulers all too often aspired towards a homogeneous central state, the population of numerous East (Central) European regions lived under the threat of losing or having to conceal their regional identity. The continuities and ruptures surrounding this topic were the subject of the fourth panel.

Roland Borchers (Free University, Berlin) used the example of Kashubia to illustrate the attitude of the Polish central government. Here, too, the state suppressed regional identity by accusing the Kashubian population of separatism or collaboration with the Germans. This charge was symptomatic of many Poles’ attitudes towards everything they perceived as German, and was often based on their wartime experiences. Such attitudes are still noticeable today in discussions over regional identity and language preservation in Kashubia.

In their talk, Mykola Genyk and Maria Senych (both of Ivano-Frankivsk University) took an overview of the historical and political development of multiethnic Galicia, a region positioned between Eastern and Western Europe that frequently changed hands in the course of its history. For both Poland and Ukraine, Galicia possesses great value due to its distinctive architectural and cultural heritage.

Stephanie Zloch (Georg Eckert Institute for International Textbook Research, Braunschweig) utilized textbooks to illustrate the perspectives of Polish and Russian youth in the former East Prussia. In the days of the People’s Republic of Poland, textbooks omitted any mention of regionalism in their historical depictions; it was only after 1989 that the multiethnic and cultural heritage of the region was recognized. This led to the introduction into the classroom of a supplementary history textbook, as well as the emergence of several pedagogical projects and initiatives. The situation in Kaliningrad was shaped on the one hand by its multicultural heritage, and on the other through its affiliation with Russia. As a result, the textbooks’ depiction of the city’s German past was thoroughly positive. In addition, there were numerous measures to increase identification with the Russian Federation.

Abel Polese (University of Edinburgh) called for general methodological reflection and pointed out that essential concepts like ‘nation’, ‘territory’, ‘language’ or ‘dialect’ are being used inconsistently and must be clearly defined.

Robert Traba (Historical Research Center of the Polish Academy of Sciences, Berlin) began the fifth panel by highlighting the special significance of Polish regional initiatives and movements at the time of the political transition, and emphasized the necessity of terminological clarity surrounding concepts such as ‘region’ and ‘identity’. Traba proposed speaking in terms of ‘identification’ rather than ‘identity’. Furthermore, as he pointed out, the term ‘region’ can vary dramatically depending on the country and historical context or ethnic origin in question. It is evident that regions are frequently demarcated by national categories, or in opposition to the nation state. Traba did not interpret the transition during the debates after 1989 as a renaissance of regionalism. It was rather the ‘discovery’ of locality, the attempt to understand the world through the treatment of one’s own environment and corresponding proximate social and geographical surroundings, what he terms the ‘magic of place’. The trailblazers at that time were less interested in a revival of historical regions or regional identity than they were in creating a basis for a positive frame for the citizen in his/her own environment.

Traba cautioned against artificially overanalysing the participatory efforts of the citizens and thereby creating theoretical constructs which do not correspond to reality. Today, three phenomena above all play an important role in connection with regionalism: globalisation and the return to a regional origin; the idea of a Europe of regions, which serves to better accommodate economic and social differences; and the possibilities offered by the multicultural regional heritage to nation states that are relatively homogenous today. Above all, Poland must develop a new consciousness of its own partly German cultural heritage in order to facilitate a ‘new life under old roofs’ for subsequent generations.

In this same spirit, Paweł Czajkowski (University of Wroclaw) examined the ways of dealing with monuments and architecture in historically multiethnic cities, and the effects of such architecture on the communicative and collective memory of the population, which varies according to ethnicity. The city of Wroclaw and its architectural heritage provide the example of a common project by the four dominant religions in the city. They came together in the early 1990s to preserve the cultural and religious heritage in a ‘Quarter of Four Denominations’. The initiatives that emerged from this quarter were gradually institutionalized and harnessed to the needs of the tourist industry. Overall, an identity-building effect is evident. Czajkowski presented a study that examined the historical knowledge and interest of the youth of Wrocław in their city. The study shows that engagement with the multiethnic history of the city is above all an elite phenomenon.

Marcin Wiatr (Georg Eckert Institute for International Textbook Research, Braunschweig) examined the possible significance of the multiethnic history of Upper Silesia in terms of Poland’s modernization processes. The transmission of the multicultural heritage of Upper Silesia to subsequent generations is not only an important contribution to their socialization within a globalized world. The demand for greater autonomy in Upper Silesia could also help create a consciousness of a federal Polish state, in which the individual regions—following the example of other federal European states—can become more economically and socially efficient. Federalism continues to be a controversial and widely derided concept in Poland.

In his comment, Csaba G. Kiss (ELTE University, Budapest) referred to the importance of the regions of Eastern and Central Europe. The constitution of the Czech Republic represents exemplifies this by listing all its constituent regions. Kiss differentiated between political, cultural, geographic and economic regions, which can exist together in the same nation state. Wrocław, as Czajkowski’s talk demonstrated, is a city with a rich and diverse multiethnic cultural heritage. The case of the region of Upper Silesia poses the question of whether the Upper Silesia autonomy movement actually represents an effort towards modernization, or rather a protest movement against the central government in Warsaw.

The topic of Mieste Hotopp-Riecke’s talk (Institute for Caucasica-, Taurica- and Turkestan-Studies in Berlin/Simferopol) was the specific identity which emerged in the Romanian region of Dobruja through contact between settlers of German and Tatar ethnic descent, and which was preserved in the communicative memory even after the expulsion of the Germans.

Mirek Nĕmec examined the political and cultural conceptions and developments surrounding the terms ‘Sudetenland’ and ‘Sudeten Germans’ (Sudetendeutsche). The term ‘Sudetenland’ is primarily a product of German- Czech discourse denoting territorial belonging and claims. While after the First World War the term ’Sudeten Germans’ was used by Czechs, above all, in order to differentiate between Germans and Austrians, and mostly for geographical purposes, for Germans the term became increasingly instrumentalised politically, which culminated in the Munich Agreement and the surrender of the three provinces in question. During the Soviet period, the term ‘Sudeten Germans’ became taboo in Czechoslovakia. Today, however, it is enjoying a renaissance, above all in the Czech Republic, where it is associated with an idealised multiethnic and multicultural region.

Sebastian Kinder and Nikolaus Roos (University of Tübingen) offered insight into bilateral cooperation in the Polish-German border region of Szczecin-Western Pomerania through the example of three initiatives. All these projects share a positive depiction of the region, active participation in the creation of projects, and emphasis on the social component of friendship and contacts across borders.

In his comment, Raphael Krüger (Berlin) highlighted the fascination which Dobruja engenders due to its multi-ethnicity. The development of a rapport between Germans and Tatars demonstrated that traditional prejudices can be changed and overcome. The development of the term ‘Sudetenland’ illustrated that language is also a means by which to gain territories and power. As a result, today one can understand regions not only in terms that are geographical, political, and historical, but also dynamic. With respect to the contribution by Kinder and Roos, the commentator pointed out that the transnational links between regions have become a reality not only in education but also in the property market, without any state involvement. From an economic standpoint, it is sensible to aim for closer cooperation as well as to recognize and seize upon specific locational advantages.

In his closing remarks, Burkhard Olschowsky recounted the various political and social premises to which the different regions of Eastern and Central Europe were exposed over the course of the 20th century. Since 1989/90, we have seen a shift toward a geographical and political approach to regions both in research and among citizens, with the result that questions surrounding identity and identification retain a high social relevance even today. Central questions remain: What does the term ‘region’ embrace? How one can define ‘identity’? And finally, what risks and opportunities exist for an open regionalism?



Anna Opitz, German Society for East European Studies in Berlin. Studied philological and political studies at Martin Luther University in Halle Wittenberg. From April to July 2012 worked for eleven weeks as an intern in the German Society for East European Studies in Berlin (der Deutschen Gesellschaft für Osteuropakunde in Berlin) in the field of event management, organization and management. She specializes in the field of international cultural co-operation with a focus on Eastern Europe and Central Asia.


This article has been published in the first issue of Remembrance and Solidarity Studies.

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Photo of the publication Conference Report: Genealogies of Memory in Central and Eastern Europe: Theories and Methods
Joanna Wawrzyniak

Conference Report: Genealogies of Memory in Central and Eastern Europe: Theories and Methods

18 August 2012
  • conference
  • report
  • genealogies of memory

Genealogies of Memory in Central and Eastern Europe: Theories and Methods

Date and place: 23-25 November 2011, University of Warsaw Library, Warsaw

Organizer: European Network Remembrance and Solidarity in collaboration with the Institute of Sociology of the University of Warsaw, the Institute of Sociology of the Warsaw School of Social Sciences and Humanities, the Osteuropa-Institut of the Free University of Berlin, the Polish National Centre for Culture, and the German Federal Institute for the Culture and History of the Germans in Eastern Europe


The Academic Committee of the Conference consisted of Maciej Bugajewski (Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznań), Burkhard Olschowsky (European Network Remembrance and Solidarity), Małgorzata Pakier (School of Social Sciences and Humanities, Warsaw), Gertrud Pickhan (Free University of Berlin), Jan Rydel (European Network Remembrance and Solidarity), and Joanna Wawrzyniak (University of Warsaw). From 23 to 25 November 2011 over 100 historians, sociologists, and cultur al studies scholars from Poland, Germany, the United Kingdom, Ukraine, Romania, France, Lithuania, Hungary, Belgium, Austria, Russia, Australia, and the United States discussed the specific qualities of European memory, and methods of studying it, at the Warsaw University Library. Participating in the sessions were both eminent experts in the subject and representatives of the younger generation of researchers.

Based on the assumption that the European perception of the 20th century is dominated by the Western European point of view, the organizers of the conference asked about the importance of the historical experiences of the ‘bloodlands’ of Central and Eastern Europe for international studies of remembrance. Moreover, they wanted to focus the attention of Western European experts on the achievements of Central and Eastern European in the humanities, and to consider how the theories and notions established in the region could be introduced into international circulation. Far from promoting a claim about the exceptionality of the region, however, Małgorzata Pakier and Joanna Wawrzyniak in their introduction to the conference emphasised the importance of the comparative perspective and the need to develop an analytical approach to allow the development of ‘Eastern European’ and ‘Western European’ studies of remembrance in a mutual dialogue.

The keynote address on ‘The Transformative Power of Memory’ was delivered by the German cultural studies scholar Aleida Assmann of the University of Constance. The proceedings continued in parallel sessions: (1) History and memory in Central and Eastern Europe: How special? (plenary session), (2) Lieux de mémoire, (3) Theories and concepts (with sessions on traditions and proposals), (4) Dynamics of memory (with sessions on biographies, generations, borderlands, silence and Articulation, private/ vernacular – public/official, and struggles for power and legitimacy), (5) Media of remembrance (with sessions on space/place, the museum, film and literature, the various roles of historians, and history in the public domain). The final discussion (What memory for what past – what theory for what memory?) was chaired by Jeffrey Olick, an American sociologist from the University of Virginia, who also closed the conference.



Joanna Wawrzyniak, University of Warsaw. Works at the Institute of Sociology, University of Warsaw, where she is the head of the Social Memory Laboratory. She holds MAs in history (University of Warsaw) and political science (Central European University) and a doctorate in sociology (University of Warsaw). Her academic interests and areas of study include: politics of memory, veteran and war victims’ organizations in post-war Poland, historical city museums in Central and Eastern Europe, as well as oral history of democratic opposition and privatization processes. She is interested in the relations between history and memory, and also in the history of memory studies in Poland.



This article has been published in the first issue of Remembrance and Solidarity Studies.

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Photo of the publication Conference report: European Remembrance: First Symposium of European Institutions Dealing with 20th Century History

Conference report: European Remembrance: First Symposium of European Institutions Dealing with 20th Century History

18 August 2012
  • conference
  • report
  • 20th century history
  • European Remembrance Symposium

European Remembrance: First Symposium of European Institutions Dealing with 20th Century History

Date and place: 14-15 September 2012, Gdansk

Organizer: European Solidarity Centre, European Network Remembrance and Solidarity, Federal Foundation for the Reappraisal of the SED Dictatorship in collaboration with Museum of the Second World War (Gdańsk) and the Robert Havemann Society (Berlin)


Between 14-15 September 2012 the First Symposium of European Institutions Dealing with 20th Century History – European Remembrance took place in Gdansk. Over 100 specialists representing 66 institutions from 14 European countries and Israel participated. The symposium inaugurated a series of annual international conventions for academics and representatives of institutions engaged in the dissemination of knowledge about and research on 20th century history, with an emphasis on dictatorships. The main purpose of the series is to exchange experiences and develop methods and forms of cooperation between institutions from different countries.

Day 1

The symposium was opened by representatives of the organizing institutions: Basil Kerski, director of the European Solidarity Centre, Rafał Rogulski, Director of European Network Remembrance and Solidarity, and Anna Kaminsky, Director of the Federal Foundation for the Reappraisal of the SED Dictatorship. The conference was held in cooperation with the Museum of the Second World War (Gdańsk) and the Robert Havemann Society (Berlin), and with the financial support of the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage as well as the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media.

The first day of deliberations was held at the historical Artus Manor in Gdansk. The day began with a lecture by Markus Meckel, Former Member of the Bundestag and the last Foreign Minister of the German Democratic Republic. He drew attention to the fact that a conference on European remembrance would not have been possible twenty years ago due to insurmountable differences between the way individual states perceived their own histories. He was appreciative of the fact that the opportunity existed for such a discussion to be conducted today. At the same time, he highlighted that it would not be easy, for it was necessary to take into account different points of view not infrequently connected with the specificity of national sensibilities and interpretations of history.

A discussion followed between historians and journalists from Poland, Italy, France and Germany. Georges Mink, a French sociologist and Director of Research at the College of Europe (Bruges and Natolin, Warsaw) spoke of the complex role played by politics in shaping historical discourse. He claimed that conducting a European-level discussion is not easy, for historical themes are often instrumentalised for short-term political campaigns.

Examples of such problems hindering dialogue can be found in various European countries. Luigi Spinola, an Italian journalist, presented the theme of European remembrance from an Italian perspective. He also thought that seeking an understanding is not easy, but he stressed that, although history is often exploited for political ends, this should not be demonised. He also mentioned marked differences in the historical narratives in West and East Europe. Łukasz Kamiński, President of the Institute of National Remembrance, asserted that we cannot currently speak of European remembrance, and he considered attempts to create a universal interpretation of history, for example in the form of a common European textbook, to be unnecessary and dangerous. At the same time, he highlighted the need for a dialogue on European remembrance based on values while maintaining an accurate assessment of both victims and perpetrators. This issue tends to be very complex and is frequently subject to distortion and manipulation.

Stefan Troebst, representing the Leipzig Centre for the History and Culture of East Europe, spoke of the influence of politics on national interpretations of history, which tends to hinder dialogue on historical topics in Europe. As an example, he included differences in the approach toward the commemoration of anniversaries of same events in different countries. Robert Żurek from the Historical Research Centre of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Berlin spoke, on the basis of Polish and German experiences, about achievements accomplished through dialogue between historians and about difficulties connected with the transfer of academic knowledge to broader social groups. He also pointed out that misunderstandings and tensions between different countries can sometimes accelerate learning processes within societies. Markus Meckel drew attention to the need to seek agreement and highlighted the importance of developing sensitivity and openness to different historical narratives among the younger generations. Meckel gave the Polish-Russian Commission for Difficult Issues as an example of action targeted at a search for agreement.

The academics and practitioners participating in the symposium took an active part in the discussion, stressing such factors as the need for further research and dissemination of knowledge about difficult and painful issues in European history, such as war, genocide, territorial disputes and forced migration. They also pointed out that the successes of partnership dialogue between historians were not the exclusive domain of the Polish and German academic communities, because we are currently witnessing, for example, the installation of the mechanisms of such dialogue in other countries, e.g. in the Hungarian- Slovak disputes over the Treaty of Trianon, the expulsion of Crimean Tatars, or the Polish-Russian dialogue on historical themes. The importance of positive events that have occurred in Europe was underlined, events which are worth revisiting.

During the discussion, support was expressed for initiatives favouring dialogue in the various parts of Europe. Also recognized was the need to continue this form of convention and for the inclusion of institutions from other countries, such as Austria and the Czech Republic, in the organization of the next symposia. The discussion was dominated by the conviction that there was no single European historical narrative. The construction of European remembrance was characterized as a process of long-term international reflection requiring the intensive exchange of knowledge and experiences in a spirit of respect for different historical narratives. Both these debates and the symposium demonstrated that constructive discus sion about the process of creating a culture of remembrance, a culture that influences more than one society, is not only possible but moreover necessary.

The second part of the day began with a visit to the future seat of the European Solidarity Centre (ECS) museum, which currently is under construction. In this building, which is still at an early stage of construction, symposium participants watched a presentation about the future permanent exhibition at ECS. Second, presentation concerned the conception behind the Museum of the Second World War, which is also under construction in Gdansk. The next item on the program was a visit to the Westerplatte site of remembrance, where, on 1 September 1939, the Second World War began.

Day 2

On the second day of the Symposium, the deliberations were held in the historical BHP Hall of the former Lenin Shipyards, the site of Solidarity’s foundation. They began with a debate between representatives of institutions from Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and Germany. Stimulating fiveminute mini-presentations were given by Zbigniew Gluza (Karta Centre), Anna Kaminsky (Federal Foundation for the Research into the SED Dictatorship), Mária Palasik (Archives of the Hungarian State Security), Peter Jašek (Slovakian Institute of National Remembrance), Rüdiger Sielaff (The Federal Commissioner for the Files of the State Security Service of the Former German Democratic Republic in Frankfurt an der Oder), Paweł Ukielski (Warsaw Rising Museum) and Olaf Weißbach (Robert Havemann Society). After the presentations, there was a discussion about problems associated with the need to take into account different national perspectives, as well as deficiencies in the cooperation between institutions engaged in 20th-century history, the possibility of different institutions making an impact and different ways of coming to terms with one’s own history.

The participants offered a number of suggestions regarding the next symposia. They pointed out, among other factors, the need for greater participation from institutions researching the Second World War, as well as institutions from West European countries, in order to facilitate the exchange of experiences and develop a dialogue between the eastern and western parts of Europe. During the debate, it was stressed that difficulties had been encountered in knowledge transfer from academia to public debate on both national and European levels. It was also pointed out that there was a need to create tools facilitating efficient information exchange and cooperation between institutions from different countries. There was a proposal to create an Internet platform and newsletter for institutions researching 20th-century history. Referring to these comments, Rafał Rogulski made it known that the European Network Remembrance and Solidarity is working on the construction of a portal of this kind and that it will be launched in 2013. The portal is meant to help European and non-European institutions search for partners, provide information about their own events and find out about activities being undertaken in other countries. But, first and foremost, it is meant to serve as a tool enabling them to work more efficiently and realize their own intentions in a spirit of dialogue, understanding, and solidarity.

An example of the practical implementation of the idea of European remembrance was provided by Andrea Mork, who presented the concept behind the House of European History project in Brussels, of which she is the academic coordinator. This project is being created with the cooperation of academics from European Union countries representing various stances towards European remembrance. Mork stressed that the aim of the House of European History will not be to retell the history of Europe, but instead to create a space for dialogue, an area of common ground on which different historical narratives can converge.


While summarizing the deliberations, Jan Rydel and Matthias Weber, representing the European Network Remembrance and Solidarity, underlined the need for further discussion on difficult historical themes between academics and representatives of social institutions. Only through free exchange of views can a European culture of remembrance be created, which should be based on values such as the pursuit of objectivity, solidarity, mutual respect and understanding, respect for fundamental human rights, and freedom of the individual. The task of institutions such as those represented at the symposium should be to influence society, the media world, and politics in such a way as to ensure that dialogue on historical themes is conducted in a manner that is factual, open and accessible to everybody. One important aim should be the dissemination of knowledge about historical events in different nations, especially among the younger generation. Remembering is not, however, synonymous with the ordinary memorization of facts. There is no point in striving to create a single universal historical narrative or a single portrait of history common to everybody. The diversity of historical narratives is the manifestation of a joint perception of European history; it is our national and supranational heritage. It is important to develop sensitivity toward and acceptance of different historical narratives and assessments of past events. This particularly affects successive generations who have not personally experienced the suffering and cruelty associated with dictatorships. It is also possible in this way to enrich our own understanding of history through the experiences of others. The multiplicity of viewpoints should take into account the perspective of neighbouring countries and be bound up with a desire for understanding and dialogue, respect for the sacrifices borne by other nations, and avoidance of hurtful, sweeping judgments.

One of the symposium’s aims was to make it possible for representatives of institutions to exchange views more freely, in order to take up new initiatives and create new projects. Of the numerous undertakings and forms of cooperation discussed during the sessions and behind the scenes, the proposal that attracted the most interest was the Karta Centre’s proposition to create an Internet platform called The Defiant: Opposition and Dissident Movements in Communist Europe, 1956-1989, which would contain biographic entries relating to opposition activists from various communist countries, articles about the resistance in particular countries, interactive discussion forums for former dissidents, and so on.

The symposium participants expressed their willingness to prepare a joint document presenting good practices for the research and dissemination of 20th-century history in the spirit of a European culture of remembrance. This document will be designed over the next few months and presented for discussion to participants at the symposium and other institutions which participated in it this year.

The Second European Remembrance Symposium is planned for 2013 in Berlin.


This article has been published in the first issue of Remembrance and Solidarity Studies.

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Photo of the publication Conference Report: Anti-Communist Resistance in Central and Eastern Europe
Peter Jašek

Conference Report: Anti-Communist Resistance in Central and Eastern Europe

17 August 2012
  • communism
  • conference
  • report
  • 20th century history

Anti-Communist Resistance in Central and Eastern Europe

Date and place: 14-16 November 2011, National Council of the Slovak Republic, Bratislava

Organizer: National Remembrance Institute and the European Network Remembrance and Solidarity in cooperation with the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes (Czech Republic), the Institute of National Remembrance (Poland), the Institute for the History of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution (Hungary), the Confederation of Political Prisoners of Slovakia, the Political Prisoners/Union of Anti-Communist Resistance, and the National Council of the Slovak Republic.


The question of anti-communist resistance has been among the less- researched topics in Slovak historiography, and for various reasons it continues to receive very little attention, despite the fact that research in this area has been intensifying in the neighboring states (especially in Poland and the Czech Republic). Only limited studies are available in Slovakia, mostly focusing on the 1950s, but no single publication exists which would map out the broad spectrum of anti-communist activities. For political reasons some researchers are trying to marginalize the issue of anti- communist resistance, or even to discredit it entirely. Yet the issue remains pertinent, showing both the repressive nature of the communist regime and the people’s legitimate opposition to it.

The Nation’s Memory Institute attempted to close this gap by organizing a large international conference titled Anti-Communist Resistance in Central and Eastern Europe, which took place on 14-16 November 2011 in the historic building of the National Council of the Slovak Republic in Bratislava, under the auspices of the Council’s Speaker, Pavol Hrušovský. More than 40 researchers from 14 countries presented their research in the area of anticommunist resistance. The conference was organized by the National Remembrance Institute and the European Network Remembrance and Solidarity, in cooperation with foreign partners – the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes (Czech Republic), the Institute of National Remembrance (Poland), the Institute for the History of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution (Hungary), and the Slovak partners, the Confederation of Political Prisoners of Slovakia, the Political Prisoners/Union of Anti-Communist Resistance, and the National Council of the Slovak Republic. Thanks to support from the National Council of the Slovak Republic, the conference took place in the Council’s historical building, adding grandeur to the proceedings. The International Visegrad Fund provided financial support for the event. The three days of the conference consisted of presentations about the anti-communist activities of individuals, groups, and official organizations. Various presenters also talked about armed anti-communist uprisings, state retaliation against anti-communist resistance activists, and about activities by political exiles against communist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe.

Ivan A. Petranský, chairman of the Board of Directors of the National Remembrance Institute, officially opened the conference. After additional remarks by the representatives of partner organizations, the conference started with the first panel titled ‘Individuals and Small Groups in Anti- Communist Resistance’. The first presenter on this panel was Jan Pešek from the Institute of History of the Slovak Academy of Sciences, who spoke about Ján Ševčík, a Democratic Party politician, whom Pešek depicted both as a fellow traveler and as a victim of the communist regime during the 1950s. Ševčík had assisted the communists’ rise to power by participating in the breaking down of the Democratic Party. After the party’s collapse he had become the chairman of a pro-communist satellite party, the Party of Slovak Revival, but in 1952 he was arrested by the ŠtB, the plainclothes secret police, and sentenced to seventeen years in prison on trumped-up charges. The next presenter, Professor Vladimír Varinský from the Faculty of Humanities at Matej Bel University in Banská Bystrica, spoke about the anti-communist activities of Profesor Kolakovič and his organization ‘Family.’ Prof. Varinský stressed the political and anti-communist aspects of Family’s activities, which were in line with the organization’s religious mission. At the same time he highlighted the broad spectrum of legal and illegal activities undertaken by the organization and by its most prominent members. The Czech historian Petr Blažek from the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes gave the third presentation. He acquainted the audience with the work of Miloslav Čapek, who emigrated to the West in the 1950s and worked as a courier in the intelligence unit of General Moravec, a unit connected to the American intelligence agencies.

After being arrested, Čapek was sentenced to twelve years in prison, which he served in various communist penitentiaries, including Leopoldov and Jáchymov. Even during his imprisonment he continued to participate in illegal activities. In 1968 he became active in the group K-231, and after the Soviet invasion he was under Secret Police surveillance. He was rehabilitated only after the fall of the communist regime. The first panel ended with a presentation by two historians from the National Memory Institute, Ľubomír Morbacher and Jerguš Sivoš. Their talk centered on the anti-communist activities of Jozef Macek, who was the head of a group which transported emigrants across the Iron Curtain to Austria during the 1950s. He managed to smuggle many people across the border before being arrested in 1955 and sentenced to twenty years in prison. After a short break the first day of the conference continued with a second panel, which focused on the activities of illegal groups and dissidents in the anti-communist resistance. Peter Borza from Prešov University opened the panel with his presentation ‘Illegal Activities of the Greek Catholic Church in Czechoslovakia in the Years 1951-1958’. He analyzed the broad spectrum of anti-regime activities carried out by Greek Catholics, who had become de facto illegal after the official abolishment of the Greek Catholic church. Among their illegal activities he listed support for the faithful and priests, attempts at reinstatement of the Greek Catholic church, and administering sacraments to the faithful. Mr. Borza also talked about the key leaders of the Greek Catholic church at the time, such as Ivan Ljavinec and Miron Petrašovič. The second presenter on this panel was the Romanian historian George Enache from the University of Galati, who spoke about the various forms of anti-communist resistance in the Romanian Orthodox church between 1945 and 1964. He underscored the role of the members of the Orthodox Church in the armed resistance against Communism, and also stressed the leadership’s attempts at gaining freedom of religion. The next presenter, Valeri Katzounov from the Committee for Disclosing and Publicizing the Affiliation of Bulgarian Citizens with the State Security and Intelligence Services of the Bulgarian National Army, talked about the anti-communist activities of the Goryani Movement in Bulgaria, identifying it as one of the first armed anti-communist resistance movements in Eastern Europe, which lasted from 9 September 1944 until 1956. The predominantly guerrilla tactics of the Goryani provoked a strong response from the communist government. Members of the movement were frequently executed and their families were subject to harsh persecution. The first part of the second panel concluded with a presentation by Daniel Atanáz Mandzák from the Monastery of the Redemptorists in Michalovce, who talked about the opposition of the Greek Catholic laity to the outcomes of the 1950 Sobor of Prešov. Even though their opposition did not take the form of armed resistance, it did prevent the state from subjugating the Greek Catholic Church, which paved the way for its reinstatement in 1968.

The Russian historian Elena Gluško from the Institute of Scientific Information in Humanities at the Russian Academy of Sciences opened the second part of the second panel with her presentation titled ‘Czechs, We Are Your brothers: The Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia after 1968 through the Eyes of Dissidents’. She talked about the lesser-known aspects of Soviet dissent during the time of the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact forces in 1968. She also considered the relationship between dissidents in the Soviet Union and Charter 77 during the 1970s and 1980s. The next presenter, Patrik Dubovský from the National Memory Institute, spoke about the work of the Movement for Civil Liberty in Slovakia during the period shortly before the fall of the communist regime. This movement was a kind of aggregate of the various branches of Czech and Slovak dissidence, and its primary activities included printing samizdat works and organizing remembrance events and protests. Professor András Bozóki from Central European University in Budapest gave the next presentation, titled ‘The Dissident Intellectuals in Hungary in the 1980s’. He mapped out the wide range of activities of the Hungarian dissidents during the 1980s. Professor Bozóki had himself spent time in dissident circles and had taken part in the so-called Hungarian Round Table Talks in 1989, during which the opposition negotiated the handover of political power from the communists. The next presenter was Dr. Detlef Stein, the director of the East European Center in Berlin, who gave the talk ‘The Political Anti- Communist Opposition in East Berlin 1985-1990: Together Against the Regime?’ Speaking as a historian, but also as a participant in the events, he explained the situation of East German dissidents shortly before the fall of the regime. Next came the presentation titled ‘The Coordinating Council of “Solidarity” in Brussels and Its Fight Against the Polish Regime’ by the Polish historian Alexandra Aftaruk, in which she discussed the anti-communist activities of one of the foreign coordinating centres of the trade union Solidarity. These foreign centres started to emerge after 1981 when several Solidarity activists went into exile to escape state retaliation after the declaration of Martial Law in Poland. A key role of these foreign outposts was to inform the Western public about the real situation in Poland. The second panel and the first day of the conference concluded with a talk by the French historian Beatrice Scutaru titled ‘The Romanian Anti-Communist Case Study: The Romanian League for the Defense of Human Rights in France (1979-1989)’. She examined the activities of a Romanian exile organization that attempted to fight the communist regime in Romania by demanding that it respect human rights during the second half of the 1970s and throughout the 1980s.

Dumitru Lacătuşu from the Institute for the Investigation of Communist Crimes and the Remembrance of the Romanian Emigration opened the second day of the conference and the third panel titled ‘Opposition Activities in Official and Semi-legal Organizations’ with his presentation about the many forms of anti-communist resistance in the Dobrogea region, including armed revolts. The state frequently retaliated against such revolts, especially between 1950 and 1952. Next, the Hungarian historian István Papp from the Historical Archives of the Hungarian State Security spoke about the National Agrarian Party and the secret police measures against it. The Polish historian Agata Mirek gave the next talk, titled ‘The Role of Nuns and their Participation in Shaping the Anti-Communist Resistance in The People’s Republic of Poland’, in which she summarized the role Polish nuns played in the fight against Communism. They were considered enemies of the regime mainly because they were able to influence the upbringing of generations of young Poles, and thus presented an alternative to the state school system. The first segment of the second day of the conference was concluded by a presentation by the Czech historian Václav Veber from the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes, in which he spoke about the third resistance in Czechoslovakia in 1956. This was a landmark year in the history of the communist bloc, with armed uprisings taking place in Hungary and Poland, and the world being shaken by the armed conflict in the Near East. The author concluded that the relative peace in Czechoslovakia was a direct result of the harsh state response to the events of 1953; nevertheless, several lesser-known anti-communist demonstrations took place that year.

After a short break the third panel continued with a presentation by the Polish historian Anna Piotrowska from the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, who spoke about anti-communist resistance in Polish music after 1945. The following presentation also concerned Poland, and it was delivered by Patryk Pleskot from the Institute of National Remembrance. He focused on the Polish students’ struggle against the communist regime, and specifically on the underground activities of the Independent Students Union between 1982 and 1989. His presentation was followed by Olena Palko from the I.F. Kuras Institute of Political and Ethnic Studies at the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine. In her talk, titled ‘Ukrainian National Communist Opposition against Bolshevik Authoritarianism’, she clarified the position of Ukrainian communists within the centralized Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The next speaker was Tadeusz Ruzikowski, a historian from the Polish Institute of National Remembrance, whose presentation was titled ‘The Road to Freedom: Organizational Structures of the Underground “Solidarity” in Warsaw during Martial Law (1981- 1983) – Origins, Activities, and Aftereffects’. The declaration of martial law in 1981 made Solidarity an illegal organization. Despite this setback Solidarity was able to organize a vast underground operational network to carry on its work until martial law was lifted, and even until the fall of the regime. The author focused on Solidarity’s underground network in the capital city, where it organized demonstrations and printed unofficial publications. The regime’s response was to try to break up the network with the help of the secret police. The third panel concluded with another Polish historian, Marek Wierzbicki from the Institute of National Remembrance, who spoke about youth opposition organizations in Poland between 1980 and 1989.

After a lunch break the conference continued with the fourth panel, whose central theme was insurrections and rebellions against communist regimes. The French historian Alexandra Gerota from the University of Versailles opened the panel by giving an overview of the armed conflicts against the communist regime in Romania between 1945 and 1962, and later she described several of the incidents in greater detail. These clashes were a response to the communist government’s repressive measures such as forced collectivization. Many armed resistance groups formed in Romania and continued their open struggle against the regime until the mid 1960s. The Croatian historian Aleksander Jakir from the University of Split gave an interesting presentation about the activities of Croatian anti-communist guerrilla groups, also known as the Crusaders, between 1945 and 1960. While their extensive activities were aimed against the communist regime, they also had the goal of regaining Croatian independence, which offers an interesting parallel between the Croatian and the Slovak anti-communist resistance. In the next presentation the Slovak historian Michal Šmigeľ from Matej Bel University in Banská Bystrica talked about the anti-communist aspects of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army’s operations in Slovakia between 1945 and 1947, which were met with harsh official persecution. During this time period the Bandera faction undertook several incursions into Slovakia in order to spread its propaganda. In 1947 members of the group attempted to reach the American occupation zones in Austria and Germany via Czechoslovakia, where they hoped to seek asylum from harsh Soviet repression. Next, the Hungarian political scientist Miklós Mitrovits gave a talk titled ‘1956, 1968, 1980-1981: Three Uprisings Against Communist Regimes. Similarities and Differences’. He described two of the most well known instances of Soviet military intervention and compared them to the 1981 developments in Poland, which nearly resulted in a similar outcome. The next presenter was professor Jacek Tebinka from the University of Gdańsk, who outlined the principles of Great Britain’s power politics toward the anti-communist opposition in the Socialist bloc states in a talk titled ‘From “Liberatión” to “Détente”: Great Britain and the Anti- Communist Movement in Soviet Satellite Countries’. The final presentation of this segment was entitled ‘The Anti-Communist Movement in Bohemia in 1953’, and it was delivered by professor Pavel Marek from Palacký University in Olomouc. Prof. Marek focused on two large anti-communist events: the April mass demonstrations in Prostějov, Moravia prompted by the removal of the statue of T. G. Masaryk, and the May demonstrations in Plzeň prompted by the monetary reforms which impoverished much of the country’s population.

After a short break the conference continued with the fifth panel, dedicated to the forms of judicial and extrajudicial persecutions of anti-communist resistance activists. The Romanian historian Catalin Cristoloveanu from Indiana University opened this panel with a presentation titled ‘Conflict in the Countryside: Peasants, Resistance, and the Romanian Communist State during Collectivization, 1949-1953’. He spoke about the situation of the Romanian peasants during the collectivization of agriculture, shortly after the rise of the communist dictatorship, about their resistance, and about the state’s reaction to the various resistance movements. In the next presentation Michal Miklovi spoke about the units of the Czechoslovak Intelligence Service dedicated to the prevention of emigration from communist Czechoslovakia, and described their organizational structure from the 1950s all the way to the fall of the regime in 1989. The following presentation, titled ‘1956 as “lieu de mémoire”: The Hungarian State and the Opposition on the Anniversaries of the Revolution’, was delivered by the Hungarian historian Alexandra Botyánszki from the University of Szeged. She talked about the various government actions on the anniversaries of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. Much of her talk focused on 1988 and on the aftereffects of the 1956 revolution during the debates between the government and the opposition on anniversaries of important events. The British historian Paul Maddrell discussed the topic of Stasi records and what they showed about the activities of Western intelligence agents in the German Democratic Republic. Fighting communism was very important to these agents, since most of them had emigrated from East Germany. The second day of the conference concluded with the presentation ‘Legal and Illegal Sanctions against the Participants of Anti-Communist Resistance in Czechoslovakia’ by the Czech legal historian Kamil Nedvědický from the Ministry of the Interior of the Czech Republic. He concentrated on the communist legal system, modeled after the Soviet legal system, which became the main instrument of persecution. He also talked about the prison system and the situation facing political prisoners who, even after being released from prison, were treated as second-class citizens. Finally, he discussed the serious problem of the extralegal persecution of opponents of the regime, which often had no less tragic consequences than direct imprisonment.

The theme of the third and final day of the conference was political emigration in the battle against the communist regime. Ján Bobák from Matica Slovenská was the first presenter of this sixth panel. His presentation titled ‘Slovak Revolutionary Resistance and the Beginnings of Organized Anti- Communist Resistance Abroad in 1945 and 1946’ provided an overview of the first anti-communist activities in the Slovak emigration after 1945. It also highlighted the close connection of these activities to the situation in Slovakia through people such as Jozef Vicen, Štefan Chalmovský, and Rudolf Komander, whose work occupied a large portion of the discussion. The next talk, given by the Czech historian Jan Cholínský from the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes, was titled ‘Correspondence and Cooperation between Czech and Slovak Exile Political Organizations which did not Recognize the Council of Free Czechoslovakia’. The speaker discussed the anti-communist views of exile organizations opposed to the largest Czech exile group, and he focused on the activities of the historian Josef Kalvoda. The next presenter was Ján Uhrík, who spoke about the battles the Czech and Slovak emigration waged in 1948-1949 against the communist regime, but also about the internal strife among the various political exiles, which could be traced back to WWII and even to the period of interwar Czechoslovakia. He also touched upon the crucial issue of the conflicts between the existing emigrants and the new emigrants from the period after the communist takeover. The Czech historian Zdeněk Hazdra from Charles University in Prague was the next speaker, and he talked about the activities of the Czech aristocracy in exile after 1948, as exemplified by Francis Prince of Schwarzenberg.

The conference continued after a short break with the final set of presentations, starting with one by the Czech historian Peter Kubík, whose work covers the broader topic of the Czech anti-communist and anti-Beneš exile after 1945. Mr. Kubík outlined the activities of those Czech exile groups which were opposed not only to Communism, but also to president Beneš. The next presentation, titled ‘The Baltic Path in American Anti-Communism: Policy in Action (1945-1963)’ was delivered by the Latvian legal historian Leo Jansons. Even though the US had been closely monitoring the situation in the Baltic states, which the Soviet Union annexed in 1940, superpower policies as well as political ties to the Soviet Union prevented the US from officially supporting these de facto occupied countries or from openly defending their rights. The final presentation of the entire conference was delivered by Christopher Molnar from Indiana University, who investigated the activities and the radicalization of the Croatian emigration in West Germany, whose representatives were the most radical of all of the emigrant groups. Their goal was the renewal of an independent Croatian state, in pursuit of which they carried out several assassinations in former Yugoslavia, a few of them as late as the mid-1960s.

A stimulating discussion with ample audience participation followed each panel. During one of the post-panel discussions Dr. Martin Rakovský gave a short presentation on the 1956 student anti-communist demonstration in Bratislava. The conference organizers are planning to publish the conference proceedings, which will include all of the conference presentations as well as those that could not be presented due to time constraints.



Peter Jašek. Born in 1983. Slovak historian. He graduated in history at the University of Trnava, where he obtained PhD in 2009. He works as an academic researcher at the Section of Research in the Nation’s Memory Institute. In his academic work he focuses on the contemporary history of Slovakia, especially the Slovakia of WWII, period of so-called normalisation (1970s and 1980s) and the fall of communism in Slovakia. He is the author of several scientific studies published in Slovakia (Anti-Communist Resistance in Central and Eastern Europe, Following the Footsteps of Iron Felix. State Security in Slovakia in the years 1945 – 1989, both 2012).



This article has been published in the first issue of Remembrance and Solidarity Studies.

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


Photo of the publication Communism and its crimes – overcoming history’s dialectics
Ján Čarnogurský

Communism and its crimes – overcoming history’s dialectics

17 August 2012
  • communism
  • European Network Remembrance and Solidarity
  • Dictatorships
  • Molotov-Ribbentrop contract
  • Katyn
  • Dialectic of communism
  • Karl Marx
  • Soviet Union

Paper originally presented during the International Conference “Legal Settlement of Communist Crimes”, Brussels, European Parliament, 5 June 2012


We meet at a conference in the European Parliament concerning the legal settlement of communist crimes. It is the right place and the right topic for the conference. The place is right because laws are made in parliaments, and the topic is right because the legal settlement of communist crimes appears to be a problem and the nature of the problem has been clarified at first by the conference.

In the 20th century, Europe has experienced two dictatorships of continental importance, fascism and communism. Fascism was defeated in the Second World War at the cost of many victims and the removal of its consequences, also by means of national laws, has taken several decades. Today we can say that it is complete. Affiliation to organisations boasting of fascism has been made illegal in most countries. Laws are mostly respected and those who violate them intentionally are punished by law. But communism is another matter. Laws punishing affiliation to or recognition of communism usually do not usually exist; communist parties still exist in several countries, the same as its ideological sources and political consequences. Now I will be purposely provocative, so that I can make my final thesis most understandable. Karl Marx is the ideological father of communism. Although history has refuted communism, the quotes of Karl Marx can still be found in intellectual newspapers across Western Europe, even on an ascending scale. I emphasize that these are concurring quotes. Even references to Leon Trotsky are not exceptional, also not in negative connotation. This is much the same as if they were references to Hermann Goering in a positive connotation. Now let’s move to geopolitics. The peak of cynicism regarding Stalinism and Nazism is considered to be the Molotov-Ribbentrop contract. The secret appendix to the contract reads: "The interest of Lithuania in the Vilnius area is recognized by both parties." After the defeat of Poland in September 1939, Vilnius was added to Lithuania and remained its capital to the present day. No one thinks of proposing that Lithuania give up its capital. Let’s move further. After the Second World War II the original borders of Czechoslovakia were restored and the borders of Poland were shifted westwards. This was followed by the removal of the German population from these and other countries back to defeated Germany and Austria. This removal was politically and especially diplomatically supported by the Soviet Union; a communist country. In Czechoslovakia, the removal took place under the Benes Decrees, in today's Croatia and Slovenia under the AVNOJ decrees and in Poland under the decision of the then Polish authorities. Although the Benes Decrees do not apply anymore, neither the Slovak Republic nor the Czech Republic is willing to abolish them in order to revoke their property-legal consequences. Slovenia and Croatia will not abolish the AVNOJ Decrees, and Poland will not do the same as regards the removal of the then German population from its present territory. In the interest of objectivity I only add that much larger deportations, but in the opposite direction, was prepared by Hitler for after the war in the event victory. This takes me to the core event that brings the dialectic in the consideration about adoption laws against communism. That event is the victory of the Red Army in the Second World War. According to historical research, about 70% of the Wehrmacht military forces were destroyed on the Eastern front. Without the victory of the communist Soviet Union over Germany, the war would most likely not have ended by the unconditional surrender of Germany, but by some negotiated peace. On the other hand, in the case of victory of Nazi Germany over the Soviet Union, the consequences would have been worse than all the crimes of communism. In the Russian Federation, discussions are currently ongoing as to who caused the German army to be able to get as far as Moscow and Stalingrad, but today they are only academic debates. The Russian sociologist Alexander Zinoviev even advocates the thesis that the positive result of Stalin's repression in 1937 was the fear that overwhelmed the former Soviet society and thus society was prepared to respect the discipline in the war. This thesis may be absurd, but the problem is that the phenomenon of communism contains a lot of events and consequences that are objective, that we do not want or do not have the power to change, and we must simply accept them. In connection with fascism, no such problem exists. This brings me to the notion that perhaps explains why legislation against fascism exists and works, and similar legislation against communism either does not exist, or if it does it does not work efficiently. This is because fascism has no dialectic nature, but communism has. Dialectics is an objective philosophical and historical category and cannot be simply disregarded. Discussion on the adoption of laws against communism must therefore include discussion on how to overcome the dialectical nature of communism or, in other words, how to express the dialectic nature of communism in the legislation against communism. Because if communism was simply of dialectic nature, but laws prohibiting its promotion were not to reflect such dialectic, they would not be fully respected.

I cannot raise a general philosophical concept to overcome the dialectics of communism. However, I can identify the events and phenomena caused by communism, which are not of dialectic nature because they are only negative or, in other words, because they are simply crimes. The murder of Polish officers in Katyn is simply a crime in which positive features cannot be found at all. Also nothing positive can be found as regards the deportation of intellectuals to Siberia from the Baltic republics after their occupation by the Soviet army in 1939. The same applies to the killing of Germans in Czechoslovakia, Poland or the former Yugoslavia after the war, as well as to the persecution of believers during the communist regime in all communist countries. And the listing of such non-dialectic phenomena of communism, non-dialectic because they are exclusively wrong, can be continued.

There is also another way to detect and, at the same time, to overcome the dialectic of communism. The way to do it is to allow the revelation and suppression of the dialectic of communism to become known to as many people as possible. So that communism, but also other heavy themes of the 20th century, does not only stay in academic areas, but becomes a subject for as many people as possible who have either experienced it firsthand or not experienced it, getting to know it simply from studying or talking. Such treatment of the wounds of communism, and I repeat also from other serious events of the 20th century, is pursued by the European network Remembrance and Solidarity. Seven years ago, ministers of culture from Germany, Poland, Slovakia and Hungary signed a convention establishing the organization so that the difficult themes of the 20th century could cease to be mysterious, cease to produce myths and stop residual hostility between nations. The European Network of Remembrance and Solidarity chooses the themes from mutual relations of the participating states and nations, and deals with them either at scientific conferences or in discussions with the participation of a wider number of people, by building monuments and publishing almanacs, monographs or magazines. It is true that initially we choose a subject where the dialectic is less reflected. Our first victory will be when talking about these issues will become normal for those affected. It will also weaken the dialectic of communism and strengthen the friendship between our nations.

I cannot say more on this topic at this moment.


Photo of the publication Between negotiation and acceptance: the Znak community versus People’s Poland, with special consideration of the German question
Łukasz Miłek

Between negotiation and acceptance: the Znak community versus People’s Poland, with special consideration of the German question

17 August 2012
  • Znak Community
  • Polish People’s Republic
  • German Bishops
  • Tygodnik Powszechny


The Znak Community holds a special place in Polish history after 1945. This situation occurred because of running independent publishing and human activity associated with the Znak in the structures of the democratic opposition on the one hand, on the other hand, having over twenty years of political representation in parliament and acceptance of the alliance with the Soviet Union resulting from the adoption of neo-positivist conception. This contradiction is reflected in the first part of the title of this paper. Special consideration of German issues, in turn, allows us to better understand the character of the relationships between the Znak Community and the communist state. This attitude towards the West German state was the platform for understanding, but that does not mean, however, that the former conflicts did not occur. An example is the case of the Polish Episcopate message to the German bishops.

This paper deals with some aspects of the German issues, published in Tygodnik Powszechny in 1945-1953, as well as speeches of the Znak Parliamentary Members. To achieve this, the text is divided into two parts. The first deals with issues concerning the rights of the Polish western border on the Oder-Neisse line, collective responsibility for Nazism and German revisionism and rearmament. In the second part there are quotes from some of Jerzy Zawieyski’s and Stanisław Stomma’s speeches delivered in a public forum. They focused largely around appeals to the German authorities for recognition by the Bonn republic of the inviolability of borders and support peace policy promoted by the Polish People’s Republic. The final turning point is Brandt-Cyrankiewicz treaty signed in 1970, which was a cornerstone of normalization of Polish-German relations. Then the primary purpose of the character of the Znak Community was attained: the recognition of the Polish western border by West Germany.


The German Issue in Tygodnik Powszechny (1945-1953)

A few days before the end of the Second World War, Jerzy Turowicz wrote in Tygodnik Powszechny in defence of Poland’s historical rights to the Recovered Territories. He stated things clearly: Poland had occupied the new lands, taken away from Germany, under a law that never expired. Using the phrase ‘The Polish sword strikes in service of the law’,1 Turowicz sought to stress that there was no need to wait for a peace conference to be called and new borders formally established to confirm this fact. What, according to the editor, was the source of Poland’s historical rights, ‘emerging from the existence of real, concrete ties between this nation and this land’?2 He claimed that the new lands were once part of the Polish state, and were inhabited by Polish tribes, before being unlawfully stolen and Germanized.3 Turowicz does not stop, however, at historical rights. Geopolitical arguments also come to the aid of the border marked by the rivers Oder and Neisse – peace will reign in Europe if all its parts are healthy. Thus Poland, in the post-war order, as an important part of the new reality, had to be strong and independent of Germany.4 This was to be achieved by the new lands. Associating the north-western lands with Poland and est ablishing Polish rights to them, Turowicz relies on the fulfilment of several duties, or conditions. Among these are the resettlement of the Polish population, and the joining of the region to the Polish socio-economic and cultural entity.5

At the moment when Jerzy Turowicz’s article appeared in Tygodnik Powszechny, we can be sure that no one – the author and the publication included – could have guessed how important it was to be for the history of post-war Poland. Without Turowicz and Tygodnik Powszechny, the Znak community would never have come to be. In defining the Znak community, we ought to state that it was focused around publishing centres, such as the above-mentioned Tygodnik Powszechny, Znak, and Więź, and community organisations (the Catholic Intelligentsia Club).6 Moreover, it had political representation in parliament. Initially this role was filled by the Znak Catholic Parliamentary Members’ Circle (1957-1961), and then by the Znak Parliamentary Members’ Circle (1961-1976). We might say that the Znak community was more a loose-knit federation of several centres bound by social ties than a tight organization with a clear centre. One link in the community was its relationship with the Catholic Church and Christian values, as well as its conviction that it was necessary to be involved in the socio-political life of People’s Poland.7 This decision was tied to the need to adopt a clear position toward the state that was established after World War II. By the same token, we ought to stress that Znak had no uniform opinion on this issue; it rather drifted ‘between acceptance and negation’, and then tried at one stage to take a concrete stance. The main factors generating this state of affairs were the ideological convictions and intellectual standpoints within the Znak community itself, the evolution of the communist system, and the kinds of issues and problems in relation to which a given stance is formed (whether it agreed with the position of the authorities or not). There were issues where cooperation with the communist authorities could occur harmoniously, regardless of differences in world view and without resorting to various concepts that justified involvement. We observe such overlap in many aspects of the German problem. This issue thus serves as a good point of departure for analysing the Znak community’s acceptance and negation of People’s Poland. On this basis we can see where the standpoints converge, and where the differences arise.

The following article will present selected aspects of the German issue found in the articles that appeared in the pages of Tygodnik Powszechny from 1945-1953, and in several speeches by the Znak MP Circle, with a turning point at the end in the Brandt-Cyrankiewicz Accord8 signed in 1970, addressing the bases for the normalization of mutual relations. The year 1970 is critical in that, along with this pact, one of the most pressing problems of People’s Poland was solved, and the basic aim of the Znak community’s activities was realized: the German state’s recognition of Poland’s western border. To use Stanisław Stomma’s definition, after the ‘ground zero period’ and the ‘initial period’, the ‘normalization period’ began.9 Apart from the development of social, economic, and cultural exchanges between the two countries, interpersonal contacts were forged. At the same time, the German question ceased to be a point of reference in PRL/Znak relations.

To return to 1945, back in April Tygodnik Powszechny had published two articles raising the issue of Poland’s rights to the western lands. In both cases these rights were justified by demonstrating the links between these lands and the Slavs, or with Slavic history. Kazimierz Piwarski wrote of the lands stolen by Germanic tribes and the historical injustices done to the Slavs.10 Germany’s military defeat was to create the opportunity to base the western border of the Polish state on the Oder and the Neisse, and to open ‘prospects of revindication’. The author declares himself in favour of a ‘western program’, which would involve the rebuilding of Polishness on new lands, with the participation of newly arrived Poles and the involvement of academics to popularize knowledge concerning the ‘western Polish borderlands’ and ‘Slavic issues’.11 Tadeusz Milewski, in turn, outlines a brief sketch of the origins of the Slavs in Central and Eastern Europe, their history, borders with the Germans, and the German conquest. He laments the fact that, instead of finding a common path, the Czechs and Poles chose to diverge, which aided Germanization.12 Thus he hopes that in the new post-war reality Western Slavdom will be rebuilt, with borders resembling the original ones.

In two articles both titled ‘The Geographical Foundations of the Western Borders’, Ludwik Górski ponders the western border of Poland, which was to serve as a natural division between Western Slavdom and the Germanic world. The value of such a border would not be in ‘its basis on a natural barrier, but on the massive, nearly sevenfold shortening of the Polish-German border’.13 To Górski’s mind, the geographical-economic unity of the state relied upon its building a permanent and stable Polish- German border. Above all, it was the colonization of new areas by Poles that was crucial here. At the same time, through the emergence of Polishness in western lands, ‘the great historical process of the struggle of the Polish nation and its proper native region would be fulfilled … ’14

Edmund Osmańczyk also devoted a series of articles to the German issue in the pages of Tygodnik Powszechny. He felt the new western border was the most advantageous. Nonetheless, he did not rule out German aggression. He discounted claims that by disputing border issues with the Germans, the Poles were setting the stage for German revenge, and thus another war, because ‘every Polish/German border with one exception – on the Bug River – has prompted the Germans to seek “revenge”.15’ Osmańczyk feels that the German aggression after World War I was the result of the Versailles Treaty, or flawed border arrangements. This is why, given its international situation, Poland should also adopt strategies to avert future dangers from its western neighbour. He indicates three such strategies: upholding the ‘anti-Prussian’ idea in the world; taking possession of the left bank of the Oder, which is the main economic artery of the western lands; and liberating the Neisse from ‘German violence’.16 Apart from the above recommendations, Osmańczyk postulates the creation of an unchanging canon of realistic policies with regard to Germany. At its basis should be the premise that Polish-German peace is dependent on Polish strength, not German weakness, because such weakness is only transitional.17 At the same time, he cautions against faith in international allies. He emphasizes: ‘Poles are the source of our secure borders. Their wisdom, prudence, perseverance, work and dynamics decide upon how secure the borders will be within and beyond the Recovered Territories’.18

A slightly different vision of Polish security was provided by Andrzej Józef Kamiński. His article ponders how to stop the Germans from causing another war and from attacking Europe and the world. He sees a chance for this in educating the Germans, which can be achieved through ‘instilling the ethical ‘Nuremberg’ concepts in Germans, which regard war as an evil in itself ... and getting it out of Germans’ heads that anything apart from ruin and concussions can be achieved through warfare ...’19

Kazimierz Rakowski also considered ways of stopping the Germans from declaring war and attacking Europe and Poland once more. He saw the aggressiveness of the western neighbour less in a lack of ethics and an affinity for war than in the possession of certain Prussian attributes. ‘These attributes are not inherent to the German character, but have been acquired over the past centuries. They are organically linked with the creation, development, and success of the Prussian Kingdom’.20 This is why he saw the chance for peace less in the education of the German nation than in a peace treaty. This, alongside the granting of the western lands to Poland, was to bring about the liquidation of the Prussian landowners, i.e. the Junkers.21

An author identified only as ‘Bonawentura’ calls the German loss of lands a landmark event in the history of both Poland and Europe. He thought that Poland’s rights to them stemmed from the ‘banditry’ committed by the Third Reich.22

Immediately following the war, a great deal of ink in Tygodnik Powszechny was devoted to the guilt of the German nation and the punishment of its war criminals. A frequent pretext was the court trials they underwent.

Father Piwowarczyk reflected upon the sentences at the Nuremberg trial. He calls the trial the ‘court of the world and history’. The International War Tribunal is, to his mind, a representation of all nations, and the crimes of the accused were unequalled in the history of the world.23 The weekly newspaper’s editor demands a collective trial against the German nation, to take place during a future peace conference. He is left in no doubt that Hitler’s crimes weigh upon the consciences of the entire German nation, excepting those who condemned Nazi methods and ideology. Father Piwowarczyk devotes a great deal of space in his article to the question of the collective responsibility of the German nation as an issue of grave importance, arising from this premise: ‘If the German nation is not guilty, then we ought to cease prosecuting those few hundred or thousand Nazis promptly, invite the nation as soon as possible to the “round table”, and allow them access to all the goods of the human community’.24 In his verdict on the Germans, Father Piwowarczyk takes a stance of solidarity. From this point of view the nation is, above all, a moral unit, because ‘it works as a unit and all its actions are attributed to all its members as individuals, insofar as the latter do not refuse their consent’.25 The individual, adds the editor, ‘is responsible to the whole insofar as the two are in solidarity, and thus is responsible not only for what he has done, but also for what the whole has done with his consent’.26 Blame lies not only on the shoulders of those who have exercised power in the state and were directly involved in crime. According to Father Piwowarczyk, it is also shared by the German workers and farmers, and by those working for the economy and administration, since they tolerated Hitler’s rule. A Christian principle concerning the neglect of moral imperatives is invoked here. The author finds the source of the German misfortunes in the disappearance of morality in the nation. The other cause of evil resided in the acceptance of Pagan theories. The German nation was meant to have adopted them because ‘[...] they are deep in the roots of German thought, German philosophy, German law, and German poetry’.27 In Piwowarczyk’s opinion, the trial of the entire nation was just in relation to the whole world because ‘[...] a nation with no moral sense must, in the interests of peace, be incapacitated, or we risk reviving its instincts’.28

In another article, significantly titled ‘Where Is the German Confiteor?’ Father Piwowarczyk revisited the subject of the responsibility of all Germans for Nazism. Departing from the title, he inquires into the ‘collective conscience of Germany’. He calls on the whole of the German nation to do penance. It is not only those who give and execute the orders who share guilt for the crimes, but also those who did nothing to oppose the ‘bestiality of Nazism’.29 On this last point, the author speaks of a sin of omission. This time, the cure for the German conscience and the recipe for peace is not a collective process, but a Christian education. Seeing the last chance in Christianity, he states that ‘if Christianity can not educate a “new German”, then nothing can’.30

Father Piwowarczyk dismisses accusations by German Catholics that Tygodnik Powszechny was driven by hatred toward Germans. He points out the sense of justice resulting from the fact that it was Poland that had been wronged in Polish/German relations, and was the victim of German imperialism. He saw the opportunity for reconciliation in the Germans fulfilling several conditions, namely punishing their criminals, admitting their guilt, and redressing the wrongs done. This last condition was to be fulfilled by the German state forfeiting the western lands.

Osmańczyk saw the resettlements from the ‘Recovered Territories’ as an act of justice against the Germans. Interestingly enough, apart from the concept of national justice, he deployed the notion of religious justice, which was meant to involve a retrieval of the above-mentioned lands not only for the Poles, but for the Catholics as well.31 The Prussian Drang nach Osten, in Osmańczyk’s view, was ‘inextricably linked with the slogan Away from Rome! Since the sixteenth century the spread of Prussia had meant the contraction of Catholicism in the East. The Oder-Neisse border – let us be frank – has restored Catholic lands we thought lost for good’.32 At the same time, he regrets that the German Catholics had failed to resist the slogans of nationalism and revisionism. He sees the only chance for the rebirth of Catholicism in Germany in an honest effort to reconcile with Polish Catholics.

Like Father Piwowarczyk, Andrzej Józef Kamiński saddled the whole of the nation with the blame for the Nazi crimes. To demonstrate this collective guilt, he used the trial of twenty doctors accused of conducting concentration camp experiments. While the Nuremberg Trial sentenced the main politicians of the Third Reich, in the doctors’ trial the nation itself was sentenced.33 This was due to the fact that the accused held high social status and represented German science. Like Piwowarczyk, Kamiński saw Christianity as the hope for the Germans, and for building a democracy. He stated that it was ‘high time for a great moral apostleship in Germany, for a mission in Germany to revive the spirit of Christianity’.34 He suggested an end to talk of German suffering, and that its citizens be moved to repent.

At the end of 1947 the trial of the Auschwitz camp personnel was held. In Tygodnik Powszechny Stefan Kisielewski and Stanisław Stomma wrote on the subject. Kisielewski thought the trial aimed to ‘crush the obdurate resistance of the German spirit, and its overriding aim was to transform and convert Germany’.35 Apart from the educational role, Kisielewski saw this sort of trial as serving to punish the guilty and to highlight their crimes, which it did quite successfully. The author does regret the fact that it did not achieve its prime goal, which was to make the convicted Germans cognizant of their guilt. Stomma, in turn, appeals for a denial of revenge. This springs from the conviction that does no good. As an alternative, he proposes humanist care for man and the upholding of a balance between repression and prevention, and Christian humanism.36

In the early 1950s, articles in Tygodnik Powszechny dealing with Germans and the German Federal Republic (created in 1949) cautioned against the latter’s revisionism, revindication of the western lands, and remilitarisation. They stated that people who had belonged to the Nazi party had reclaimed important positions and had been rehabilitated. Regret was expressed that the denazification process had been revealed as a fiction, something felt most acutely by people with ‘non-damaging pasts’. They persuaded the reader that ‘we are witnesses to an increasingly powerful West German propaganda campaign to take revenge and to shape military sentiments in the name of territorial revindication.’37 The attack on the Oder-Neisse border was bemoaned, and West Germany contrasted with East Germany. It was ‘the Communists ruling East Germany who were able to radically conquer the imperial and nationalist traditions of the eternal Prussian policy of invasion.’38

Józef Klimek presented arguments used by the revisionists. Apart from questioning the permanence of the borders, they raised economic, humanitarian, and demographic issues.39 He felt that they falsified statistics and exploited the fates of the resettled population for their propaganda. Józefa Golmont called revisionism a distortion and falsification of historical truth. Exploiting the resentments of the resettled population, it became a kind of ‘political speculation’.39

Antoni Gołubiew, in turn, felt that historical experience taught that the Polish nation should be cautious with the Germans. He also referred to the ‘general treaty’ signed in Bonn on 27 May 1952, which he saw as increasing the danger of an armed conflict and encouraging German revisionism.40 Gołubiew suggests a program for establishing mutual relations based on peaceful co-existence, overcoming nationalist tendencies in Germany, and the recognition of the new border as just.

In an article titled ‘The Brown Phantoms Haunt Us’, Jerzy Turowicz warned of the remilitarisation of Germany. He stated that

[a]s divisions between the Rhine and the Elbe are preparing even today to carry their flags of war to the East, flags which bear a striking resemblance to the swastika, it is vital to raise our voice in protest against the remilitarization of Germany, which directly threatens the most sacred interests and rights of our nation, to say nothing of world peace.41


The German Issue in the Speeches of the Znak Parliament Members’ Circle

In the post-war years the Znak community stood for ‘social minimalism’, i.e. the involvement of Catholics only in the spheres of culture and religion. This situation changed in 1956, with Władysław Gomułka’s return to power. From then on the work of this community and above all of the Znak Parliamentary Members’ Circle in the political forum was closely linked to recognition of the geopolitical situation, which included support for the policies of the First Secretary. In many cases this support went beyond these factors and was based on wider acceptance. The crux of this was contained in a parliament statement by the Circle’s leader in 1960:

Poland’s international policy has the clear support of all of Polish society. The foreign policy of the Polish government is – how shall I put it – fully ratified by the nation. As we know, there are ideological disputes in Poland, and there are various views on internal problems, but when it comes to international policy, the unity of the nation is encouraging indeed.43

On 21 October 1960, parliament discussed the report of the PRL delegation to the 15th session of the UN General Assembly. The delegation was headed by Gomułka, whose speech of 27 September supported Soviet disarmament proposals and described West German policy as revisionist and threatening to peace in Europe.44 Stanisław Stomma, who took the floor in the discussion, generally enlarged upon the words of the first secretary, rejecting revisionism and appealing for peace in the nuclear age. Fully concurring with Gomułka’s speech, he stated that the latter’s views ‘were carefully noted and acknowledged by the world, and would surely resonate and be received with all due seriousness.’45 We can be sure that Stomma received them with due seriousness, particularly insofar as West Germany was concerned. Thereafter he called attention to three tendencies in the West German state. He was disquieted by the non-recognition of the present borders, the propaganda calling for territorial changes, and the growth in military power. In spite of these facts, he believed that an active policy would be able to break down the bad experiences of the past. He declared that ‘we do not want to breed hostility toward the German nation in our country; on the contrary, we want to conquer history’s bad legacy, to purge hearts of hostility on either side of the border. But this must be a mutual desire.’46 Here the head of the Znak Parliamentary Members’ Circle listed the conditions that Germany would have to fulfil to overcome ‘history’s bad legacy’. First and foremost, West Germany must seek ‘a general shift in historical orientation, a critical evaluation of its history, a break with its tradition of conquest, a break with its way of looking at lands east of Germany as a sphere of expansion to be taken by whatever means.’47 Moreover, he called upon the Germans to make a critical appraisal of their own history and to recognize their historical guilt, including responsibility for the partitions, the attack on Poland in September 1939, and the crimes committed during the occupation. He moved on to postulate that the territorial decisions remain firm and the border decisions of 1945 be recognized.

Curiously enough, Stomma saw the greatest obstacle to Polish-German reconciliation not in the problems formulated above, but in disagreements over the issue of world peace. He saw the issue of peace as an example of a debate on the future of humanity and the development of world politics. He put forward a dilemma – on the one hand, détente and peace, and on the other, tension and ‘peace through nuclear arms’.48 West Germany was made out to be a state that chose the latter option, i.e. the division of the world and the Cold War. In contrast, the deputy chairman of the External Affairs Commission saw People’s Poland as a country that fostered peace and détente in Europe. As an argument in support of this thesis there were ‘concrete proposals provided during the latest UN session by the Polish delegation – a return to the Rapacki Plan, and an arms freeze proposal, to stop nuclear arms at their present level.’49

A few days before the conflict erupted over the proclamation of the Polish bishops to their German counterparts, Jerzy Zawieyski made a parliamentary speech on the ceremonies to mark the 20th anniversary of the introduction of Polish church administration in the western lands. The ceremony for this occasion took place on 31 August and 1 September 1965 in Wrocław. Simultaneously, the Polish bishops published a pastoral letter emphasizing the role of the Church in strengthening the ties binding the new lands and their settlers with the rest of the nation. Zawieyski stressed that the Episcopate border on the Oder and Lusatian Neisse was inviolable, and this, he felt, was the position of the nation as a whole.50 He mourned the response of West Germany toward the church ceremonies, and of revisionist circles in particular. Zawieyski saw a counterbalance to the German policy primarily in the Polish state’s involvement in the defence of peace. Here he referred to the Rapacki Plan and Władysław Gomułka’s project to freeze nuclear arms.51 Apart from the ritual denunciation of the German revisionists, the chairman of the Warsaw Catholic Intellectuals Club pointed out the positive events occurring in West Germany. One example was the memorandum of the German Evangelical Church. Of the authors of this document he said that ‘they address an issue heretofore considered a taboo of sorts with far-sighted courage, and they long to make real progress in how the Oder-Neisse border and Polish-German relations are apprehended.’52

For the approaching Millennium celebrations, the Polish bishops responded to letters and invitations from episcopates of various countries, among which was a letter of 18 November 1965 addressed to the German bishops. Apart from enumerating Polish grievances at the hands of the Germans and recalling German sufferings, the proclamation included these famous words: ‘We reach out our hands ... to you and grant you forgiveness, and we ask to be forgiven.’53 The authorities’ response to the Church’s gesture was, above all, anti-Church propaganda. The rulers appealed to enduring anti-German sentiments in society. The primate and episcopate came under harsh attack, with the Church being accused of betraying the Polish national interest.

On 13 December MP Janusz Zabłocki of the Znak Circle took the floor. Without mentioning the bishops’ letter, he peppered his speech with anti- German remarks, and made the acknowledgement of the Oder-Neisse border a condition of reconciliation.54 Two days later, Jerzy Zawieyski spoke before Parliament on behalf of the Circle. In the first part of his speech he defended the episcopate. He claimed that the position of the Polish Church on the status of the western lands was uniform and identical with the position of the nation as a whole. He recalled the services of the Church in joining these lands with the rest of the country and in opposing German revisionism.55 He then expressed regret that ‘in the Polish bishops’ letter there were statements that were painful for society, and statements that could be erroneously interpreted.;56 Zawieyski had his own grudge against the Episcopate for how the proclamation was announced, and particularly for their not finding a proper way of informing the Polish government. Apart from these accusations against the bishops, the MP criticized the German press and episcopate. The former came under fire for suggesting the abandonment of the resolutions of the Potsdam Conference, while the German Church was accused of lacking a clear standpoint in response to the letter, which could have given the impression that it was counting on the border issues being regulated in the future in the form of a compromise.57 Considering the tense world situation and the role that the West German state played in the rising tensions, Zawieyski appealed, moreover, for the cessation of polemics and the unity of the Polish nation. This effort is important ‘lest the facts and polemics in the world be interpreted as a division in Poland against the backdrop of our most pressing matters, toward which the government and the episcopate, along with the whole nation, have documented their solidarity for twenty years.’58

Jerzy Turowicz also appealed for an end to polemics surrounding the 14 January 1966 proclamation at a session of the Polish Committee for a United National Front. We might say that this session was a warm-up for the parliamentary debate. The editor of Tygodnik Powszechny stood up in defence of the good intentions of the Polish bishops, while the whole debate, he said, could create an impression of divisions in Polish society over the inviolability of the western border.59 He also pointed out the moral significance of the letter.

In March 1969, at the conclusion of the parliamentary session, the Znak Circle placed in the hands of Zenon Kliszko, the vice-marshal, a memorandum intended as an ideological-political declaration. It listed the tasks and goals that the MPs set for themselves in their future work. An acceptance of the general outlines of the state’s foreign policy is evident. Among international issues, the German question was problem number one for the Circle. The memorandum indicated three factors that could affect mutual relations. These were the reluctance of West Germany to acknowledge the inviolability of the Oder-Neisse border, its non-recognition of East Germany, and its demand for access to nuclear weapons.60 The MPs pointed out that there were communities in West Germany that sought reconciliation, but stressed that these had little impact on Bonn’s policies. At the same time, they warned of developing neo-Nazi movements. This is why the Znak Parliament Members’ Circle felt that ‘[c]onsidering the state of things, and the growing economic superiority of West Germany in Western Europe, the main dictate for the security of our country is special vigilance, so that Bonn’s policy should not become a factor that shapes the international situation.’61

In the new parliamentary term, Stanisław Stomma took the floor at the plenary session that discussed the declaration of the Chairman of the Council of Ministers on the prospects of Polish/German relations. He repeated the theses contained in the memorial three months earlier concerning West Germany’s non-recognition of the Oder-Neisse border and the lack of acceptance of the existence of a second German state. In spite of real guarantees of the western borders and good relations with East Germany, these factors, according to the leader of the Znak Circle, kept the German issue wide open.62 He then defined the state’s interest vis-avis the Germans: it included the normalization of relations, freedom from belligerence, and peaceful co-existence. He recalled Gomułka’s speech of 17 May 1969 suggesting that West Germany sign a treaty acknowledging the western border of Poland. Stomma took this as a proof ‘of Poland’s good will’, which ‘repudiates the claims of some nationalist circles in West Germany to the effect that Poland is not striving for reconciliation.’63 The historical aim of Poland, in Stomma’s view, should be to reconcile with the Germans and to strive for peaceful and friendly relations. He saw good will and the Germans’ honest evaluation of history as conditions of overcoming the past. He postulated a varied approach to German communities, encouraging the rulers to

condemn outbursts of nationalism that seemed geared toward conflict, while treating favourably ... circles courageous enough to speak the truth, to discard the ballast of the past and strive for the forming of honest relations with Poles. ... We should go halfway to meet the new tendencies in Germany and those people with the courage to conquer the old ways.64

Stomma also saw reconciliation with Germany as dependent on the Poles’ approach. He spoke in favour of a certain type of behaviour. Above all he opposed ‘vulgar propaganda’, suggesting not a nationalist position, but one that was open to and ready for reconciliation.

The head of the Znak Parliament Members’ Circle devoted a great deal of space in this speech to the USSR, and specifically its influence on Polish/ German relations. He saw cooperation with Moscow on the German question as a wise principle for the Polish government. He believed that:

Only through alliance with the Soviet Union, only through the guarantee of this mighty superpower is there a chance that our relations with the Germans can begin sensibly and constructively to come together [...] Our ally to the east might also lead to stability and to better relations with our neighbour to the west.65

In Stomma’s view, the alliance with the USSR fostered good relations with the Germans, because it made us a real partner to the German state. The train of reasoning of the vice-head of the Commission for Foreign Affairs went as follows: we can be a partner to Germany, as co-operation between Poland and the Soviet Union has ruled out reconciliation with our neighbours at Poland’s expense and undermined German anti-Polish policy.66

Stomma and Gomułka’s hope for reconciliation with the West Germans came to fruition in 1970. First a coalition of the Social-Democratic Party and the Liberals came to power in West Germany, and then on 7 December Chancellor Willy Brandt signed a normalization treaty with Poland in Warsaw. The Bonn Republic had acknowledged the Oder-Neisse border.



We certainly cannot say of the Znak community that it formed an opposition to People’s Poland, particularly from 1956-1976. It would be hard to draw such a conclusion with regard to a movement whose members held seats in Parliament, which had representatives in the State Council and the Polish Committee of the National Unity Front,67 and which could legally publish magazines and run club activities. One justification of the community’s acceptance of the system could be the concept of neo-positivism and the resulting recognition, for reasons less to do with world view than politics and geopolitics. In 1956 and 1957 Znak activists often appealed to the ‘October ideas’ as criteria for evaluating the government. These ideas could be summarized in four points: lawful rule, democracy, restoration of economic life, and sovereignty and the dictate of national interest in foreign policy.68 In practice, hope for the evolution of the system toward greater democracy expired fairly soon. It might have seemed that the conditions for neo-positivism were exhausted in the late 1950s, when a sharp turn away from October occurred. Nothing could be more mistaken, however. There was still one variable, apart from the defence of the position attained, which was the basis for the Znak community’s acceptance and even affirmation of People’s Poland. This was the dictate of national interest in foreign policy, i.e. alliance with the USSR as a security guarantee for Poland in the international arena. Soviet dominance was regarded as positive, as only thus was it possible to maintain the new borders and realize the concept of the ‘Piast State’.69 The fact that Poland had no diplomatic relations with West Germany additionally strengthened these convictions. Relations with the West German state were a platform where there was more frequently agreement than debate with the rulers. In the post-war years, articles in Tygodnik Powszechny concerning Germany on the one hand reflected the prevalent mood in Poland, and on the other coincided with the communist standpoint. The stress on historical and geopolitical rights to the western lands and the cautions against revisionism, German nationalism, and West Germany tendencies toward revindication and remilitarisation were sure not to evoke the authorities’ opposition.

After 1956 the Znak Circle joined the leaders of People’s Poland in appealing for the Bonn Republic to recognize the irrevocability of the borders. It expressed support for the peace policy propagated by People’s Poland in the form of the Rapacki Plan. This did not mean that there were no quarrels between the Znak movement and the rulers on the German question.

One example of such a quarrel might be the Episcopate’s proclamation to the German bishops. Despite the none-too-clear parliamentary speech on the issue by Jerzy Zawieyski, Znak did not join in the anti-German and anti-Church propaganda.

In conclusion, we ought to ponder an assessment of the Znak Community’s involvement in the ‘real socialist’ system, especially in terms of Polish- German relations. As for the political balance sheet, it comes out as none too impressive. And this was not only because, by the mid-1970s, Znak was dropping out of political life and crossing over to the opposition. We ought to emphasize that the position of the Znak movement abroad, particularly in West Germany, was disproportionate to the structures at its disposal. As the vice-chairman of the Commission for Foreign Affairs, Stanisław Stomma met with the most important German politicians, including the West German ambassador to Vienna, Carl Hermann Mueller-Graf, in 1957; minister of foreign affairs Heinrich von Brentano in 1958; and West German President Gustav Heinemann in 1969. Yet the movement’s influence on real relations between Poland and West Germany, including the border pact, was minor. The 1970 accord was more a result of ‘great power politics’, and in particular Brandt’s new concept of Ostpolitik.

We ought to stress, however, that while the political achievements of the people involved with Znak are dubious, the community did have success in the social sphere. The Znak movement played a major role in building positive contacts between Poles and Germans, and in engaging both nations and states to come together.

On 7 October 1990, and thus with the perspective of time, Stanisław Stomma recalled in the pages of Tygodnik Powszechny the three goals that were important for his community in Polish/German relations: unity, normalization, and friendship.70 German organizations like Pax Christi, the Bensberg Circle, the Central Committee of German Catholics, and the ‘Sign of Penance’ Action doubtless helped forge religious and cultural contacts.71 This was most assuredly the foundation for the reconciliation that occurred after the fall of Communism in Poland and the unification of Germany.



Łukasz Miłek, PhD candidate, Jagiellonian University. Born in 1981. Graduated in history and political studies at the Jagiellonian University in Cracow. Currently he is preparing a dissertation focusing on the history of the Znak Community in the People’s Republic of Poland. His research interests include: history of democratic opposition and the Catholic Church in the People’s Republic of Poland, history of Polish political parties before and after 1989.




1 J. Turowicz ‘Nowe ziemie’, Tygodnik Powszechny 6 (1945), p. 1.



4 Ibid. p. 2.

5 Ibid.

6 The Catholic Intelligentsia Club was established on the wave of the October thaw in 1956 in Warsaw. Apart from the Warsaw club, the communist authorities also agreed to the operations of clubs in Krakow, Lublin, Wrocław, and Poznań. The Catholic Intelligentsia Club was an association of secular Catholics recognized by the Polish Church.

7 The common name of the Polish state during the communist rule from 1944- 1989. The official name was initially the Polish Republic, and after 1952 the Polish People’s Republic (abbreviated as the PRL).

8 A pact between the Polish People’s Republic and the Federal Republic of Germany to normalize mutual relations. It was signed on 7 December 1970 in Warsaw by PRL Premier Jozef Cyrankiewicz and West Germany Chancellor Willy Brandt. Therein, West Germany recognized the Polish western border at the Odra and Lusatian Neisse rivers. Official relations between the two countries were then initiated.

9 S. Stomma, Pościg za nadzieją (Paris, 1991), p. 169.

10 K. Piwarski, ‘Wiedza polska-dla ziem zachodnich, Tygodnik Powszechny 3 (1945), p. 3.

11 Ibid.

12 T. Milewski, ‘Słowiańszczyzna zachodnia przed tysiącem lat’, Tygodnik Powszechny 5 (1945), p. 1.

13 L. Gorski, ‘Geograficzne podstawy granic zachodnich’, Tygodnik Powszechny 20 (1945), p. 1.

14 Idem, ‘Geograficzne podstawy granic zachodnich’, Tygodnik Powszechny 21, p. 5.

15 E. Osmańczyk, ‘Niemcy’, Tygodnik Powszechny 3 (1946), p. 2.

16 Idem, ‘O bezpieczeństwie zachodniej granicy’, Tygodnik Powszechny 28, p. 1.

17 Idem, ‘Niemcy’, p. 2.

18 Idem, ‘O bezpieczeństwie zachodniej granicy’, p. 3.

19 A.J. Kamiński, ‘Propaganda wojny czy pokoju?’, Tygodnik Powszechny 27 (1947), p. 4.

20 K. Rakowski, ‘Idee przewodnie traktatu pokojowego z Niemcami’, Tygodnik Powszechny 3 (1947), p. 1.

21 Ibid.

22 Bonawentura, ‘Sprawa niemiecka’, Tygodnik Powszechny 8 (1951), p. 1.

23 J. Piwowarczyk, ‘Wyrok w Norymberdze’, Tygodnik Powszechny 41 (1946), p. 1.

24 Idem, (1948) ‘Zbiorowa odpowiedzialność narodu niemieckiego’, Tygodnik Powszechny 26, p. 1.

25 Ibid.

26 Ibid.

27 Idem, Wyrok w Norymberdze, p. 1.

28 Ibid.

29 Idem, (1947) ‘Gdzie niemieckie confiteor’, Tygodnik Powszechny 30, p. 4.

30 Ibid.

31 E. Osmańczyk, ‘O umocnieniu katolicyzmu w Nadodrzu’, Tygodnik Powszechny 26 (1948), p. 3.

32 Ibid.

33 A.J. Kamiński, ‘Proces norymberski nauki niemieckiej’, Tygodnik Powszechny 20 (1947), p. 6.

34 Idem, ‘Z zagadnień moralnych młodzieży niemieckiej’, Tygodnik Powszechny 44 (1947), p. 4.

35 S. Kisielewski, ‘Czy proces oświęcimski spełnił zadanie?’, Tygodnik Powszechny 3 (1948), p. 2.

36 S. Stomma, ‘Zwycięstwo nad zemstą’, Tygodnik Powszechny 3 (1948), p. 2.

37 ‘W sprawie Niemiec zachodnich’, Tygodnik Powszechny 45 (1950), p. 2.

38 Ibid.

39 J. Klimek, ‘Gliniane nogi ‘Rewizjonizmu’’, Tygodnik Powszechny 40 (1952), p. 1.

40 J. Golmont, ‘Przeszkodzić sianiu nienawiści...’, Tygodnik Powszechny 7 (1953), p. 1.

41 A. Gołubiew, ‘“Układ ogolny” w Bonn’, Tygodnik Powszechny 23 (1952), p. 1.

42 J. Turowicz, ‘Brunatne upiory straszą’, Tygodnik Powszechny 47 (1951), p. 1.

43 Przemówienie sejmowe Stanisława Stommy 21 października 1960 r. w dyskusji nad sprawozdaniem delegacji PRL na XV sesję ONZ, quoted in: A. Friszke, Koło posłów ‘Znak’ w Sejmie PRL 1957-1976 (Warsaw, 2002), p. 317.

44 A. Fiszke, op. cit., p. 313.

45 Przemówienie sejmowe Stanisława Stommy 21 października 1960 r., p. 313.

46 Ibid., p. 315.

47 Ibid.

48 Ibid., p. 317.

49 Ibid., p. 316.

50 Przemówienie sejmowe Jerzego Zawieyskiego 12 listopada 1965 r. w debacie budżetowej (fragmenty), quoted in: A. Friszke, op. cit., p. 446.

51 Ibid., p. 447.

52 Ibid.

53 W. Roszkowski, Historia Polski 1914-2005 (Warsaw, 2006), p. 278.

54 A. Friszke, op. cit., (Warsaw, 2002), p. 67.

55 Oświadczenie Koła Posłów ‘Znak’ złożone przez Jerzego Zawieyskiego na plenarnym posiedzeniu Sejmu 14 grudnia 1965 r. w związku z Listem biskupów polskich do biskupów niemieckich, quoted in: A. Friszke, op. cit., p. 452.

56 Ibid., p. 453.

57 Ibid.

58 Ibid.

59 A. Friszke, op. cit., p. 68.

60 Memoriał Koła Posłów ‘Znak’ złożony Zenonowi Kliszce w marcu 1969 r., quoted in: A Friszke, op. cit., p. 522.

61 Ibid.

62 Przemówienie Stanisława Stommy na plenarnym posiedzeniu Sejmu 28 czerwca 1969 r. w dyskusji nad oświadczeniem prezesa Rady Ministrów dotyczącej perspektywy stosunków polsko-niemieckich (fragment), quoted in: A. Friszke, op. cit., p. 525.

63 Ibid., p. 526.

64 Ibid., p. 527.

65 Ibid., p. 526.

66 Ibid.

67 On the State Council and the Polish Committee for the National Unity Front see A. Dudek, Z. Zblewski, Utopia nad Wisłą. Historia Peerelu (Warsaw, Bielsko Biała, 2008), passim.

68 Przemówienie sejmowe Stanisława Stommy w debacie nad składem i programem rządu 27 lutego 1957 r., quoted in: A. Friszke, op. cit., p. 163.

69 S. Stomma, Trudne lekcje historii (Krakow, 1998), p. 158.

70 S. Stomma, ‘Pojednanie, normalizacja, przyjaźń’, Tygodnik Powszechny 40 (1990), s. 1.

71 For more on the subject of this organization see: W. Bartoszewski, O Niemcach i Polakach. Wspomnienia. Prognozy. Nadzieje, ed. and commentary R. Rogulski, J. Rydel (Krakow, 2010), passim.


This article has been published in the first issue of Remembrance and Solidarity Studies.

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Photo of the publication Between Authoritarian Selflegitimation and Democratic Opposition. The Variety of Hungarian Reactions [...]
Ferenc Laczó

Between Authoritarian Selflegitimation and Democratic Opposition. The Variety of Hungarian Reactions [...]

17 August 2012
  • academic
  • communism
  • Poland
  • Hungary
  • Solidarity
  • 1980s
  • socialism


This paper analyses various trends in the Hungarian perception of and reactions to the rise of Solidarity and the Polish crisis of 1980-81. It aims to paint a nuanced picture of the time between the relative legitimacy of the Kádárist dictatorship and the more open challenges it started to face in its last decade by analysing three spheres: the official, the dissident, and the rather restricted intersection between the two. It aims to show, first, how the Hungarian authorities reacted to the Polish crisis and what was at stake for them. The paper also highlights how the image of Polish developments was rather effectively manipulated by the Hungarian press and how narrow the limits of official tolerance were. At the same time, Polish developments served as a major inspiration for Hungarian dissidents who, using primarily Polish examples, reformulated themselves as the democratic opposition around this time. The Polish crisis was the moment of greatest activity and outreach for this milieu until the gradual extension of pluralism in the Hungary of the late 1980s.


I. Connections in the Bloc

This paper analyses various trends in the Hungarian perception of and reactions to the rise of Solidarity and the Polish crisis of 1980-81.1 In the sixteen months between the legal recognition of Solidarity in August 1980 and the declaration of martial law in December 1981, Polish developments were among the major concerns of various Hungarian actors ranging from Hungarian communist leaders through politically minded intellectuals all the way to groups of dissidents.2 Studying Hungarian reactions to this last major crisis in Soviet-ruled Eastern Europe before 1989 can thereby provide us with a better grasp of authoritarian self-legitimation, the rather narrow spectrum between official and dissident positions, and the formation of the Hungarian democratic opposition.3 In analysing these three spheres (the official, the dissident and the one intersecting the other two) on the basis of Hungarian reactions to Polish developments in 1980-81, my aim is to paint a nuanced picture of the times between the ‘relative legitimacy’ the consolidated Kádárist dictatorship enjoyed in the 1960s and 1970s and the more open challenges it started to face in its last decade.4 I argue in particular that the activities of the Hungarian democratic opposition not only received a great impetus from Polish developments but in fact reached their all-time peak during these months – until the last years of the dictatorship when pluralism was officially acknowledged and was gradually allowed to expand.5

Before turning to the developments of 1980-81, I want to devote some words to the historical background, focusing on the curious history of Hungarian-Polish relations. The histories of the two countries in modern times were at odds with each other in major ways: Hungary experienced its moment of grandeur under the Dual Monarchy at the time Poland was still partitioned in the late 19th century, then Poland emerged at the end of the First World War just at the time when (as part of the collapse of the Habsburg Empire) Hungary was greatly diminished. Poland was one of the prime victims of the Second World War when Hungary pursued an alliance with Nazi Germany. Examples of such basic divergence could be extended further. Hungarian-Polish relations have nevertheless been quite exceptionally good. Goodwill between the two peoples found different manifestations starting from close connections between the respective national movements in the 19th century (including significant Polish participation in the ultimately unsuccessful Hungarian war of independence of 1848-1849, one of whose most venerated actors in the Hungarian historical memory was Józef Bem), the notable level of Hungarian help provided to Polish refugees during the Second World War, and marked Polish identification with the Hungarian cause in 1956 – a revolution that in fact started with a sympathy march for the changes then underway in Poland on 23 October 1956.6

Moreover, there was a widespread tendency in the Eastern bloc to closely observe developments in other countries because there was a rather general understanding that the direction they took could matter at home too. Hopes for liberalization (or perhaps more accurately relaxation of control) could be encouraged by developments that took place in other Eastern bloc countries. Similarly, the strengthening of repressive measures in one place could be perceived by those hoping for liberalization as heralding the threat of similar developments all over the bloc. Such developments ultimately depended on two major factors: the political course of the Soviet Union and the uses local communists made of their space to manoeuvre. The latter, it ought to be added, was never clearly defined. Local communist leaders first had to manoeuvre to find out how much they were allowed to do so. This was practically the only way to estimate the limits of Soviet tolerance. Soviet military intervention ensued in poorly defined contexts where, ironically, every move had to be historically-ideologically justified and the past often drastically rewritten or even falsified to suit the needs of the present. To take just one Polish-Hungarian example, the comparison between the fates of Władysław Gomułka and Imre Nagy can be instructive in this regard. Whereas Gomułka became the leader of communist Poland in 1956 and remained in power until 1970, Nagy was executed for his role in 1956 and subsequent unwillingness to compromise himself in June 1958 – in spite of the fact that prior to 1956 their roles and status were quite similar. Moreover, Imre Nagy was executed by János Kádár, whose role was not very different from Nagy’s in the days of the Hungarian Revolution – at least until early November 1956.

Importantly, in the late 1970s both Hungary and Poland could make claims to be in the vanguard of developing their communist regimes in posttotalitarian directions.7 As opposed to the Stalinist type of rule that characterized East Germany and Bulgaria, and the renewal of hardline rule in Czechoslovakia and Romania in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, Poland and Hungary could appear relatively moderate.8 Poland was least impacted by the orthodox features of Stalinism to begin with. Polish communists orchestrated no show trials and did not collectivize agriculture. Moreover, Poland had a strong Church and a relatively free cultural life.

Starting in the late 1950s and early 1960s, communist Hungary under János Kádár was also keen to distinguish itself from its former incarnation under Mátyás Rákosi. This renovation never amounted to structural-institutional changes aside from the always contested and never consistently applied economic reform measures.9 As Melinda Kalmár’s monograph suggests, this new attitude first emerged in the period of reprisals: it emerged simultaneously with the heavy-handed reinstitution of the dictatorship, and not afterwards. Thus, restoration and renovation were in fact part of one and the same process.10 As János Rainer has argued, Kádárism should be viewed as a post-totalitarian regime pursuing a pragmatic revision of its actual governing methods rather than an explicit reformist orientation.11 Nevertheless, the Kádárist leadership was explicitly committed to putting the practices of the ‘wild years’ behind them. It is of some significance that Kádár was personally involved in those years both as a perpetrator and as a victim. He could thus draw on sufficient personal experience to appreciate the advantages of creating a less arbitrary and more reliable rule.


II. The Official Hungarian Stance

I would still claim that the judgment of the Hungarian leadership about Solidarity was in no sense fundamentally more liberal than those of communist leaders in other countries. Nevertheless, there were important tactical differences that deserve to be highlighted. The Czechoslovak, Bulgarian, and East German leaders considered the Polish agreements of August and September 1980 as grave mistakes on the part of the Polish communists. In consequence, they instantly demanded the ‘restoration of order’ and declared their countries ready to offer ‘fraternal’ (i.e. military) help.

The Hungarian leadership, on the other hand, at first maintained that the Polish leadership was competent enough to solve its own problems and should be trusted with the resolution of the crisis. János Kádár expressed his faith in the viability of political methods and saw the use of the military solution as justified only in the case of ‘extreme peril to the system’. He even considered the strikes by workers and their initial grievances to be justified. In short, while they were concerned to some extent, what was taking place in Poland did not seem to overly impress the Hungarian communist leader at first.

Perhaps the two factors that distinguished him most from other Eastern bloc leaders was the confidence he based on having ‘resolved’ a much graver crisis in 1956, as he understood it, and his sense of the widespread acceptance of his restored-renovated regime. Moreover, while Polish developments were troubling to some extent, Hungarian leaders could continue using one of their major legitimizing arguments about the ‘relative successes’ of the ‘Hungarian model’. They could even contrast their achievements with the ongoing failures of Poland. Thus, the Polish crises in some sense even helped them reassert the propagandistic notion of a different, stable, efficient and legitimate socialist regime.

With the prolongation of the Polish crisis, however, the attitude of the Hungarian leadership turned harsher. The Central Committee even sent a letter to the Polish leadership in September 1981 expressing its shock at the atmosphere created by ‘unrestrained anti-Communist and anti-Soviet demagoguery’.12 This hardline letter demanded ‘open and consistent action’ and called on the Polish leadership to account for their failure to stop ‘activities aimed at liquidating the socialist order’.13

Ultimately, Kádár was relieved at the declaration and swift implementation of martial law in December 1981 and proved eager to help the Polish leadership ‘in these decisive moments requiring firm action’.14 He was in direct contact with General Wojciech Witold Jaruzelski from the first day of martial law and was most willing to share his insights on how best to consolidate. At the same time, he drew an important conclusion from the 13th of December 1981: if Poland was ‘allowed to occupy itself ’, i.e. could avoid direct Soviet occupation, then the space for manoeuvre that leaders of the Eastern bloc possessed must have increased.

This meant to him in concrete terms that Hungary could press for acceptance into the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to gain Western credits; these deals were concluded in 1982. In other words, the essentially loyalist Hungarian foreign policy line could increasingly be supplemented by steps its leadership perceived to be in its own interests and those of its country, but not necessarily in line with Soviet orthodoxy or concrete Soviet recommendations. As it would turn out, Western credits contributed to the maintenance of acceptable living standards in communist Hungary throughout the 1980s, but at the cost of deeper indebtedness. In short, the level of Hungarian indebtedness might to some extent be considered an unintended and clearly ironic consequence of the declaration of martial law in Poland.


III. Official Voices

The originally less intolerant Hungarian attitude towards the Polish crisis was reflected in the Hungarian press as well. Its unfolding was depicted in a more complex manner than in the press of other state socialist regimes – even though the central ambiguities were clearly in line with the demands of a centralized state. The initial official approach to reporting on Polish developments was that campaign-like propaganda must be avoided. The Hungarian authorities believed that the most efficient way to proceed would be not to highlight the Polish issue much at all. Even though not ruling out some vulgar abusive and language directed at Solidarity, this implied a relatively reserved tone and occasionally allowed for differentiated content. In all likelihood, this approach to Polish developments proved more credible than the employment of hardline communist phraseology would have done.

Hungarian press propaganda preferred to highlight the unruliness, poverty and laziness of the Poles as well as the (supposedly) resulting financial burden on Hungary. This triggering of ‘welfare chauvinism’ seems to have proven rather successful at influencing public opinion. According to opinion polls, the image of Poles worsened in Hungary as the combined result of the Polish crisis and related local propaganda: while Poles were highly popular in the 1970s (in fact, they were among the most popular people in the world when tested on politically rather neutral questions such as ‘whom would you like to marry?’ and ‘whom would you like to have as your neighbour?’), this overwhelming sympathy had disappeared by the 1980s. While explicit antipathy for the cause of Solidarity was not exceptional in Hungary either, and the worsening stereotypes of Poles were certainly politically embedded, the great majority of those Hungarians who were impacted by Hungarian propaganda did not in all likelihood explicitly think of it in terms of pro-communist mobilization of opinion. In other words, I would argue that Hungarians did not like Poles less in the 1980s than previously because of their knowledge about and negative assessment of the cause of Solidarity, but rather because they had hardly any concrete information on Solidarity and simultaneously were the recipients of anti-Polish messages.

The techniques of this manipulation can best be studied through the pages of Népszabadság, the Hungarian party daily. The first reports Népszabadság printed on the Polish crisis presented the Polish leadership as self-critical: it was supposedly making earnest attempts to regain the people’s trust. At the same time, Népszabadság labeled strikes ‘work stoppages’ (munkabeszüntetések), which it repeatedly denounced as ‘unfruitful’. Curiously, strikes were practically always depicted as problems only of the recent past: they were constantly reported to have just ended. Life in Poland during the early months of the legal existence of Solidarity was thus continuously depicted as ‘returning to normal’, though it was occasionally admitted (clearly euphemistically, again) that the ‘work rhythm’ was ‘not adequate’.15 The word Solidarity was mentioned on 4 October 1980 for the first time but the organization was referred to from the beginning as ‘the so-called Solidarity’. Nevertheless, Népszabadság journalists seemed eager to point out that party members also belonged to it. Articles even claimed that Solidarity existed to ‘strengthen the socialist order’ and was dedicated to the ‘improvement of work discipline’. Reality was thus supposed to ‘contrast sharply’ with Western ‘anti-Polish propaganda’.16

In the fall of 1980, Népszabadság devoted attention almost exclusively to the Polish party, its congresses, resolutions and announcements. In short, what top leaders said was reported instead of what was going on in the country. At the same time, the sources of the crisis were still identified as excessive investment, underestimation of the importance of agriculture, and the exaggerated ‘propaganda of success’.17 Thus, the blame was chiefly put on the shoulders of the Polish communists. The recommendation of the Hungarian party daily was that Poland should introduce complex economic reforms. In other words, Népszabadság maintained that Polish problems could be solved by adopting something akin to the Hungarian way of reform: making economic changes without granting political concessions.

Soon, however, the tone changed significantly. Népszabadság now claimed that Solidarity was under threat and ‘a clear-cut dividing line needed to be drawn’ between supporters and enemies of socialism.18 From this moment on, Solidarity was depicted as the organizer of irresponsible strikes in the present: it was thus made clear that there was an ongoing problem in Poland. Significantly, the Hungarian party daily now also began translating Russian-language articles on Poland. The first of these appeared on 25 November 1980. The contents of these translated articles were markedly different from the usual veiled reports and ambivalent assessments written by Hungarian journalists. The translated Russian articles tended to claim that Solidarity was political in character and insisted that dual power could not be maintained. This change of rhetoric on Poland in late 1980 took place precisely at the time the Hungarian communist party adopted its first resolution on the opposition in Hungary. Foreign policy and internal policy seem to have been closely interrelated indeed.

The scheme used to explain the conflict hardly changed throughout the months of 1981. Népszabadság now kept on reporting that Solidarity was manipulated by anti-socialist forces, was becoming increasingly political, and was on its way to becoming a full-blown counter-revolutionary organization. By the spring of 1981, the paper even argued that Solidarity was solely responsible for the Polish economic situation. The exact amounts of losses (always in the range of millions) supposedly caused by Solidarity actions were repeatedly quoted. In sum, while the reports on Poland published in 1980 were confident in tone and thematically centred on what was formerly done wrongly but now corrected by the party, the focus in 1981 was on the actions of Solidarity and how things were worsening.

On 9 June 1981, the Hungarian Political Committee asked the press to report ‘with more urgency on Polish developments’.19 As a consequence, in September 1981, Solidarity was reported to be using ‘political and physical terror’.20 Népszabadság sounded positively hardline by this point in time: it claimed that ‘every means available could be used at this last moment to confront the counter-revolution’, whose ‘tactics and offensive propaganda’ were originally planned by ‘Western spies’ such as Adam Michnik and Jacek Kuroń.21 Solidarity was even reported to be ready to arm its members. It supposedly went so far as to declare military confrontation unavoidable.

Importantly, even as such hardline rhetoric was adopted, the Polish army was still reported to be ready to defend the country’s basic interests. In other words, the military solution, but not military intervention in Poland, was thus justified in advance. Upon the declaration of martial law, the Hungarian party daily was happy to declare that ‘order’ and ‘discipline’ were being restored. It presented Poland as a sovereign country on the path to socialist regeneration.

From the Polish story as told by the Hungarian party daily Népszabadság a number of conclusions can be drawn. First, Népszabadság originally adopted a comparatively soft tone and critical assessment of the communist authorities that largely corresponded to the Kádárist political convictions of the party. Several Népszabadság articles reiterated that what Poland really needed was to apply the Hungarian method of reforms: some economic reforms without any serious political concessions in the vein of Kádárism would supposedly solve the temporary crisis. Moreover, Népszabadság did not propagate a demagogic anti-Solidarity line until late 1980. While critical of Polish policy, neither did the Hungarian party daily make strongly worded demands for action until as late as the summer of 1981.22 The Polish crisis was thus essentially used to claim how important the combination of restoration and reform were, the combination that was arguably at the heart of the Kádárist consolidation and its perceived success.

Nevertheless, the tone of the major printed Hungarian communist organ became abusive in 1981. Once again in accordance with party prescriptions, it started to demand the declaration of martial law in the second half of 1981 which it (admittedly somewhat curiously) presented as a way of preserving Polish sovereignty. This interpretation fit into the self-interested Hungarian communist beliefs in the increase of the room for manoeuvre. I would thus argue that the paper took a fundamentally authoritarian but relatively differentiated stance. In important ways, Népszabadság reflected the paradox at the heart of consolidated Kádárism, a survivable dictatorship in the age of popular sovereignty. Kádárists tried to take a twisted road to arrive at less disastrous results.


IV. Testing the Limits of Tolerance

Just as the official stances presented here may have been relatively differentiated in comparison with the positions taken in other communist-ruled countries, there were various attempts that to test the rather narrow limits of tolerance within the controlled public sphere. Contrary to official views and expectations, certain intellectuals were keen on evoking the notion of Hungarian-Polish friendship, and various historical and cultural affinities in particular. The regime was not able to completely eliminate the grey zone where ideas could be semi-openly negotiated, but it made certain to levy fines on people for public utterances of this kind.

Tiszatáj, a literary journal published in Szeged, printed 66 pages titled Cracovian Panorama in its June 1981 issue.23 The focus was on unknown but important details about Cracow potentially relevant for the Hungarian readership. As Csaba G. Kiss formulated it later, the prime ambition was to ‘provide a few insights and increase interest in exploring more’ of this ‘city, perhaps next to Vienna, the coziest for Hungarians’.24 While the similarities between Polish and Hungarian history were recurrently emphasized and some references were made to the ‘friendship of a thousand years’ as well, the content of the issue could hardly be seen as overtly political. The problem the authorities had was with allusions at the wrong time.

The fact that the Cracovian Panorama was published in the summer of 1981 was partly due to an accident in publishing schedules. The chief editors of Hungarian journals were explicitly called on to decrease the quantity of Poland- related publications on 20 May 1981. As Dezső Tóth, the apparatchik who announced this decision to them, expressed it, this did not ‘mean banning Polish issues but it is desirable to water it down compared to the usual even when the theme is historical. It is not considered desirable at all to have more of any nature on Poland because this would have political significance.’25

In reaction to being questioned about the June issue, László Vörös, the chief editor of Tiszatáj between 1975 and 1986, claimed that their plan for the year 1981 was made much earlier than this announcement. Namely, it was already prepared in December 1980. Vörös also clarified that the plan was properly presented to the assessors of journals, who accepted it on 25 March 1981. Moreover, he insisted that their June issue was already in the printing house by 20 May – the day more elaborate discussion on any Polish themes was declared unwanted from high up in the political hierarchy. Vörös defended the publication not only by claiming that ‘the instruction only concerned future policy’ but also by arguing, rather cleverly, that ‘this [issue] creates the impression that the party is honest when claiming that in spite of all worries it trusts that the situation of socialist Poland is stable.’26 Still, the journal and its editor received financial penalties for their ‘misbehaviour’.

Another alternative (one might say semi-dissident) Hungarian journal, Mozgó Világ went further. Mozgó Világ established a section devoted to Central Europe in 1981 and attempted to subvert the official desire to downplay Polish issues in a much more direct way than Tiszatáj’s editors.27 It wanted to publish travel reports on contemporary Poland and had the issue prepared and even printed, but then it was quickly withdrawn from circulation. Being able to read impressions of contemporary Poland was judged as a source of potentially serious harm for the Hungarian reader.

It is worth remarking that, even though these were not directly caused by their Poland-related tests of the limits of official tolerance, both Tiszatáj and Mozgó Világ had sanctions placed against them in the 1980s. The editorial board of Mozgó Világ was forced to resign and was replaced in 1983; Tiszatáj was temporarily banned in 1986. While some would emphasize that the mere existence of alternative intellectual journals of the kind testifies to the fact there was a sphere – a kind of tolerated third zone – between the first sphere, the authorized one, and the second one, the unauthorized free public sphere, I consider it to be an equally significant fact that this in-between sphere was also closely supervised and would come under repeated attacks even in the mid-1980s.28

The most important background of the initiatives on Polish themes in 1980-1981 was the impressive quantitative increase in studies on the history of Polish literature, on literary parallels and connections and, more generally, on Polish historical themes in Hungary, that characterized the 1970s.29 Among those who tested the limits of tolerance in 1980-81, the small but highly active and visible group of Hungarian scholars of Polish literature played an important role. They tried to serve as mediators at a time when any more serious public discussion of Polish developments was officially declared unwanted and the Hungarian authorities were intent on denying even basic information. In sum, the narrow limits of official tolerance were strictly enforced. Thus, a more open and serious assessment of the situation became nearly impossible, excluding the rather informal though increasingly well-organized circles of dissidents. The months of the Polish crisis proved to be a crucial moment for them.


V. The Solidarity Crisis and the Emergence of the Hungarian Democratic Opposition

The central agenda of the Hungarian democratic opposition in the 1980s was to exercise their rights conspicuously. More concretely, the few hundred active members of the opposition were dedicated to the freedom of organization, the freedom of speech and the freedom to publish.30 All three had Polish antecedents. Not only did Polish opposition innovations constitute potential models for Hungarians to emulate, but the opposition in Hungary also gained major incentives from the rise of Solidarity and developed more stable structures precisely during the Polish crisis of 1980-81. As Róza Hodosán, a committed dissident, wrote in her memoir, ‘we began to discuss that there could be a peaceful and democratic turn in Eastern Europe for the very first time. The example of Solidarity was our greatest hope. One and a half years of our lives passed while paying close attention to developments there and being concerned about them.’31

The Komitet Obrony Robotników (Workers’ Defense Committee), a new organization for Polish intellectual opposition that aimed to provide concrete help to oppressed workers, was founded in 1976. Hungarian dissidents established contacts with them soon afterwards. By the time the Solidarity crisis erupted in 1980, some of the most prominent Hungarian dissidents, such as János Kis or György Bence, had already had their passports confiscated. Others, including a number of young intellectuals, were therefore the ones to take up contacts in Poland.32

They imported the ramka technique from Poland, the know-how that enabled them to produce many more samizdat copies and distribute them in Hungary.33 The period from 1976 to 1980 was the era of typewritten samizdat in Hungary. The year 1981 brought massive quantitative improvements: the number of copies jumped from tens or hundreds to thousands. Beside rather short-lived initiatives such as András Lányi’s Kisúgó and Magyar Figyelő edited by Iván Bába, the two main pillars of Hungarian underground publishing in the 1980s were the journal Beszélő and Gábor Demszky’s AB Kiadó, which produced titles including the journal Hírmondó. Beszélő and Hírmondó were both launched during the Polish crisis.34 It should come as no surprise that Máshonnan Beszélő, a samizdat journal dedicated to publishing translations, devoted its second issue entirely to Polish authors. Moreover, Péter Kende’s Magyar Füzetek, widely recognized as the most important Hungarian tamizdat, published in Paris, dedicated its seventh volume in late 1980 to what it called the Polish landslide (A lengyel földindulás).

1980-81 was also the the year when the Flying University (called Hétfői Szabadegyetem, the Monday University) proved most popular in Budapest. Polish developments evidently gave it much additional popularity; around 100 to 150 people regularly attended its lectures and seminars during the months Solidarity was allowed to function legally, while in other years the figure was typically around 25 to 35. There were many individual lectures that directly dealt with Polish matters. Such lectures were given by a host of speakers such as Gábor Demszky, András Hegedűs, Pál Juhász, György Krassó, András Lányi and Miklós Szabó, several of whom also visited Poland during the period in question.

In his book on the subject, the main organizer of the Monday University, Sándor Szilágyi, repeatedly highlights the negative impact the Polish putsch of December 1981 had on the attractiveness of and opportunities for opposition activities in Hungary.35 Szilágyi also claims that while he was aware of the existence of the underground university system in Poland, he knew little about it and in no sense intended to copy it. On the other hand, Mária M. Kovács, his fellow organizer, explicitly wanted to bring in recognized intellectuals and create a political forum for the wider community of intellectuals ‘in accordance with the Polish tradition’.36 In short, while Kovács consciously aimed at establishing something new in Hungary that already existed in Poland, Szilágyi was rather unconsciously involved in largely reproducing Polish oppositional patterns. Polish influences could work in various ways even in such a concrete case as the establishment of the Monday University.

After the declaration of martial law in Poland, the harassment of the Hungarian opposition grew worse. Faced with seeming regime solidification across Eastern Europe, Hungarian dissidents were forced to debate their prospects. In the spring of 1982, János Kis, perhaps the leading opposition thinker in Hungary, articulated his conviction that the democratic opposition had already proved that a rights-based movement was possible even under a communist regime. This movement, he argued, had to be deliberate about being different, and more than internally reformist. It also had to be consciously self-limiting to avoid direct confrontations from which it could not emerge victorious. In other words, the new opposition should avoid reproducing the patterns that led to the defeat of the Hungarian revolution of 1956 and the eventual failure of the reformist Prague Spring.37

It was the Polish example that showed Kis that there was a practicable third way. He thus concluded, in line with the oppositional strategies developed by Polish thinkers such as Adam Michnik, that the task ahead was to develop a coherent political platform that combined the goals of oppositional realism and societal democratization.38 Kis went on to state that the chances for a negotiated turn were best in Hungary because the Hungarian leaders were not as incompetent and inert as their Polish counterparts. At the same time, he emphasised that no regime consolidation could be expected in Poland either since the Polish crisis was economic in character and the political preconditions for sufficient reform measures were lacking. Kis thus correctly predicted that martial law might be the beginning of the end for the communist party state in Poland.

In conclusion, Polish developments arguably happened right on time for Hungarian dissident intellectuals. In spite of the continued self-assuredness of the Kádár regime – based, on the one hand, on its successful restoration and consolidation after 1956 and, on the other, on its relative legitimacy grounded on its moderate but tangible successes in the 1960s and 1970s – its best years were already behind it. However, the dissidents opposed to its dictatorial practices did not yet accept market liberalization as the way forward. Several of the leading opposition thinkers, such as János Kis, had already passed through their Marxist as well as Marxist revisionist phases by 1980-81 and were looking for ways to challenge the communist regime and establish more democratic alternatives to it.

The Hungarian situation of 1980-81 was thus characterized by the confluence of two factors – rather effective manipulation and successful authoritarian self-legitimation, and the emergence of the democratic opposition. At this historic moment, Polish developments provided an opportunity to pursue the former. They could even be used to increase the space for manoeuvre of the Hungarian regime within the Soviet bloc. On the other hand, these same developments served as a major inspiration for dissidents who, using Polish examples, reformulated themselves as the democratic opposition. The Polish crisis was also the moment of greatest hope and activity in this milieu. The irony is that the 1980s were to prove that the self-assuredness of the regime was as poorly justified as the emerging opposition’s hopes for societal democratization – but that is another story only evoked here to reveal the specificity of the historic moment described above.



Ferenc Laczó, Friedrich Schiller University. Born in 1982. Received his PhD from the Department of History at the Central European University, in Budapest, with a dissertation: Between Assimilation and Catastrophe. Hungarian Jewish Intellectual Discourses in the Shadow of Nazism. Currently works as a research associate responsible for the research project Intellectual Horizons at the Imre Kertész Kolleg, located at the Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena.




1 The following English-language accounts written before 1989 were particularly useful for me: T. Garton Ash, The Polish Revoluton: Solidarity (London: Jonathan Cape, 1983); J.J. Lipski, KOR; A History of the Workers’ Defense Committee 1976-1981 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985); S.W. Requaim (ed.), Solidarity and Poland: Impacts East and West (Washington D.C.: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 1988); A. Bromke, Eastern Europe in the Aftermath of Solidarity (Boulder: East European Monographs, 1985); J. Staniszkis, Poland’s Self-Limiting Revolution (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1984); A. Touraine et al., Solidarity. The Analysis of a Social Movement: Poland 1980-1981 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983); I have also consulted the following works published after the end of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe: D. Ost, Solidarity and the Politics of Anti-Politics: Opposition and Reform in Poland since 1968 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990); J. Leftwich Curry and L. Fajfer (eds.), Poland’s Permanent Revolution: People vs. Elites, 1956 to the Present (Washington D.C.: American University Press, 1996); J. Kubik, The Power of Symbols against the Symbols of Power: the Rise of Solidarity and the Fall of State Socialism in Poland (University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994); R. Zuzowski, Political Dissent and Opposition in Poland: The Workers’ Defense Committee ‘KOR’ (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1992). On Solidarity and the Soviet Union in Hungarian, there is now: M. Mitrovits, A remény hónapjai... A lengyel szolidaritás és a szovjet politika (1980–1981) (Budapest: Napvilag, 2010).

2 The history of transfer and role of transnational networks in 1989 is studied in P. Kenney, ‘Oppositional Networks and Transnational Diffusion in the Revolutions of 1989’, in: G.-R. Horn and P. Kenney (eds), Transnational Moments of Change: Europe 1945, 1968, 1989 (Landham: Rowham and Littlefield, 2004). The Polish crisis of 1980-81 and Hungarian materials are sadly missing from this otherwise highly stimulating volume.

3 The standard work on the Hungarian democratic opposition is E. Csizmadia, A magyar demokratikus ellenzék, 1968-1988 (Budapest: T-Twins, 1995). As is already suggested in his title, Csizmadia uses a different time frame than this article: he puts the beginning of the democratic opposition earlier but without providing a clear definition why he believes that the democratic opposition already emerged in 1968.

4 On the ‘relative legitimacy’ of Kadarism, see J.M. Rainer, ‘Posztsztalinizmus es kadarizmus – Torteneti diskurzusok’ in Ibid., Bevezetés a kádárizmusba (Budapest: 1956-os Intezet, 2011), p. 146.

5 On the immedaite pre-history of 1989 in Hungary, see Z. Ripp, Rendszerváltás Magyarországon, 1987-1990 (Budapest: Napvilag, 2006). Tellingly, in the pages of this historical study, the regime change begins in 1987. R.L. Tőkes, Hungary’s Negotiated Revolution: Economic Reform, Social Chance and Political Succession, 1957-1990 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996). A. Bozoki (ed.), The Roundtable Talks of 1989: The Genesis of Hungarian Democracy. Analysis and Documents (Budapest: CEU Press, 2002); I. Romsics, From Dictatorship to Democracy. The Birth of the Third Hungarian Republic, 1988-2001 (Boulder, Col.: East European Monographs, 2008).

6 On the Second World War and the Polish refugees, see E. Szenyan (ed.), Menekült-rapszódia: Lengyelek Magyarországon, 1939-1945 (Budapest: Szephalom Műhely, 2000). On Polish-Hungarian connections under communism, see J. Tischler, ‘Hogy megcsendüljön minden gyáva fül’: Lengyel-magyar közelmúlt (Pecs: Jelenkor, 2003).

7 See the discussion in J.C. Goldfarb, Beyond Glasnost: The Post-Totalitarian Mind (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1991).

8 For the concept of national Stalinism and its application to Romania, see V. Tismăneanu, Stalinism for All Seasons: A Political History of Romanian Communism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).

9 On Janos Kadar, see R. Gough, A Good Comrade. János Kádár, Communism and Hungary (London: I.B. Tauris, 2006). On Hungarian economic reform and its controversial (though rather widespread) identification with Kadarism, see J. Rainer, ‘Kadar Janos, a reformer’, in ibid., Bevezetés. On economic reform, see J. Kornai, The Socialist System. Political Economy of Communism (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1992). See I. Pető, ‘Valtozasok a valtozatlansagert. A gazdasagi rendszer atalakulasa a Kadar-korszakban’, in: A. Racz, Ki volt Kádár? Harag és részlehajlás nélkül Kádár-életútról (Budapest: Rubicon – Aquila, 2001). See also I.T. Berend, Central and Eastern Europe, 1944-1993: Detour from the Periphery to the Periphery (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

10 M. Kalmar, Ennivaló és hozomány. A kora kádárizmus ideológiája (Budapest: Magvető, 1998).

11 See J.M. Rainer, ‘Posztsztalinizmus es kadarizmus – Torteneti diskurzusok’, in: ibid., Bevezetés, p. 144. Rainer also talks of special Kadarist modes of interaction (based on informality, silences and role playing) and specific ‘social sentiments’ (közérzet) characterizing society. Rainer has also clarified that there was no coherent Kadarist platform and Hungary under Kadar never established qualitatively different structures.

12 Tischler, ‘Hogy’, p. 223.

13 Ibid., p. 223.

14 Ibid., p. 208.

15 On the linguistic universe of the 1970s in Hungary and the peculiar construction of normality that was an eminent part of it, see T. Kuczi and A. Becskehazi, Valóság ’70(Budapest: Scientia Humana, 1992).

16 Népszabadság, 16 Oct 1980.

17 Népszabadság, 5 Oct 1980.

18 Népszabadság, 20 Nov 1980.

19 Tischler, ‘Hogy’, p. 229.

20 Népszabadság, 11 Sept 1981.

21 Népszabadság, 19 Sept 1981.

22 Interestingly, the three stages of the conflict identified by David Ost, among others, could thus be reconstructed even on the basis of Népszabadság (even if radically different meanings were assigned to these here). The three stages of David Ost are: first, ‘struggle for societal democratization within the existing political environment’ between August and December 1980. Second, Solidarity beginning to press ‘for a political solution requiring a transformation of the state’. Third, the abandonment of the resistance to ‘politics’ and openly demanding a new political accord after August 1981. Ost, Solidarity, p. 78.

23 Tiszatáj got the award For Polish Culture for its Polish issue published in 1976. In the late 1970s, the journal already received criticism for gradually developing into a forum for népi (populist) writers, which was against the népfront (popular front) principle, and also because articles with ‘nationalist tendencies’ appeared in it. See G. Gyuris, A Tiszatáj fél évszázada (Szeged: Somogyi-konyvtar, 1997), pp. 125-6. Tiszatáj published 90 articles on Poland in two decades. In 1980 almost all issues featured something of Polish interest. In the issue of November 1980, Istvan Kovacs published an article on the Polish uprising of 1830 where he discussed the values inherent to ‘hopeless uprisings’. Several additional articles also dealt with the Polish tradition of resistance and the violent acts committed against Poles throughout history. See A. Szesztay, ‘Lengyel tematika a Tiszatajban 1966- 1986’, in: C. Gy. Kiss and K. Sutarski (eds.), Lengyel nyár, magyar ősz (Budapest: Orszagos Lengyel Kisebbsegi Onkormanyzat, 1997), pp. 124-6.

24 Phrases taken from ‘Introduction’ in Kiss, Lengyel, pp. 13-14.

25 Letter of Dezső Toth to Laszlo Voros, chief editor of Tiszatáj, written on the 8 June 1981. Quoted in Gyuris Tiszatáj, pp. 127-128. Quotation marks in the original.

26 Laszlo Voros’s Letter to Dezső Toth, Deputy Minister at the Ministry of Culture. Quoted in Gyuris, Tiszatáj, pp. 128-9. The letter was written on 11 June 1981.

27 G. Nemeth, A Mozgó Világ története 1971-1983 (Budapest: Palatinus, 2002).

28 On cultural politics under Kadar, see, among other works, S. Revesz, Aczél és korunk (Budapest: Sik Kiado, 1997) and E. Standeisky, Gúzsba kötve. A kulturális elit és a hatalom (Budapest: 1956-os Intezet, 2005). On late Kadarism as a ‘discursive dictatorship’, see E. Csizmadia, Diskurzus és diktatúra. A magyar értelmiség vitái Nyugat- Európáról késő Kádár-rendszerben (Budapest: Szazadveg Kiado, 2001).

29 See the details in C. Gy. Kiss (ed.). Magyar-lengyel kulturális kapcsolatok 1948-1978 (Budapest: Tankonyvkiado, 1980). See also L. Hopp and C. Gy. Kiss, ‘A magyarorszagi polonisztika 1971-1980’, Helikon 1 (1985).

30 On Samizdat, see G.H. Skilling, Samizdat and an Independent Society in Central and Eastern Europe (London: The Macmillan Press Ltd., 1989). See also E. Rissmann (ed.), Szamizdat: Alternatív kultúrák Kelet- és Közép-Europában (Budapest: Stencil Kiado - Europai Kulturalis Alapitvany, 2004).

31 R. Hodosan, Szamizdat történetek (Budapest: Noran, 2004), p. 68.

32 See B. Bogdańska-Szadai (ed.), A magyar kapcsolat (Budapest: Magyarorszagi Bem Jozsef Lengyel Kulturalis Egyesulet, 2010).

33 Miklos Haraszti called the ramka technique ‘freedom of the press itself’. See M. Haraszti, ‘Civil kurazsitol civil forradalomig: a magyar szamizdat ket evtizede’, Magyar Lettre Internationale 38, p. 57. Hodosan wrote the following about ramka: ‘“Ramka” is a special knife and it was our biggest treasure. (“Ramka is a Polish word, which has no Hungarian equivalent and we just employed it to prove that the Poles taught us the technique of how to produce samizdat).’ Hodosan, Szamizdat, p. 142.

34 A good place to start exploring Hírmondó is G. Demszky (ed.), Szamizdat ’81-89: válogatás a Hírmondó című folyóiratból (Budapest: AB - Beszelő, 1990). For the Samizdat issues of Beszelő, see F. Havas (ed.), Beszélő összkiadás 1981-1989, Volume I to III (Budapest: AB - Beszelő, 1992).

35 S. Szilagyi (ed.), A Hétfői Szabadegyetem és a III/III: Interjúk, dokumentumok. (Budapest: Uj Mandatum, 1999).

36 See the interview Szilagyi, A Hétfői Szabadegyetem , pp. 51-58.

37 J. Kis, ‘Gondolatok a kozeljovőről’ in Beszélő 3. On dissident political thought in the region, see B.J. Falk, The Dilemmas of Dissidence in East-Central Europe (Budapest: Central European University Press, 2003). On the rise of human rights discourse in the 1970s, see S. Moyn, The Last Utopia. Human Rights in History (Cambridge, Ma.: Harvard, 2010).

38 In the 1990s, Kis wrote: ‘In 1976, I got hold of his [Michnik’s] essay New Evolutionism, which drastically changed my views on the possibilities of political action. The difficulties he was facing were the same as mine – and of so many others in our region. But he also found a solution too. […] He justified the political significance of new evolutionism not only by claiming that behaving according to it was morally superior to false realism (collaborating with the regime in order to make it livable) and false fundamentalism (‘our demands have to be the destruction of the system and national independence, here and now’) but also by showing that it was also based on rational calculation.’ Janos Kis, ‘Utoszo’, in: A. Michnik, Gondban a bóhoc. Esszék és tanulmányok (Bratislava: Kalligram, 1996), p. 372 and p. 376. On the perspectives of Michnik, see Adam Michnik, ‘Notes from the Revolution’, in: A. Michnik, Letters from Freedom. Post-Cold War Realities and Perspectives (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998). On Kis specifically, see pp. 144-6.



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Photo of the publication Apology – All is Relative. Stories of Acknowledgment, Hesitation and Denial after Communism
Gergana Tzvetkova

Apology – All is Relative. Stories of Acknowledgment, Hesitation and Denial after Communism

17 August 2012
  • Poland
  • Apology
  • Central Europe
  • Eastern Europe
  • Russia
  • Turkey
  • transitional justice


With the emergence of transitional justice, the recognition of past wrongdoings moved from the realm of personal relationships into the domain of public discourse. Nowadays it is not only individuals but also presidents, parliaments and religious institutions that apologize for past mistakes. This paper centres on official apology as a mechanism of transitional justice and reflects on concrete acts of symbolic reparation. The examples analysed come from the region of Central and Eastern Europe where the acknowledgement of crimes and repression under the communist regimes is discussed as an important step in transitional justice necessitated by the peculiarities of these regimes and the resulting social needs.



The world is still a dangerous, stressful and unpredictable place in which we live. We face new challenges, we stand up to new, faceless enemies, and we struggle to survive crises that we never thought would come to pass. At the same time, on a more positive note, our rights as human beings are now codified in international and national law, and we have at our disposal a greater audience to which we can voice our concerns and more institutions to which we can address our demands for justice. Continuing the optimistic tone of this introduction, I would say that it is also becoming increasingly difficult for our tormentors to remain at large. With a historic first verdict in March 2012 against the war criminal Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, the International Criminal Court made a strong statement about its intention to prosecute human rights violators in the future.1 Last year was also marked by a major breakthrough for international justice – the arrest of the Bosnian Serb General Radko Mladic.

Furthermore, other developments around the world support the argument that the trail of justice never grows cold, for they pertain to events that happened not in the last decade or two, but much earlier. For example, although the workings of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal2 so far cannot be described as smooth, this hybrid court recently produced its first sentence. Kaing Guek Eav received life in prison and, despite the fact that Pol Pot is dead and the Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia more than thirty years ago, the trial of the former prison commander provided a forum for remorse, truth and retribution. After decades of hiding, controversy and evidence gathering, in 2011 the 91-year-old John Demjanjuk3 was found guilty of murder in his capacity of a guard at the Sobibor concentration camp.4 In 2004 Pope John Paul II apologized for the infamous activities of the Spanish inquisition.5

All of these events fall within the scope of the developing discipline of transitional justice, well-defined as the ‘full range of processes and mechanisms associated with a society’s attempt to come to terms with a legacy of large-scale past abuses, in order to ensure accountability, serve justice and achieve reconciliation.’6 Transitional justice has grown to be associated with not only criminal proceedings, but also truth (and reconciliation) commissions, commemorations, relevant legislation, and museums and institutes dedicated to studying the past. The list of related measures that have been, are being, and can be implemented worldwide is long. This paper, however, will focus on one of the practices connected with the process of dealing with the past, namely official apology. The general term apology has come to describe ‘an acknowledgement of an offence and an expression of remorse’ (Lazare 2004). For the purpose of this paper we can define official apology as a public statement, made by an individual representing a state, which recognizes that harm was done to a certain group of persons in the past and expresses some degree of remorse in relation to that trauma. This definition fits into the concept Tavuchis describes as an ‘[a]pology from one collectivity to another, or Many to Many’ (Tavuchis 1991: 48).

As the examples above show, the victims’ (or their descendants’) demands for transitional justice and the mechanisms for dealing with the past can cross the boundaries of both space and time. Consequently, the world of official apologies – where they are asked for, offered, accepted or refused – is rich in recent and remote events, remorse and stubbornness, willingness to compromise and implacability. Through the years Pope John Paul II also apologized for the Roman Catholic Church’s inaction during the Holocaust (1998)7 and for the sins committed in the name of the Catholic Church as a whole (2000) .8 In 1997 British Prime Minister Tony Blair blamed the Irish Potato Famine of the mid-19th century on ‘those who governed in London’ at the time.9 In 2005 at the Asia-Africa summit, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi expressed his country’s ‘deep remorse and heartfelt apology’ in relation to its ‘colonial aggression’10 during World War II.

Once given, however, apologies do not simply float in the atmosphere of international relations, but in fact usually cause an official response or more serious repercussions. For example, Koizumi’s apology was anything but warmly welcomed in China – the country that suffered the most under the blows of Japan’s Imperial Army. The reason was apparently the fact that the apologetic statement was accompanied by a visit by Japanese lawmakers to a controversial war shrine.11 United States President Barack Obama was strongly criticized by his Republican opponents for apologizing too much for past events in which the country participated directly or indirectly, and even for its actions in the present.12 In comparison, one of his predecessors – George Bush – is quoted as saying: ‘I will never apologize for the United States of America — I don’t care what the facts are.’13 Margot Honecker, the widow of Erich Honecker and still a resolute supporter of the former communist regime in East Germany, took a similar stance. Under communism she was minister of education from 1963 to 1989, but she feels no regret about the way the regime crushed all opposition and basic freedoms, even killing those who tried to escape its oppression.14

All these seemingly unrelated examples demonstrate the diversity of the international world of official apologies, and we can freely conclude that apologies and statements of recognition are never perceived as stand-alone acts. They are always scrutinized in relation to the historical episode they refer to, the events that accompany them, their exact wording, the social position of the person who makes them, and even his or her personal characteristics. The purpose of this paper is to discuss the importance of apologies as components of strategies of dealing with the past in postcommunist Central and Eastern Europe,15 as well as to analyse their effect on the general social climate in the country they originate from and the group they address.

I argue that apologies and statements of recognition are one of the most suitable practices of transitional justice with regard to countries from the this region for three reasons. First and foremost, these acts can symbolize the transition from the claustrophobic and suspicion-inducing environment of communist regimes to free societies committed to strengthening democratic values. Second, in these terms, apologies and the clarifications of historical events they often include are capable not only of providing the public with important details, but also of ‘cleansing’ society of feelings of collective guilt or shame. Third, the mechanism is especially relevant in the post-communist case because much of the wrongdoing addressed by the apologies took place in the distant past and most of the main actors have passed away, which rules out other transitional justice mechanisms like court trials and truth commissions.

At the same time, the paper will also point to two risks of apologizing and not apologizing. The first concerns the context and the content of such statements – as we saw with the Japanese prime minister’s apology, the combination of the right words with wrong deeds can justify the validity of the old saw about the road to hell being paved with good intentions. The second danger in this transitional justice mechanism is falling into the trap of endless apologizing – one party apologizes and then awaits an apology in return; the second party produces the expected response but then goes on to dredge up another casus, often prior. This vicious circle is often set in motion by the rhetoric of extreme nationalist parties or relations between countries (or groups) with long histories of conflict or tension.

The arguments bearing on the suitability of apology and statements of acknowledgement and the related risks will be backed by actual cases from the region of Central and Eastern Europe. The paper will analyse the specifics of each context, the content of each statement, and the reactions it produced on national and regional level. First of all however, I will begin with a theoretical discussion on the nature of apologizing, and its growing popularity as a tool of international relations and an element of transitional justice strategies.


The Return of Morality and the Advent of Reconciliation

The attention that official apology has attracted in recent years has led to the construction of a multilevel framework for the concept – a framework rich in modalities and meanings that raises numerous questions. The profusion of statements recognizing pain and suffering has prompted scholars to talk about ‘The Age of Apology’ (Gibney), the ‘Guilt of Nations’ (Barkan) and ‘Apology Mania’ (Taft).

In one of the most fundamental books on the topic of apology in general, Aaron Lazare refers to it as ‘one of the most profound human interactions,’ with the ‘power to heal humiliation and grudges, remove the desire for vengeance, and generate forgiveness on the part of the offended parties’ (Lazare 2004: 1). Discussing apology from a legal perspective, Lee Taft defines it as a ‘complicated and courageous act, one rich in moral meaning when the apology is authentically expressed’ (Taft 2000: 1138). The question of an apology’s authenticity is subject to deliberation when it comes both to the field of international relations and to the sphere of personal communication. Everyone, perhaps, has been involved at least once in a situation where a friend apologizes for betraying or wronging us and, although we are happy and eager to forgive, we suspect that the friend might not have been sincere and apologized only to bring things back to normal. However, Richard Joyce argues from a philosophical stance that insincerity does not change the fact that regret is expressed, ‘for an apology is an expression of regret’ (Joyce 2006: 53).

I believe that in the context of transitional justice, apology signifies an act of symbolic reparation directed towards the victims of a turbulent historical period. It can be established that statements of the acknowledgement of abuse or guilt and responsibility belong to the realm of restorative justice. Thus, apology entails a state-driven fulfilment of the right to reparation, which, as defined by the ‘Joinet/Orentlicher principles against impunity,’ combines ‘the right of individual victims or their beneficiaries to reparation’ and ‘the duty of the state to provide satisfaction.’ (Sisson 2010: 12).

But apart from these very well systematized definitions, political apologies for past injustices remain multifaceted and complex phenomena. An apology can address very recent or very distant events; it can be accompanied by material reparations and other symbolic acts (like commemorations) or not; it can be made by a (former) head of state or passed by parliament16; it can be addressed to different groups such as ethnic or religious minorities, political dissidents, and so on; and it can differ from other apologies in its wording – it can be more moderate or highly emotional and repentant. In any case, apology is becoming more and more popular as an act of political maturity, although it can never be proved that an apology is sincere and not made under pressure, or because something is expected in exchange (for example, another apology).

According to Elazar Barkan, the practice of reparations is an expression of the newly emerging tendency of states to indulge in self-reflection and compensate victims of suffering, even without being obliged to do so by the international community (Barkan 2000: xvii). Jeffrey K. Olick places apology and reparation among the practices of what he calls the ‘politics of regret’ – the ‘new principle of legitimation’ based on drawing conclusions and lessons from an awful past (Olick and Coughlin 2003: 38). In this sense, we can think of apology as a manifestation not only of the readiness to recognize the suffering of others (and potentially to make up for it), but also of society’s budding desire to reflect on its own actions, internal dynamics, and history in general. This does not mean that society should submerge itself in self-destructive feelings of collective guilt, but rather that it should seek to uncover and understand the reasons that brought about the specific historical injustices.

Many scholars and practitioners agree that the offering of an apology is an attempt to restore the moral balance that was abruptly upset by the violation of a significant norm of morality (Taft 2000: 1137). Continuing this line of thought, Tavuchis speaks of apologies as entailing ‘the acknowledgement of the legitimacy of the violated rule’ (Tavuchis 1991: 3), and defines them as ‘strategic instances that illuminate complex social processes and the intricacies of moral commitments (Tavuchis 1991: 5). The importance of acknowledgement as a symbolic act is widely discussed by Trudy Govier, who quotes the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu describing the recognition of the existence of a violent act (and possibly one’s participation in it) as a way of restoring the identity and the dignity of the victim (Govier 2003: 66).

The relationship between the victim and the perpetrator, or more broadly speaking between the aggressive regime and the group it targeted, leads us to another notion that is often evoked and emphasized – reconciliation. A single, comprehensive definition of reconciliation still eludes the efforts of the academic community, which should come as no surprise given the differences of beliefs, cultures and traditions of communication that exist across societies. In the context of this paper and the historical period it refers to – the communist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe – I would like to think of reconciliation as being close to a ‘shared comprehensive vision’ and ‘harmony’ (Crocker 2003: 54). Both Govier and Crocker also connect reconciliation to democracy, a view I support and will further prove in this paper. According to them, the achievement of reconciliation may be considered as the opening of a long-closed door that leads to greater democratization (Prager 2003: 14).

With all this in mind, we can centre on a theoretical framework of apology and acknowledgement more narrowly reflecting the political and social realities of the countries discussed here. After the secretive, cruel and identity-destroying communist regimes released the societies from their tight grip, it became important to talk about the past and to break the silence that was so characteristic of these regimes. Therefore, it is important to have both an audience eager to hear an apology and an actor ready to deliver it – both of these are signs of political and social maturity. In this sense, the term reconciliation may mean reconciliation of the oppressed society with its own past of oppression – the recognition of the crimes of this past and the acceptance of their implications for the present. Apology is one of the tools of such reconciliation.


Acknowledgement – Better Late than Never

Having touched upon the theoretical framework of apology as a transitional justice mechanism, I will now turn to a concrete recent example of symbolic reparation – the declaration adopted by the Bulgarian Parliament on 11 January 2012 condemning the forced assimilation policies of the communist regime directed against the Bulgarian Muslims.17 The document was proposed by the right-wing party Democrats for a Strong Bulgaria and was backed by 112 of the 115 MPs present.18 The assimilation policies, still best known under the cynical name ‘Revival Process,’ aimed at stripping the Muslim communities in the country of their ethnic and/or religious identity by means of massive and often humiliating practices such as the changing of names and bans on the use of the Turkish language or the wearing of particular clothing. People who dared to defend their way of life, traditions and beliefs were persecuted, beaten, imprisoned, and even killed. Unfortunately, many Bulgarian Turks were also forced to leave the country and settle in Turkey, where they decided to remain after the fall of communism. Even more unfortunate is the fact that the legal proceedings against the individuals responsible for the forced assimilation were never concluded – an extensive topic that should be discussed separately. My intention here is to focus on two aspects of the passage of the declaration, which I consider relevant in view of my previous reflections on apology. These are its content and its timing.

First of all, the declaration does not contain the words apology, apologize, Regret or remorse. In that sense it cannot be viewed as a full apology, because it does not address the community that was subject to forced assimilation in the first place. However, this should not be considered as diminishing the significance of the document for one main reason – the lack of a direct apology would matter only if the declaration had been issued by the regime (or a reformed version of it) that committed the crime. An apology delivered by a rightist coalition would be superficial, to say the least. Besides that, it might generate a feeling of collective guilt, which is detrimental in terms of historical accuracy and the wider public understanding of the events. The declaration sends a strong message, absolutely denouncing the totalitarian regime’s policies, by describing them as ethnic cleansing.19 Although international law does not provide a definition of this term, the practices employed in the process of ethnic cleansing fall within the scope of crimes against humanity, war crimes and sometimes even genocide (Lieberman 2010: 46). The declaration, therefore, should not be undervalued. It recognizes, after all, the fact that a very grave crime was committed against the Bulgarian Muslims. Another powerful point made by the document is the stress placed on the importance of judicial action – the need to reach verdicts in the cases against those who conceived the plan for forced assimilation. The implication is clear – many symbolic acts will have even greater significance when accompanied by or leading to practical measures and actions.

The timing of the declaration should be discussed in view of the two main ‘accusations’ that found their way into the public discourse in Bulgaria. The first criticism was from those who thought that the document came too late. Others decided to link, sometimes implicitly and sometimes explicitly, the adoption of the declaration with the parliament’s rejection of a document 20 recognizing the Armenian genocide committed by the Ottoman Empire during and after World War I. When it comes to this second issue, it must be stressed that placing such comparisons for consideration on the social agenda is nothing but wrong. The two historical events and any transitional justice mechanisms associated with them should be analysed separately and any discussion of the two side-by-side should be backed by serious academic evidence and argumentation. As to the criticism that the declaration is belated, it must be admitted that many official statements of remorse and condemnation came decades and even centuries after the wrongs were committed. We have to bear in mind that the adoption of a declaration recognizing a crime against humanity is a serious political act, requiring strong political will. The fact that such political will was lacking in Bulgaria for 22 years is sad and discouraging but, again, this should not minimize the importance of the document.

There are two issues related to the history of the ‘Revival Process’ that should be mentioned because of their implications for the present. First, the forced assimilation campaign contributed to mobilization on both sides (Bulgarian and Turkish) and to the rise of nationalistic moods during the transition to democracy and even nowadays (Gruev and Kalionski 2008: 158), when the transition to democracy is supposedly complete. Second, it is important to investigate whether the Turkish community, and Bulgarian society as a whole, has overcome and come to terms with the trauma, and to what extent (Gruev and Kalionski 2008: 195). Such an investigation necessarily involves the application of other transitional justice mechanisms. Perhaps the next step of the process of dealing with the past would be to incorporate the memory of this episode into the commemorative culture in the country and the grand narrative about the communist period in Bulgaria.

The Arab-Turkish names of the Bulgarian Muslims were restored at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of 1990s; some of the people who had been forced out returned to the country, but the mosaic of interethnic relations had been significantly altered. As I mentioned before, if there had been a full-fledged official apology to the Bulgarian Muslims, it should have come from the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), which is accepted as the successor of the Bulgarian Communist Party. In March 1991, the BSP’s Central Council adopted a declaration that ‘admitted the political culpability of the party for the repression, but rejected the possibility that this political culpability should be transformed into a judicial one’ (Montero 2010: 142). The persecution and the wrongdoing by the regime were blamed solely on Todor Zhivkov and his closest comrades, who were expelled from the party. The continuing omnipresence of the communist apparatus in the political and social environment made it impossible to produce a meaningful apology or any transitional justice measure whatsoever. The next chapter will look at two other former communist countries and the implications of apologies there.


Apology – from Warsaw to Moscow and Back

In 1993 Aleksander Kwasniewski, at that time President of Poland and leader of the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), apologized in parliament ‘to all those who experienced injustice and wrongdoing by the [communist] authorities and the system before 1989’ (Montero 2010: 146). Although his words represented a definite condemnation of the regime and included a direct apology, his subsequent actions were more of a disappointment for the pro-lustration camp (Stan 2006: 16). Furthermore, as Lavinia Stan – a noted analyst of transitional justice processes in post-communist Europe – suggests, the effort by Kwasniewski and former communists to come to terms with the past should be attributed not so much to their desire to establish the truth about violations of human rights under communism, as to their wish to ‘control the damage done by the collapse of the Oleksy government’ (Stan 2006: 50). This can serve as another exemplary case of a good start not followed by any major developments, as a result of either insufficient political will or the possibility that the initial step was driven by completely different motives.

We can describe as significant the role in transitional justice processes in Poland of Wojciech Jaruzelski, who has been in the spotlight many times over the last two decades because of his apologies and, of course, the trial against him. The trial dealt with the contentious period of martial law in Poland, and at the beginning of 2012 the court ruled that the proclamation of martial law was, indeed, a communist crime. Unfortunately, Jaruzelski, the man at the top of the pyramid of generals responsible for martial law, was declared medically unfit for court proceedings in 2011.21 Jaruzelski may not have been tried, but he has surely done his share of apologizing and assuming responsibility in the public space. In 2005 he referred to the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia as a ‘stupid political act’ and expressed his regret for the decision to join it.22 In fact, this was not the first time the general apologized for this particular episode – he expressed his remorse as early as 1990. Only recently, at the end of 2011, did Jaruzelski also apologize for the imposition of martial law with the words ‘I am sorry to everyone who met with some form of injustice or harm. I say this once again.’23

Despite his explicit expressions of regret, which come much closer to an actual apology than the statements in the Bulgarian case, Jaruzelski, as many analysts have observed, remains a controversial figure. For example, he still defends the stance that martial law was the ‘lesser evil’ that prevented a Soviet invasion that would have claimed more lives and arrests. His arguments however, are not accepted by some Polish politicians and Solidarity veterans.24 Furthermore, with similarities to the case of the heated debate between Japan and China presented in the introduction, only three months prior to the apology for participation in the crushing of the Prague Spring Jaruzelski received from Vladimir Putin a medal honouring his contribution to the fight against Nazism. Naturally, this act created an outcry in both Poland and the Czech Republic, although it was, again, only a symbolic gesture.

All this goes to prove that irrespective of the motives behind General Jaruzelski’s apologies – which in all probability no one will ever know with certainty – his words were fuel for the debate on the nature of the Polish communist regime and the complex web of relations among the Sovietbloc countries and between them and the USSR. On a more psychological and emotional level, these events also raise questions: Is it possible to realize the wrongfulness of one’s actions and seek absolution? Is it possible to forgive and turn the page? It is doubtful that questions like these have only a single answer. They require an interdisciplinary approach – the input of political science, history, psychology, and anthropology, because societies remember, forgive and forget differently. As we have seen, the involvement of another ethnic group or even another country only makes the situation even more complicated.

Because of the way the USSR once influenced the paths of the Eastern bloc countries and its own constituent republics, Russia today plays a central part in the theatre of international apologies, or such, at least, is the role assigned to it by others. Indeed, Russia has been asked to apologize numerous times. A good occasion for renewed demands for apology was the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II, celebrated in 2005. The presidents of Estonia and Lithuania boycotted the event, thus supporting the opinion that the USSR’s victory over Nazi Germany was merely the beginning of the occupation of their countries. The Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga attended the Moscow ceremony but only to ask Russia’s highest authorities once more to condemn the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.25

A similar demand for recognition of the nature of the USSR’s presence in the Baltic States was made at a high European level by the European Commission Vice President Guenter Verheugen.26

But there is another problem: when the Russian political elite, usually represented by Vladimir Putin, tries to produce a statement even vaguely reminiscent of apology, it almost always leads to an escalation, and not a diminution of tensions and accusations of negationism. In the wake of the solemn remembrance of the beginning of WWII, Putin – then prime minister – ostensibly apologized for the Soviet alliance with Nazi Germany and admitted that Stalin had ordered the Katyn massacre. However, as many commentators argued, his address brought anything but reconciliation and gratitude, because in the immediate context of his statement Putin referred to other events, as if to explain and justify the actions of the Soviet Union. For example, although the Russian prime minister condemned the secret Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (as he has been asked to do), he did not hesitate to add that Britain and France had also signed agreements with Hitler one year earlier, thus leaving little choice for the USSR.27 Putin also compared the Katyn massacre to the treatment of Soviet POWs by Poland in the 1920s.28The heated debates on the past are full of attempts to equate one case of suffering to another; this tendency to juxtapose violent historical episodes and compare the number of victims is what Robert Hayden called the ‘recounting of the dead’ in relation to the wars in former Yugoslavia (Hayden 1999: 167). Although such discussions create sensation, media frenzy and outbursts of radical nationalism, they have already proven to be extremely unproductive and detrimental to social dialogue, truth-seeking and reconciliation.



It is all relative with an apology – it can be healing and bring relief, but it can be also elusive and misleading, sometimes even for those who have to deliver it. ‘[Therefore,] I would like to apologize for all the mistakes I made towards my nation and people. I know that indeed I was wrong. There is nothing that can change that and I honestly would like to express my apology to my people.’29These words belong to Kaing Guek Eav-Duch, who commanded the notorious S-21 camp during the Khmer Rouge regime. But after dozens of declarations like the ones mentioned above, the prison commander asked for a full acquittal saying that he was only following orders. As we saw at the beginning of this paper, his appeal was denied. Of course, especially after the latter action, nobody can be sure if Duch’s behavior was driven by genuine remorse. But still, the document containing his apologies was uploaded on the website of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia for the whole world to see – and especially for those who survived the torture and the descendants of those who did not. Thus, the personal motives of the perpetrators for making an apology remain in the background; of primary importance is the impact of a concrete statement on those affected by past violence.

To return to the communism of Central and East Europe, it should be reiterated as a conclusion that apology, or a more comprehensive acknowledgement of crimes and assumption of responsibility, has the potential to be a successful transitional justice mechanism. This is especially valid in relation to the regimes in Bulgaria and Romania which had very deep roots, and where currently there is almost no possibility of the criminal prosecution of the main perpetrators (usually because they have passed away). But in this case apology is a big step toward coming to terms with the past for another, very important reason, namely the restoration of identity it can offer. In relation to the Bulgarian Muslims we are talking about a literal reconstruction of the missing pieces of ethnic and religious identity deconstructed during the ‘Revival Process.’ More broadly speaking, despite their differences, all communist regimes after 1945 aimed at blurring identities and turning individuals into the perfect subjects of the new socialist order. It was in their nature never to explain, never to apologize – just like Mrs. Honecker. Therefore, an apology or at least the recognition of crimes will surely make a difference, by restoring the dignity of political prisoners and dissidents as well as, probably, exposing some who still benefit from the positions they once occupied and, it is to be hoped, by making those who ‘just lived through’ the regime reflect upon it.

Of course, apologizing cannot be the sole means of achieving all this, but it is a suitable means of paving the way for more practical steps. When delivered in the right way, it is a noteworthy symbolic act to accompany less ‘exciting’ undertakings that attract less public attention. There are also increasing efforts on the regional and European level to condemn more definitively the crimes of totalitarianism. Besides this immediate outcome, it is also expected that any events and initiatives in that direction will become a forum for sharing experience, ideas, and best practices. The preamble of the 2008 Prague Declaration on European Conscience and Communism, signed by prominent European intellectuals, states that ‘many Communist parties have not apologized for Communist crimes’30 and calls for several measures that would intensify debate on the issue and increase public awareness. The Vilnius Declaration adopted in the framework of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly in 2009 reiterated the condemnation of the crimes of totalitarian regimes and the proclamation of the European Day of Remembrance for Victims of Stalinism and Nazism, designated as such by the European Parliament in 2009. In 2010 the foreign ministers of Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, and Romania urged the European Union to ‘consider a law against denying or trivializing the crimes of totalitarian regimes.’31 And again on a European level, the educational project Platform of European Memory and Conscience was founded in Prague in 2011. It ‘brings together institutions and organizations from the V4 and other EU countries active in research, documentation, awareness-raising and education about the totalitarian regimes which befell the Visegrad region in the 20th century.’32

Initiatives on the highest national and international level attract public and media attention but also add fuel to long-existing controversies – for example, the issue of ‘equating’ the crimes of Nazism to those of communism. Since the purpose of this paper is different, it will suffice to say that declarations, resolutions, projects, programs, and so on like those described above generally increase the political and social interest in transitional justice. Improved public awareness about the times of communism and a greater wish to come to terms with the legacy of the past will only benefit the democratic path these societies chose to take more than twenty years ago. It is all relative when it comes down to apologizing, for the acts that accompany it sometimes downgrade the intentions of the one who apologizes. At the same time, the fact that apologies are surrounded by so much caution and diplomatic fuss means that they are not just empty words but do actually carry some weight. No matter how difficult it is to determine the genuineness of the motives behind an apology, acknowledgement is still preferred to silence.



Gergana Tzetkova. Graduated from the European Regional Master’s Degree in Democracy and Human Rights in South-East Europe at the University of Sarajevo and the University of Bologna. Her thesis focused on the application of transitional justice measures in the Republic of Croatia (G. Tzvetkova, ‘Never Again? History of Transitional Justice in Croatia’, in Master Theses Selected for Publishing, Academic Year 2010-2011, published in 2011). Currently she is preparing PhD proposal with the aim of continuing research on the topic of dealing with the past, but with focus on her home country Bulgaria.




1 Press Release 14.03.2012, ICC First verdict: Thomas Lubanga guilty of conscripting and enlisting children under the age of 15 and using them to participate in hostilities. ICC.

2 A hybrid court, officially known as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, trying key officials of the Khmer Rouge regime.

3 John Demjanjuk died on March 17, 2012 when this paper was in preparation. Although at the time of his death, his verdict was still under appeal, it created a precedent and prepared the ground for many new investigations of former Nazi camp guards. D. Rising ‘John Demjanjuk, convicted death camp guard, dies’, The Guardian (2012).

4 J. Ewing and A. Cowell, ‘Demjanjuk Convicted for Role in Nazi Death Camp’, New York Times (2011).

5 Political Apologies and Reparations.

6 Part of the definition of ‘transitional justice’ provided by Kofi Annan in the Report of the Secretary-General to the United Nations Security Council, The rule of law and transitional justice in conflict and post-conflict societies.

7 World Europe, ‘Vatican apologises over Holocaust’, BBC News (1998)

8 Political Apologies and Reparations.

9 K. Marks, ‘Blair issues apology for Irish Potato Famine’, The Independent (1997)

10 BBC Monitoring, ‘Excerpts from Japan PM’s apology’, BBC News (2005)

11 AP, ‘China dismisses Japanese apology for war aggression’, USA TODAY (2005)

12 G. Kessler, 2011, ‘Obama’s “Apology Tour”’, The Washington Post (2011).

13 National Cold War Exhibition, viewed 30 March 2012.

14 Europe Online Magazine, ‘Honecker’s Heritage’ (2012).

15 For the purposes of this paper and considering its focus on transitional justice in relation to communist regimes, the region of Central and Eastern Europe here includes the countries that founded the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance: Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia (now Czech Republic and Slovakia), Hungary, Poland, Romania and the former USSR.

16 In general, there is no written rule as to which state representative should deliver an apology. As an example of this, I would refer to a case from 2010 when the Croatian President Ivo Josipović apologized to the Parliament of Bosnia and Herzegovina for the indiscriminate violence of the Croatian police in the beginning of the 1990s. After that, the Prime Minister of Croatia at that time, Jadranka Kosor, expressed regret that her opinion was not sought on this matter. ‘Josipovic apologizes for Croatia’s role in war in Bosnia’, Croatian Times (2011).

17 The process continued through the 1970s and 1980s and affected, in a different way, the ‘the most significant Muslim communities – the Turks and the Pomaks/Muslim Bulgarians.’ (Gruev and Kalionski 2008: 209).

18 S. Dimitrova, ‘Bulgaria apologises to its Turks for “Revival Process”’, SETimes (2012).

19 A free translation of the Declaration can be found on the website of Reconciliation of European Histories. The text of the Declaration in Bulgarian can be found on Демократи за силна Българи.

20 The draft was proposed by the ultranationalist party Ataka.

21 Polska The Times, ‘Martial law generals found guilty, but too late’, PressEurop (2012).

22 BBC News, ‘Jaruzelski says sorry for 1968’, BBC News (2005).

23 Polskie Radio, ‘Mixed Reactions to Jaruzelski martial law apology’, Thenews.pl (2011) .

24 Polskie Radio, ‘Mixed Reactions to Jaruzelski martial law apology’, Thenews.pl (2011).

25 БТВ, ‘Москва отбеляза 60 години от победата над нацистка Германия с грандиозен парад’ (2005).

26 A. Lobjakas, ‘Russia/EU: Demands Grow For Moscow To Apologize To Baltic States For Soviet Past’, Radio Free Europe (2005).

27 Mail Foreign Service, ‘Putin blames Britain for Russia’s invasion of Poland on the 70th anniversary of WWII’, mail online (2009)

28 A. Prazmowska, ‘Putin’s letter to the Poles’, The Guardian (2009).

29 Compilation of statements of apology made by Kaing Guek Eav alias Duch during the proceedings.

30 Press Release, Prague Declaration on European Conscience and Communism - Press Release, Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation (2008).

31 EUobserver, ‘Six States Urge EU Ban on Denial of Communist Crimes’ (2012).

32 Platform of European Memory and Conscience.



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This article has been published in the first issue of Remembrance and Solidarity Studies.

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Photo of the publication 23 August: The Genesis of a Euroatlantic Day of Remembrance
Stefan Troebst

23 August: The Genesis of a Euroatlantic Day of Remembrance

15 August 2012
  • Holocaust
  • academic
  • Ribbentrop and Molotov pact
  • 23 August
  • totalitarianism
  • totalitarian regimes
  • Nazism
  • communism

23 August, the day in 1939 when Ribbentrop and Molotov signed the Nazi- Soviet Non-Aggression Pact, gained international recognition in the 1980s. First, in North America, political émigrés from the Soviet Bloc staged public ‘Black Ribbon Day’ ceremonies; this was followed by demonstrations in the Baltic republics of the USSR, culminating in the ‘Baltic Chain’ from Tallinn via Riga to Vilnius in 1989. After the Eastern Enlargement of the European Union in 2004, deputies from Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, the Baltic States and other new member countries in the European Parliament identified 23 August as the lowest common denominator of the enlarged EU’s politics of history. In a discussion process lasting from 2009 to 2011, the Parliament, the Commission and finally the Council of the EU defined 23 August as a ‘Europewide Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Totalitarian Regimes’.


The Battle for Authority of Interpretation

The year 2009 was truly one of multiple European anniversaries: 20 years after the ‘peaceful revolution’ of 1989, 60 years since the foundation of the Basic Law of the Federal Republic of Germany (and also the establishment of the GDR) in 1949, 70 years since the beginning of the Second World War on 1 September 1939, 90 years since the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, 200 years since the foundation of the Grand Duchy of Finland within the Russian Imperial Federation, and 220 years since the French Revolution of 1789, to name only the most important. Amid this spree of jubilees, the 70th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 23 August 1939 did not have a particularly prominent place in the majority of Europe’s national remembrance cultures, the obvious exceptions being those of the directly affected national societies of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Moldova, as well as Finland (and thus, indirectly, Sweden as well). Alongside the looming shadow of the epochal year 1989, it was above all the dominance of the cultural memory of 1 September 1939 – the day of the German invasion of Poland – that eclipsed 23 August. Klaus Zernack has therefore recently classified 1 September 1939 as a day that is ‘today [viewed] worldwide as a date of remembrance for world peace’: 1

In the European perspective there is no need (…) for long discussion as to whether 1 September 1939 – and what followed it for the next six years and after, as the consequences of the Cold War shaped almost the whole century – is an intricate site of memory of a globally comprehended horror story. In the world’s memory of history, however, 1 September 1939 represents the date with the strongest symbolism for the 20th century. In many countries in the world it has been elevated to a day of remembrance to commemorate world peace. Without doubt this is therefore a lieu de mémoire of global significance. 2

The fact that the Polish state ceremony at Westerplatte in Gdańsk on 1 September 2009 attracted worldwide media attention – with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin as the most prominent guests of Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk – makes this statement just as striking as that of the classification of Jan Rydel, Zernack’s Polish colleague, of 1 September as ‘from the Polish point of view the deepest watershed of the 20th century’.3 In other words, as opposed to 1 September, 23 August is of secondary importance, and this in Poland itself, whereas from the ‘Western European’ perspective it is seen as a primarily, albeit not exclusively (Central and) Eastern European matter. 4 Even in Germany, the former treaty partner, amid the circus of the 20th anniversary of the ‘Peaceful Revolution’, the 70th anniversary of the Treaty of Non-Aggression between Germany and the Soviet Union, together with the Secret Protocol on the amicable division of Eastern Europe into spheres of influence, was greeted in interested circles with so little media interest that a group of political figures, historians, and intellectuals dealing in history and memory felt compelled to publish an appeal titled ‘Celebrating the year 1989 also means remembering 1939’, and to describe this explicitly as a ‘Declaration to mark the 70th anniversary of the Hitler-Stalin Pact on 23 August 2009’. 5 While this appeal was received with great public interest in Poland, 6 in Germany, to a large degree, it typically enough went unnoticed.

The national publics of the wider Europe were similarly unresponsive to the struggle for authority over the interpretation of the historical-political narrative that was sparked by the European approach to remembering the legacy of Nazism and Stalinism, the focus of which was the Molotov- Ribbentrop Pact as the culmination of both forms of totalitarianism. The actors in this struggle were on the one side political figures dealing in issues of history and memory from Central and Eastern Europe, who found considerable support in Northern Europe and other parts of the continent, and on the other side officials exercising authority over the politics of history of the Russian Federation, such as the president, head of government, ministers, secret service, Duma, parties, the Church, armed forces, media, NGOs and historians. 7 This struggle was fought out in the arenas of the Parliamentary Assemblies of the European Council and the Organisation of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) – two pan-European institutions of which the Russian Federation was (and still) is a member. On top of this were quite a few bilateral Russian-foreign forums and bodies, such as those with Poland and Germany. However, Moscow had no leverage over the European Union and its Parliament, whose members were able to bring their issues related to the politics of history energetically to the table after their accession in 2004. Accordingly, several years of initiatives culminated in the form of a suggestion to proclaim 23 August the ‘European day of remembrance of the victims of Stalinism and Nazism’, which between 2009 and 2011 the EU transformed into a request to the 27 member states to declare 23 August a Europe-wide day of remembrance ‘of the victims of all totalitarian and authoritarian regimes’. 8 This inflicted a defeat on Moscow at the end of a heavily symbolic defensive battle over history and memory, which at the same time explains the revision of the state history policy of the Russian Federation in the form of an opening outwards and inwards in 2009. Whilst at the beginning of the year a clear hardening was visible, this gave way in the summer and autumn to a pronounced liberalisation with elements of self-criticism – a change of course that continued in 2010 and into 2011. 9

The initiative of the proclamation of 23 August as a day of remembrance for the victims of the two totalitarian dictatorships of 20th-century Europe, both shaped by state terror and mass murder, using the heavily symbolic name ‘Black Ribbon Day’, came from political emigrants in North America who had come from the Baltic States and other Central and Eastern European countries. At the same time as the beginning of perestroika and glasnost in the USSR, on 23 August 1986, the first demonstrations took place in the Canadian capital Ottawa and several large cities in the USA as well as London, Stockholm, and Perth in Australia. Just one year later, in 1987, dissident groups in the Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian Soviet republics dared to hold their first public commemoration services, despite the continuing extremely repressive conditions, in which hundreds and even thousands of people participated. And in 1989, on the 50th anniversary of the Pact, over a million Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians and Russian-speakers sympathetic to the cause formed a 600-kilometre-long human chain – the ‘Baltic Way’ or ‘Baltic Chain’, from Tallinn, via Riga, to Vilnius. Since then, the commemorations of 23 August in the late Soviet era, and the memory of the extremely dangerous conditions under which they were held, have become a pan-Baltic lieu de mémoire.10

The break-up of the Soviet Union, together with the re-establishment of the statehood of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and the end of Soviet hegemony over East-Central and South-Eastern Europe, led to numerous states in the region (including the new Russian Federation) being admitted into the Council of Europe, the oldest pan-European institution, founded in 1949. Accordingly, this Strasbourg-based international organisation developed into a forum for initiatives that dealt with the politics of the history of the legacy of the communist dictatorships. This particularly applied to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and its various committees, which sat a number of times a year, their members being drawn from the national parliaments of the member states. By 1996, with Russia and Croatia having recently joined, all the states of East-Central Europe and almost all the successor states of the USSR had become members of the Council; it was in this year that the Parliamentary Assembly first took up the subject of what was to be designated as the ‘legacy of the former communist totalitarian regime’. The applicable ‘Resolution 1096 (1996) on measures to dismantle the heritage of former communist totalitarian systems’ tabled by Central and Eastern European members therefore aimed at decentralisation, demilitarisation, privatisation and de-bureaucratisation as well as transitional justice and the opening of the secret police archives in the course of the transformation process, and only on the margins at ‘a transformation of mentalities (a transformation of hearts and minds)’. 11

Because of its nature, being oriented towards the present and future rather than ‘historical’, the resolution met little resistance from the newly present Russian deputies, particularly as a motion tabled in 1995 by Central and Eastern European, Italian and British deputies on the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact had not been considered by the Parliamentary Assembly. This had addressed ‘a common approach of solidarity in rejecting the two totalitarian systems which gravely undermined the Europe of this century, namely Nazism and Bolshevism, and of condemnation of their complicity which is tragically embodied in the so-called Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, signed on 23 August 1939.’ 12


The European Parliament as a Major Player in the Politics of History

The accession of eight Central and Eastern European states to the European Union on 1 May 2004 – Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Slovenia – now made it possible for these countries to bring their national historical narratives to the forum of the European Parliament. First, however, the parliamentarians of the ‘old’ EU, the ‘EU-15’, laid down a marker for the politics of history. On 27 January 2005, in a programme document titled ‘The Holocaust, antisemitism and racism. European Parliament resolution on remembrance of the Holocaust, anti-semitism and racism’, following the Stockholm Declaration of the International Holocaust Forum of 2000, they proclaimed 27 January – the Day of the Liberation of the Extermination Camp Auschwitz- Birkenau by the Red Army – ‘European Holocaust Memorial Day’ across the whole of the EU. 13 This was a response from the European Parliament to the introduction in 1996 of the Day of Remembrance of the Victims of National Socialism on 27 January in Germany and in 2001 of Holocaust Memorial Day in the United Kingdom, thus contributing to the proclamation of the International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust (International Holocaust Remembrance Day) by the United Nations General Assembly on 1 November 2005. 14

An opportunity for the Central and Eastern European MEPs came a few weeks later in a parliamentary debate on ‘The future of Europe 60 years after the Second World War’. The diverging meanings of the history of violence in the 20th century that dominated in ‘old (Western) Europe’ and ‘New (Central and Eastern) Europe’ now clashed abruptly. In his opening statement, the Council President, the Luxembourger Jean-Claude Juncker, attempted to maintain the balance so as to stress, on the one hand, the contribution of the ‘soldiers of the Red Army’:

What losses! What an excessive number of interrupted life stories amongst the Russians, who contributed 27 million lives to the liberation of Europe! No one needs to harbour a great love – although I do – for the profound and eternal Russian State to acknowledge the fact that Russia deserves well of Europe. 15

On the other hand, he addressed the different nature of the historical experience of Central and Eastern Europe:

The restored freedom at the start of May 1945, however, was not enjoyed in equal measure throughout Europe. Comfortably installed in our old democracies, we were able to live in freedom in Western Europe after the Second World War, and in a state of restored freedom whose price we well know. Those who lived in Central and Eastern Europe, however, did not experience the same level of freedom that we have experienced for 50 years. They were subjected to the law of someone else. The Baltic States, whose arrival into Europe I should like to welcome and to whom I should like to point out how proud we are to have them amongst us, were forcibly integrated into a group that was not their own. They were subjected not to the pax libertatis, but to the pax sovietika that was not their own. Those people and nations that underwent one misfortune after another suffered more than any other European. The other countries of Central and Eastern Europe did not experience that extraordinary capacity for selfdetermination that we were able to experience in our part of Europe. They were not liberated. They had to evolve under the regime of principle imposed on them. 16

In the subsequent debate, described by the conservative Polish member Wojciech Roszkowski as ‘perhaps the most important debate on European identity that has been held for years’, the French communist Francis Wurtz spoke vehemently against ‘excusing the Nazi atrocities by pointing the finger at Stalinist crimes’, since ‘Nazism was neither a dictatorship nor a tyranny like any other, but rather the complete break with society as a whole’.

The Hungarian Fidesz member József Szájer countered: ‘The one who frees the innocent captive from one prison and locks him up in another, is a prison guard, not a liberator’. Practically all the MEPs from Central and Eastern Europe emphasised that focusing on 8 May 1945, regardless of what happened on 23 August 1939 was incomprehensible. Roszkowski argued explicitly against the memory politics of Russia at the time, with its relativisation of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and the crimes of Stalin himself. 17 The ‘European Parliament resolution on the sixtieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe on 8 May 1945’ adopted on 12 May 2005 accordingly invoked the need for ‘remembering that for some nations the end of the Second World War meant renewed tyranny inflicted by the Stalinist Soviet Union’. 18

The previous day, Russian president Putin had taken the opportunity to once again underline the official position of his country in a press conference, calling the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact ‘a personal matter between Stalin and Hitler’, not of the ‘Soviet people’. On the one hand he described the content of the pact as ‘legally weak’, yet on the other he termed the territorial changes that resulted from it a mere ‘return of the regions’ that had fallen to Germany in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1918. With reference to the condemnation of the Pact along with the Secret Protocol by the Second Congress of People’s Deputies of the disintegrating USSR on 24 December 1989, he expressed his annoyance, adding:

What else is wanted then? Are we supposed to condemn it again every year? We consider this subject closed and will not come back to it. We’ve expressed our position on it once, and that’s enough. 19

Russian statements such as this deepened the trench in the politics of history which was dividing the now considerably expanded European Parliament. No small number of Central and East European MEPs saw many of their colleagues from Western Europe as naïve victims of (post-) Soviet propaganda, whereas some West European leftists viewed certain Central and Eastern European right-wingers as notorious Russian haters, even anti- Semites. This became tellingly clear in a plenary debate on 4 July 2006, on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of General Francisco Franco’s 1936 coup in Spain, during which the right-wing nationalist Polish MEP Maciej Marian Giertych described the Caudillo as the saviour of Central and Western Europe from the ‘communist plague’:

The presence of figures such as Franco […] in European politics ensured that Europe maintained its traditional values. We lack such statesmen today. It is with some regret that we observe today the phenomenon of historical revisionism, which portrays all that is traditional and Catholic in an unfavourable light and everything that is secular and socialist in a favourable light. Let us remember that Nazism in Germany and fascism in Italy also had socialist and atheist roots. 20

It was no coincidence that it was a German MEP who hit out vociferously at his Polish colleague: ‘what we have just heard is the spirit of Mr Franco. It was a fascist speech and it has no place in the European Parliament.’ 21

The European Parliament exhibited a broad spectrum of opinions at the time, and its majority followed a balanced line towards the Soviet participation in the history of Europe after 1945. In contrast, in 2006 the members of the Council of Europe continued their course, set ten years earlier, to ‘overcome the legacy of the communist totalitarian regime’. After discussing a report produced by Göran Lindblad, the Swedish member of the Council of Europe Political Affairs Committee, which was unmistakably inspired by the ‘Black Book of Communism’ published in 1997 and prepared by a French-Polish-Czech group of authors, 22 they passed ‘Resolution 1481 (2006) – Need for international condemnation of crimes of totalitarian communist regimes’. This stated that:

2. The totalitarian communist regimes which ruled in central and eastern Europe in the last century, and which are still in power in several countries in the world, have been, without exception, characterised by massive violations of human rights. The violations have differed depending on the culture, country and the historical period and have included individual and collective assassinations and executions, death in concentration camps, starvation, deportations, torture, slave labour and other forms of mass physical terror, persecution on ethnic or religious grounds, violation of freedom of conscience, thought and expression, of freedom of the press, and also lack of political pluralism.
3. The crimes were justified in the name of the class struggle theory and the principle of dictatorship of the proletariat. The interpretation of both principles legitimised the ‘elimination’ of people who were considered harmful to the construction of a new society and, as such, enemies of the totalitarian communist regimes. A vast number of victims in every country concerned were its own nationals. It was the case particularly of the peoples of the former USSR who by far outnumbered other peoples in terms of the number of victims. (…)
7. The Assembly is convinced that the awareness of history is one of the preconditions for avoiding similar crimes in the future. Furthermore, moral assessment and condemnation of crimes committed play an important role in the education of young generations. The clear position of the international community on the past may be a reference for their future actions. (…)
10. The debates and condemnations which have taken place so far at national level in some Council of Europe member states cannot give dispensation to the international community from taking a clear position on the crimes committed by the totalitarian communist regimes. It has a moral obligation to do so without any further delay.
11. The Council of Europe is well placed for such a debate at international level. All former European communist countries, with the exception of Belarus, are now members, and the protection of human rights and the rule of law are basic values for which it stands.
12. Therefore, the Assembly strongly condemns the massive human rights violations committed by the totalitarian communist regimes and expresses sympathy, understanding and recognition to the victims of these crimes.
13. Furthermore, it calls on all communist or post-communist parties in its member states which have not yet done so to reassess the history of communism and their own past, clearly distance themselves from the crimes committed by totalitarian communist regimes and condemn them without any ambiguity.
14. The Assembly believes that this clear position of the international community will pave the way to further reconciliation. Furthermore, it will hopefully encourage historians throughout the world to continue their research aimed at the determination and objective verification of what took place. 23

It is notable that this declaration was passed by an assembly that included members of the communist parties of France, the Russian Federation, Greece and other states, as well as numerous representatives of post-communist parties from Bulgaria, Germany, Poland and elsewhere, without such highly ideologised debates as occurred in the European Parliament the previous year.

The further the jubilee year of 2009 cast its shadow, the more intensive the pan-European actors’ activities in the field of the politics of history became, with those from Central and Eastern Europe again being the driving force. 24 It was thus that, on 3 June 2008, the participants in a conference organised by the government of the Czech Republic, including Václav Havel, Vytautas Landsbergis, Joachim Gauck, the aforementioned Göran Lindblad, and other mostly Czech politicians and intellectuals, passed the ‘Prague Declaration on European Conscience and Communism’, which stated:

1. reaching an all-European understanding that both the Nazi and Communist totalitarian regimes each to be judged by their own terrible merits to be destructive in their policies of systematically applying extreme forms of terror, suppressing all civic and human liberties, starting aggressive wars and, as an inseparable part of their ideologies, exterminating and deporting whole nations and groups of population; and that as such they should be considered to be the main disasters, which blighted the 20th century,
2. recognition that many crimes committed in the name of Communism should be assessed as crimes against humanity serving as a warning for future generations, in the same way Nazi crimes were assessed by the Nuremberg Tribunal,
3. formulation of a common approach regarding crimes of totalitarian regimes, inter alia Communist regimes, and raising a Europe-wide awareness of the Communist crimes in order to clearly define a common attitude towards the crimes of the Communist regimes, (…)
7. recognition of Communism as an integral and horrific part of Europe’s common history, (…)
9. establishment of 23 August, the day of signing of the Hitler- Stalin Pact, known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, as a day of remembrance of the victims of both Nazi and Communist totalitarian regimes, in the same way Europe remembers the victims of the Holocaust on January 27 (…)
15. establishment of an Institute of European Memory and Conscience which would be both - A) a European research institute for totalitarianism studies, developing scientific and educational projects and providing support to networking of national research institutes specialising in the subject of totalitarian experience, B) and a pan-European museum/memorial of victims of all totalitarian regimes, with an aim to memorialise victims of these regimes and raise awareness of the crimes committed by them (…).25

The message that the day of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact should be made an international ‘anti-totalitarian’ day of remembrance was thus sent to Brussels. Katrin Hammerstein and Birgit Hofmann rightly argued in 2009 that ‘The demand “Never again Auschwitz” seems on the European level to be being replaced by the formula “Never again totalitarianism”.’ 26 The symbolic value of 23 August moved in this way over a 20-year-long process into the consciousness of the European public sphere; this was finally reflected in the ‘Declaration of the European Parliament on the Proclamation of 23 August as the European Day of Remembrance for Victims of Stalinism and Nazism’ – and the ‘Central and East European’ rule of three ‘Nazism = Stalinism = Totalitarianism’ had now become an (EU-) European one:

The European Parliament, (…)
– having regard to Resolution 1481 (2006) of the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly on the need for international condemnation of crimes of totalitarian communist regimes, (…)
A. whereas the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 23 August 1939 between the Soviet Union and Germany divided Europe into two spheres of interest by means of secret additional protocols,
B. whereas the mass deportations, murders and enslavements committed in the context of the acts of aggression by Stalinism and Nazism fall into the category of war crimes and crimes against humanity, (…)
D. whereas the influence and significance of the Soviet order and occupation on and for citizens of the post-Communist States are little known in Europe, (…)
1. Proposes that 23 August be proclaimed European Day of Remembrance for Victims of Stalinism and Nazism, in order to preserve the memory of the victims of mass deportations and exterminations, and at the same time rooting democracy more firmly and reinforcing peace and stability in our continent;
2. Instructs its President to forward this declaration, together with the names of the signatories, to the parliaments of the Member States. 27

It is difficult to say whether in doing this the MEPs simply overlooked the fact that on the list of international days of remembrance 23 August had already been ‘taken’ by UNESCO in 1998, which declared it the ‘International Day of Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition’ with reference to a slave uprising in Santo Domingo in 1791, 28 or whether this coincidence was consciously taken into account. In any case, duplications of days of remembrance by different international organisations are nothing unusual.

One month later the European Parliament took a further step in terms of the politics of memory which was unusual in involving, in contrast to the 2006 debate on the Franco dictatorship, not a member country of the EU, but a non-member state, namely Ukraine. The ‘European Parliament resolution of 23 October 2008 on the commemoration of the Holodomor, the Ukraine artificial famine (1932-1933)’ served primarily to support the reforms of the Ukrainian president and ‘hero’ of the ‘Orange’ democracy movement, Viktor Yushchenko, yet on the other hand showed an approach that was construed as hostile in Russia, for it stated that ‘the Holodomor famine of 1932-1933, which caused the deaths of millions of Ukrainians, was cynically and cruelly planned by Stalin’s regime in order to force through the Soviet Union’s policy of collectivisation of agriculture against the will of the rural population in Ukraine’, and called on ‘the countries which emerged following the break-up of the Soviet Union to open up their archives on the Holodomor in Ukraine of 1932-1933 to comprehensive scrutiny so that all the causes and consequences can be revealed and fully investigated’. 29 Even if the Holodomor was not, in accordance with the terminology prescribed by the Ukrainian president, described as genocide (henotsyd), but ‘only’ as ‘an appalling crime against the Ukrainian people, and against humanity’, the declaration was interpreted by authorities in the field of the politics of history in Moscow as a challenge and ‘interference’ in post-Soviet ‘domestic affairs’.30 A further reason for the increased attention devoted by the EU with regard to coming to terms with the past à la russe alongside the developments in Ukraine was the Russian-Estonian conflict, which was triggered by the powerful protest that Moscow issued in response to the moving of a Soviet war memorial in 2007 in Tallinn, the capital of the EU member state Estonia.31 The way in which Russia tried to force its small neighbour to conform to its own memory narrative not only led to surprise and criticism within EU circles, but also provoked infuriation towards the attitude of Estonia and its kowtowing to Moscow.

The two decisions of the European Parliament of September and October 2008 on 23 August and the Holodomor, together with the other characteristic responses to the Holocaust, the end of the war in 1945 and the Franco dictatorship quoted above, and, moreover, the one made in 2009 to the Serb massacre of 8000 Bosnian Muslims on 11 July 1995 in Srebrenica,32 formed part of an ambitious plan by MEPs, which can be described as a ‘to-do list’ for the ‘EU-standard’ of dealing with dictatorial pasts. Within the parliament, the body responsible for coordinating these issues, there has since May 2010 been an all-party informal group of 35 MEPs chaired by the suitably distinguished former Latvian foreign minister and EU commissioner Sandra Kalniete. The group has given itself the task of promoting the ‘reconciliation of European histories’ (in the plural), and in its ranks include (or have included) such competent and respected members as the Dutch historian of Eastern Europe Bastiaan Belder (who died in 2011), the Hungarian expert on minority rights Kinga Gál, and the German former president of the European Parliament Hans-Gert Pöttering. 33 At the same time, the Parliament is clearly showing through its actions that it feels responsible for the whole political field of coming to terms with the past in Europe – and this is not only confined to EU member states, but also to states such as the specifically named Russian Federation – and that it is determined to create the appropriate instruments and to prompt the EU Commission to make the necessary tools available. The proclamation of 23 August as the ‘Europe-wide Remembrance Day for the victims of all totalitarian and authoritarian regimes, to be commemorated with dignity and impartiality’ is therefore accorded a prominent role. This extremely substantial list of tasks was made public in the extensive ‘European Parliament resolution of 2 April 2009 on European conscience and totalitarianism’:

The European Parliament, (…)
– having regard to Resolution 1481 of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe of 25 January 2006 on the need for international condemnation of the crimes of totalitarian Communist regimes,
– having regard to its declaration of 23 September 2008 on the proclamation of 23 August as European Day of Remembrance for Victims of Stalinism and Nazism,
– having regard to its many previous resolutions on democracy and respect for fundamental rights and freedoms, including that of 12 May 2005 on the 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe on 8 May 1945, that of 23 October 2008 on the commemoration of the Holodomor, and that of 15 January 2009 on Srebrenica,
– having regard to the Truth and Justice Commissions established in various parts of the world, which have helped those who have lived under numerous former authoritarian and totalitarian regimes to overcome their differences and achieve reconciliation,
– having regard to the statements made by its President and the political groups on 4 July 2006, 70 years after General Franco’s coup d’état in Spain, (…)
A. whereas historians agree that fully objective interpretations of historical facts are not possible and objective historical narratives do not exist; whereas, nevertheless, professional historians use scientific tools to study the past, and try to be as impartial as possible,
B. whereas no political body or political party has a monopoly on interpreting history, and such bodies and parties cannot claim to be objective,
C. whereas official political interpretations of historical facts should not be imposed by means of majority decisions of parliaments; whereas a parliament cannot legislate on the past, (…)
E. whereas misinterpretations of history can fuel exclusivist policies and thereby incite hatred and racism,
F. whereas the memories of Europe’s tragic past must be kept alive in order to honour the victims, condemn the perpetrators and lay the foundations for reconciliation based on truth and remembrance,
G. whereas millions of victims were deported, imprisoned, tortured and murdered by totalitarian and authoritarian regimes during the 20th century in Europe; whereas the uniqueness of the Holocaust must nevertheless be acknowledged,
H. whereas the dominant historical experience of Western Europe was Nazism, and whereas Central and Eastern European countries have experienced both Communism and Nazism; whereas understanding has to be promoted in relation to the double legacy of dictatorship borne by these countries,
I. whereas from the outset European integration has been a response to the suffering inflicted by two world wars and the Nazi tyranny that led to the Holocaust and to the expansion of totalitarian and undemocratic Communist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe, as well as a way of overcoming deep divisions and hostility in Europe through cooperation and integration and of ending war and securing democracy in Europe,
J. whereas the process of European integration has been successful and has now led to a European Union that encompasses the countries of Central and Eastern Europe which lived under Communist regimes from the end of World War II until the early 1990s, and whereas the earlier accessions of Greece, Spain and Portugal, which suffered under longlasting fascist regimes, helped secure democracy in the south of Europe,
K. whereas Europe will not be united unless it is able to form a common view of its history, recognises Nazism, Stalinism and fascist and Communist regimes as a common legacy and brings about an honest and thorough debate on their crimes in the past century,
L. whereas in 2009 a reunited Europe will celebrate the 20th anniversary of the collapse of the Communist dictatorships in Central and Eastern Europe and the fall of the Berlin Wall, which should provide both an opportunity to enhance awareness of the past and recognise the role of democratic citizens’ initiatives, and an incentive to strengthen feelings of togetherness and cohesion,
M. whereas it is also important to remember those who actively opposed totalitarian rule and who should take their place in the consciousness of Europeans as the heroes of the totalitarian age because of their dedication, faithfulness to ideals, honour and courage,
N. whereas from the perspective of the victims it is immaterial which regime deprived them of their liberty or tortured or murdered them for whatever reason,

1. Expresses respect for all victims of totalitarian and undemocratic regimes in Europe and pays tribute to those who fought against tyranny and oppression;
2. Renews its commitment to a peaceful and prosperous Europe founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights;
3. Underlines the importance of keeping the memories of the past alive, because there can be no reconciliation without truth and remembrance; reconfirms its united stand against all totalitarian rule from whatever ideological background;
4. Recalls that the most recent crimes against humanity and acts of genocide in Europe were still taking place in July 1995 and that constant vigilance is needed to fight undemocratic, xenophobic, authoritarian and totalitarian ideas and tendencies;
5. Underlines that, in order to strengthen European awareness of crimes committed by totalitarian and undemocratic regimes, documentation of, and accounts testifying to, Europe’s troubled past must be supported, as there can be no reconciliation without remembrance;
6. Regrets that, 20 years after the collapse of the Communist dictatorships in Central and Eastern Europe, access to documents that are of personal relevance or needed for scientific research is still unduly restricted in some Member States; calls for a genuine effort in all Member States towards opening up archives, including those of the former internal security services, secret police and intelligence agencies, although steps must be taken to ensure that this process is not abused for political purposes;
7. Condemns strongly and unequivocally all crimes against humanity and the massive human rights violations committed by all totalitarian and authoritarian regimes; extends to the victims of these crimes and their family members its sympathy, understanding and recognition of their suffering;
8. Declares that European integration as a model of peace and reconciliation represents a free choice by the peoples of Europe to commit to a shared future, and that the European Union has a particular responsibility to promote and safeguard democracy, respect for human rights and the rule of law, both inside and outside the European Union;
9. Calls on the Commission and the Member States to make further efforts to strengthen the teaching of European history and to underline the historic achievement of European integration and the stark contrast between the tragic past and the peaceful and democratic social order in today’s European Union;
10. Believes that appropriate preservation of historical memory, a comprehensive reassessment of European history and Europe-wide recognition of all historical aspects of modern Europe will strengthen European integration;
11. Calls in this connection on the Council and the Commission to support and defend the activities of non-governmental organisations, such as Memorial in the Russian Federation, that are actively engaged in researching and collecting documents related to the crimes committed during the Stalinist period;
12. Reiterates its consistent support for strengthened international justice;
13. Calls for the establishment of a Platform of European Memory and Conscience to provide support for networking and cooperation among national research institutes specialising in the subject of totalitarian history, and for the creation of a pan-European documentation centre/memorial for the victims of all totalitarian regimes;
14. Calls for a strengthening of the existing relevant financial instruments with a view to providing support for professional historical research on the issues outlined above;
15. Calls for the proclamation of 23 August as a Europe-wide Day of Remembrance for the victims of all totalitarian and authoritarian regimes, to be commemorated with dignity and impartiality;
16. Is convinced that the ultimate goal of disclosure and assessment of the crimes committed by the Communist totalitarian regimes is reconciliation, which can be achieved by admitting responsibility, asking for forgiveness and fostering moral renewal;
17. Instructs its President to forward this resolution to the Council, the Commission, the parliaments of the Member States, the governments and parliaments of the candidate countries, the governments and parliaments of the countries associated with the European Union, and the governments and parliaments of the Members of the Council of Europe.34

With this resolution, whose numerous demands were, as will be shown, generally accepted in 2010 by the Commission and in 2011 by the Council of the EU, the European Union proclaimed itself the central authority for the politics of history with pan-European responsibility and competence, thus de facto withdrawing another policy area from the Council of Europe - which had in any case been fading since 2004 in terms of competences, and in the politics of history had frequently been thwarted by Russia and Turkey. This became possible first because of the greater legitimacy, better infrastructure and incomparably greater financial resources of Brussels, and second as a result of the fact that the Central and Eastern European initiatives regarding the politics of history within the EU framework did not meet the resistance of Russia.

The ‘anti-totalitarian’ resolution of April 2009 did, however, meet with vehement ‘Western’ resistance, with the argument being that the raising of 23 August to the status of an EU day of remembrance unacceptably devalued the significance of the 27 January memorial. In this view, the parallel remembrance of the victims of both forms of totalitarianism represented a qualification of the Holocaust as an unprecedented breach of civilisation through a certain de-contextualisation. Yehuda Bauer, one of the initiators of the Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance, and Research, founded in 1998, stated in direct reference to the resolution:

The two regimes were both totalitarian, and yet quite different. The greater threat to all of humanity was Nazi Germany, and it was the Soviet Army that liberated Eastern Europe, was the central force that defeated Nazi Germany, and thus saved Europe and the world from the Nazi nightmare. In fact, unintentionally, the Soviets saved the Baltic nations, the Poles, the Ukrainians, the Czechs, and others, from an intended extension of Nazi genocide to these nationalities. This was not intended to lead to total physical annihilation, as with the Jews, but to a disappearance of these groups ‘as such’. The EU statement, implying a straightforward parallel between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, therefore presents an a-historic and distorted picture. (…) World War II was started by Nazi Germany, not the Soviet Union, and the responsibility of the 35 million dead in Europe, 29 million of them non-Jews, is that of Nazi Germany, not Stalin. To commemorate victims equally is a distortion. (…) One certainly should remember the victims of the Soviet regime, and there is every justification for designating special memorials and events to do so. But to put the two regimes on the same level and commemorating the different crimes on the same occasion is totally unacceptable.35

The Austrian historian Heidemarie Uhl, according to whom the remembrance day of 23 August represented an ‘antithesis’ to 27 January, as it was connected to it by an image of history ‘that denies the recognition of the Holocaust as the central point of reference of a European historical consciousness’, added a further argument to Bauer’s criticism:

In the European memory of the Holocaust remembrance of the victims is connected with the question of the involvement of one’s own society in the Nazi atrocities, and memory is understood as the duty to fight against racism, anti-Semitism, the discrimination of minorities based on ethnic, religious, sexual categories. In the remembrance culture of the post- 1989 societies one’s ‘own people’ is seen as an innocent victim of the cruel suppression from outside, [and] the involvement of [one’s] own society in the communist system of rule can in this way be externalised. What can be observed in the post-communist countries is in a certain sense a déjà vu of the stories of victims as we know them from the European postwar myths and the conquering of which is the precondition for the new European memory culture. Making the model of the post-war myths the basis of a pan-European remembrance day rather achieves the opposite: the rifts between the Western European and the post-communist memory culture are likely to deepen.36

Meanwhile, the leader of the Brandenburg Memorials Foundation, Günter Morsch, lamented – with pro-Russian and anti-Polish undertones – the fact that ‘the anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact is misused as a fight over the interpretation of the politics of memory’:

If it was really just about including the victims of communism in the memory, the date of the October Revolution in 1917 could have been chosen. Yet the emphasis on the Molotov- Ribbentrop Pact devalues 1 September, that is the actual beginning of the Second World War, and qualifies 27 January as a day of remembrance for all Nazi victims. One gets the impression that the war and genocide are the result of a conflict in which the totalitarian states on the one side were confronted with the democratic states on the other. Nothing could be less true. The Nazi decision to invade Poland was certain from 1933, whereas until the Munich Agreement of 1938 the Soviets were in serious negotiations with the Western powers and Poland. Poland too was an authoritarian state which until the beginning of 1939 fostered friendly relations with the ‘Third Reich’ and in November 1938 had a military part to play in the division of the democratic Czechoslovakia. The attempt to create a culture of anti-totalitarian remembrance therefore accepts an alarming decontextualisation and homogenisation, the consequences of which are immeasurable. Anybody wishing to learn from history for the future development of a common European future must not pay this price.37

However, these misgivings do not provoke much of a response from many people in European politics. Moscow greeted the resolution of the European Parliament not with open criticism, but with sublimated annoyance that the EU, acting as the ‘conscience of Europe’, wanted to ‘support and defend’ a Russian NGO like MEMORIAL – from whom? – was interpreted by the so-called Russian ‘power vertical’ as just as much of a provocation as the demand, which had been raised again, for 23 August to be treated as a Europe-wide ‘anti-totalitarian’ remembrance day. Yet from Moscow’s point of view it was even worse when the Parliamentary Assembly of the OSCE – of which the Russian Federation is a founding member, as well as being, in its own perception, one of the heavyweights in this international organisation ranging ‘from Vancouver to Vladivostok’ – declared itself in favour of 23 August as a European day of remembrance as well as a parallel condemnation of Nazism and Stalinism at its session in late June/early July 2009 in Vilnius. Its ‘Resolution on Europe – divided and reunified’, tabled by Slovenia and Lithuania, it stated:

3. Noting that in the twentieth century European countries experienced two major totalitarian regimes, Nazi and Stalinist, which brought about genocide, violations of human rights and freedoms, war crimes and crimes against humanity, […]
10. Recalling the initiative of the European Parliament to proclaim 23 August, when the Ribbentrop–Molotov Pact was signed 70 years ago, as a Europe-wide Day of Remembrance for Victims of Stalinism and Nazism, in order to preserve the memory of the victims of mass deportations and exterminations, The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly:
11. Reconfirms its united stand against all totalitarian rule from whatever ideological background; (…)
13. Urges the participating States:
a. to continue research into and raise public awareness of the totalitarian legacy;
b. to develop and improve educational tools, programmes and activities, most notably for younger generations, on totalitarian history, human dignity, human rights and fundamental freedoms, pluralism, democracy and tolerance;
c. to promote and support activities of NGOs which are engaged in areas of research and raising public awareness about crimes committed by totalitarian regimes; (…)
16. Reiterates its call upon all participating States to open their historical and political archives;
17. Expresses deep concern at the glorification of the totalitarian regimes, including the holding of public demonstrations glorifying the Nazi or Stalinist past (…).38

The resolution was passed with 213 votes in favour to eight against, with four abstentions. However, 93 members, probably including all the Russians, Kazakhs, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Turkmens, Kyrgyz and most of the Ukrainians, Azerbaijanis and Armenians, did not take part in the vote. The protests from Moscow appeared particularly weak as they came only from the Duma. The reason for this was the dramatic changes that were taking place in the domestic and external politics of history of the Russian Federation in the summer of 2009.

Since the declaration of the European Parliament regarding 23 August made on 23 September 2008, a whole series of bodies dealing with the politics of history in Russia had realised that the transatlantic anti-Hitler coalition, which apart from a few cracks and breaches was still visible on 9 May 2005 at the ceremony in Red Square to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany, was now crumbling. While in Moscow in 2005 only the Latvian president, Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga, had demanded an apology from Russia for the Molotov- Ribbentrop Pact (as well as for the renewed annexation, camouflaged as ‘liberation’, of the Baltic States by the USSR in 1944),39 the parliament of a European conglomerate of states numbering 27 members as well, indirectly, as the parliamentary pillars of the OSCE, were now proclaiming 23 August as a pan-European day of remembrance. And this was done with some success, as the 70th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in 2009 was celebrated publicly not only by the countries that were in Russian eyes the ‘usual suspects’ – Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Moldova and Georgia – but moreover by Sweden, Slovenia, the Czech Republic and even Bulgaria as well.

Jerzy Buzek, the liberal Polish European Parliament president who had emerged from the Solidarity movement, crowned the ‘anti-totalitarian’ memory politics of Central and Eastern Europeans in October 2009 by making the Brussels parliament building available as a venue for an international conference organised by the three Baltic States with the title ‘Europe 70 years after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact’. In his opening address Buzek recalled the historical occurrence, according to the Central and Eastern European interpretation, in distinct words:

In August 1939 when the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was signed to the great shock of the world’s democracies, Time Magazine called it the ‘Communazi Pact’, perhaps a better name for a deal between two totalitarian regimes who proceeded to divide Central and Eastern Europe between themselves. Poland was divided between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, Finland lost 10% of its territory and 12% of its population, Eastern and Northern Romania, as well as the three Baltic States were directly annexed by the Soviet Union. Up to 700,000 Estonians, Lithuanians and Latvians were deported, from a population of six million. In Poland, some 1.5 million people were deported, of these 760,000 died, many of them children. When we are looking at these figures, we can imagine the scale of the whole tragic story. One in ten adult males was arrested; many were executed in a policy of decapitating the local elites. In April, the European Parliament adopted its resolution on ‘European Conscience and Totalitarianism’, which called for the proclamation of August 23rd as a Europe-wide Day of Remembrance for the victims of all totalitarian and authoritarian regimes, and called on the European public to commemorate these victims with dignity and impartiality. We can never forget those victims, for they are a reminder of where we come from, and show us how much we have achieved.40

And to the ‘Dear Friends’ gathered in the European Parliament building, he described an arc from 1939 via 2004 to 2009:

When the new member states joined five years ago, we brought with us our own history and our own stories; one of those tragic stories was the ‘Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact’. (…) Today we are a reunited and integrated continent because we have learnt the lessons of the Second World War, and the pact that allowed it to happen.41

The remembrance day then acquired a transatlantic dimension a few weeks later through the unanimously passed resolution of the Canadian lower chamber of 30 November 2009, which declared that they were cognisant of the ‘infamous pact between the Nazi and Soviet Communist regimes’, and that 23 August would be the ‘Canadian Day of remembrance of the victims of the Nazi and Soviet atrocities’, designated as ‘Black Ribbon Day’.



1) WHEREAS the Government of Canada has actively advocated for and continues to support the principals enshrined by The United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights and The United Nations General Assembly Resolution 260 (III) A of 9 December 1948;
2) WHEREAS the extreme forms of totalitarian rule practised by the Nazi and Communist dictatorships led to premeditated and vast crimes committed against millions of human beings and their basic and inalienable rights on a scale unseen before in history;
3) WHEREAS hundreds of thousands of human beings, fleeing the Nazi and Soviet Communist crimes, sought and found refuge in Canada;
4) WHEREAS the millions of Canadians of Eastern and Central European descent whose families have been directly affected by Nazi and/or Communist crimes have made unique and significant, cultural, economic, social and other contributions to help build the Canada we know today;
5) WHEREAS 20 years after the fall of the totalitarian Communist regimes in Europe, knowledge among Canadians about the totalitarian regimes which terrorised their fellow citizens in Central and Eastern Europe for more than 40 years in the form of systematic and ruthless military, economic and political repression of the people by means of arbitrary executions, mass arrests, deportations, the suppression of free expression, private property and civil society and the destruction of cultural and moral identity and which deprived the vast majority of the peoples of Central and Eastern Europe of their basic human rights and dignity, separating them from the democratic world by means of the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall, is still alarmingly superficial and inadequate;
6) WHEREAS Canadians were instrumental during the 1980s in raising global awareness of crimes committed by European totalitarian Nazi and Communist regimes by founding an annual ‘Black Ribbon Day’ on 23 August , to commemorate the legal partnership of these two regimes through the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and its secret protocols;

BE IT RESOLVED THAT every victim of any totalitarian regime has the same human dignity and deserves justice, remembrance and recognition by the Parliament and the government of Canada, in efforts to ensure that such crimes and events are never again repeated;
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED THAT the Parliament and the Government of Canada unequivocally condemn the crimes against humanity committed by totalitarian Nazi and Communist regimes and offer the victims of these crimes and their family members sympathy, understanding and recognition for their suffering;
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED THAT the Government of Canada establish an annual Canadian Day of Remembrance for the victims of Nazi and Soviet Communist crimes on 23 August, called ‘Black Ribbon Day,’ to coincide with the anniversary of the signing of the infamous pact between the Nazi and Soviet Communist regimes.42

The anchoring that has now occurred of 23 August as an ‘anti-totalitarian’ international day of remembrance, which Russian diplomacy was unable to prevent, has had two entirely different, indeed opposite effects: firstly, Russia reacted by isolating itself and displaying aggressive outward signals, and secondly came a reinterpretation of the country’s own imperial and national history based on a new orientation of the politics of history that were accompanied with clear signs of a readiness to make outward concessions.43 The latter tendency was carried forward by an internal Russian debate, also culminating in 2009, on the topic of ‘victory without Stalin?’ Was Stalin the ‘architect of the victory’ of 9 May 1945, or did the Russian ‘people’ – or to use the earlier term ‘the peoples of the Soviet Union’, or as it is now called, the ‘Russian nation’44 – achieve this victory ‘in spite of Stalin’? This question was accorded a double significance when ‘the victory’ in the ‘Great Patriotic War 1941-1945’ was also ascribed the function of a foundation myth of the Russian Federation – once the use of the Soviet founding myth of the ‘Great Socialist October Revolution’ was discontinued for reasons of ideology. In other words: in the Russian discourse on the Soviet-German pact whose name there is known in the order ‘Ribbentrop-Molotov’, together with the Secret Protocol, the question was and remains not only the role to be ascribed to Stalin in the official national memory of the war, but much more the raison d’être of this, the largest product of the break-up of the Soviet Union, and the cement of an identity bound by memory that is intended to hold together the particularly disparate federation of Russians and numerous non-Russians.

In his contribution to this volume, Wolfram von Scheliha traces how in 2009 President Dmitry A. Medvedev, with the acceptance of his predecessor Prime Minister Putin, despite considerable opposition, drafted and introduced a new approach to the politics of history, both domestically and for international use. Von Scheliha arrives at the surprising and at the same time convincing conclusion that the formation on 15 May 2009 of a ‘President of the Russian Federation’s Commission for the Struggle against Attempts at Falsification of History Damaging Russia’, which met with harsh criticism and great misgivings, especially in Central and Eastern Europe and Germany, was the result of liberal, even ‘pro-European’ forces in the Kremlin who were successfully keeping in check dogmatists nostalgic for Soviet times.45 Indeed, the president subsequently went out on a limb in terms of memory issues in a way that justifies this interpretation. ‘Simply put,’ said Medvedev in a newspaper interview the day before ‘Victory Day’ in 2010, ‘the regime that was established in the USSR can only be described as totalitarian.’ At the same time, he rejected the (post-) Soviet interpretation of 9 May, and thus indirectly also the Russian interpretation of the ‘Great Patriotic War 1941-1945’:

For quite some time the war was perceived exclusively as a Great Victory of the Soviet people and the Red Army. But the war also stands for an immense number of victims and for the colossal losses that the Soviet people suffered together with other European countries. (…) There are absolutely evident facts: the Great Patriotic War was won by our people, not Stalin and not even the military, with all the importance of what they achieved. (…) If we speak of the state evaluation of how Stalin is to be appraised through the leadership of the country in the last years, from the moment of the establishment of the new Russian state, this meaning is clear: Stalin committed an abundance of crimes towards his people. 46

In the same interview, however, Medvedev said that ‘those who place the role of the Red Army and those of the Fascist occupiers on one and the same level are committing a moral crime’, in conjunction with criticism of the Baltic states and praise for the reunified Germany.47

A minor sensation was caused by Medvedev’s decision to invite the chairman of MEMORIAL, Arseny Roginsky, to cooperate with the Presidential Council in working on the development of civil society and on human rights. At a session of this body on 1 February 2011 in Ekaterinburg, the two discussed a memorandum prepared by MEMORIAL, ‘The Immortalisation of the Remembrance of the Victims of the Totalitarian Regime and National Reconciliation’, which demanded financial support for surviving victims of gulags and their full legal rehabilitation, and likewise the establishment of monuments and memorials in visible locations in the public space, the creation of a database of victims, free access to the files of the NKVD secret police, and a ‘political-legal evaluation of the crimes of the communist regime’.48 Roginsky himself, however, was sceptical regarding the seriousness of Medvedev’s liberalisation in memory politics. According to him, the president and prime minister were now acting as ‘anti-Stalinists’ as well as proponents of an explicitly state-Russian, not ethnoculturally Russian national identity, because they feared an excessive strengthening of Stalinist and Russian nationalist forces in the country.49


The state of affairs in 2011

The aforesaid resolution of the European Parliament of 2 April 2009 on the ‘Conscience of Europe and on Totalitarianism’, along with the Council of the EU’s demand in November 2008 to assess the need for EU guidelines against the trivialisation of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes, prompted the EU Commission to intensify its activities. Having already held a seminar in November 2007 on the question ‘How to deal with the totalitarian memory of Europe: Victims and reconciliation’, they commissioned in 2009 a comprehensive study ‘on how the memory of crimes committed by totalitarian regimes in Europe is dealt with in the Member States’, which was submitted in early 2010. 50 Based partly on this, the EU Commission produced a report titled ‘The memory of the crimes committed by totalitarian regimes in Europe’, which was presented to the Parliament and Council in December 2010. In this they were able to report that five member states – Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovenia and Sweden – had transferred the remembrance day of 23 August stipulated by the European Parliament to their national legislatures and recommend that further member states ‘examine the possibility to adhere to this initiative in the light of their own history and specificities’. The Commission also listed those aid programmes whose money could be used for measures of this kind, including the ‘Active European Remembrance’ action of the Europe for Citizens programme, in the framework of which the Platform of European Memory and Conscience supported by the Parliament could also be financed.51 In June 2011, in connection with the aforementioned Commission report of 2010 and the Parliament resolution of 2009, the EU Council passed its ‘conclusions on the memory of the crimes committed by totalitarian regimes in Europe’:

The Council of the European Union
Considering that many Member States have experienced a tragic past caused by totalitarian regimes, be it communist, national socialist or of any other nature, which have resulted in violations of fundamental rights and in the complete denial of human dignity; (…)
Noting, that totalitarian regimes in Europe, although different in their origins, political justification and expression, form part of Europe’s shared history; (…)
4. Highlights the Europe-wide Day of Remembrance of the victims of the totalitarian regimes (23 August) and invites Member States to consider how to commemorate it, in the light of their own history and specificities; (…)
7. Invites the Commission to pay attention to the questions of the participation of smaller organisations to EU financial programmes, including schools and higher education institutions, as well as to examine how to foster participation of the beneficiaries from the Eastern partnership countries and Russia in common initiatives and project financed by these programmes. (…)
9. Invites all interested parties to make full use of existing EU programmes to establish a Platform of European Memory and Conscience to provide support for current and future networking and cooperation among national research institutes specialising in the subject of totalitarian history.52

As a result, within three years the project of the proclamation of 23 August, a Europe-wide day of remembrance had successfully negotiated the path through the EU bodies – from the Parliament, via the Commission, to the Council. And so, together with the resolution of the Canadian parliament from 2009, the last stage of the rise of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact as a Euro-Atlantic lieu de mémoire, together with the remembrance day of 23 August, was complete. The first stage was the time of perestroika, leading to the negotiated transitions of 1989. The second, in the 1990s, was that of the European Council’s dealing with the legacy of the ‘ totalitarian communist regime’. The third began in 2004, with the accession of the Central and Eastern European states to the EU and the subsequent debates in the European Parliament. The fourth was the stage described above, lasting from 2008 to 2011.

All of this influenced the domestic as well as the external policy of the Russian Federation in an increasingly polarising sense: the European Parliament’s call to declare 23 August as a Europe-wide day of remembrance led in the build-up to the 70th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in Russia to a battle for authority over interpretation between the nationalist idolisers of Stalin and the power pragmatists, who viewed themselves as liberals, in which President Medvedev, who to date has in the public space been numbered among the latter camp, was able to come out on top. While the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact has by no means lost its quality as an expressly non-site of memory in the CIS (with the exception of Moldova), it is no longer a taboo subject in Russia’s external memory politics. The reasons for this include the debate raging internally in Russia since 2011 about what is now known as the de-Stalinisation (destalinizaciya) of the country; the palpable improvement in Russian-Polish relations since 2009 – strengthened since the Smolensk plane disaster of April 2010, and including the subject of Katyń, which is comparable in its shattering effect to the 1939 Pact; the German-Russian special relationship, recently described as a ‘modernisation partnership’; and finally the debates in the pan-European forums of the European Council and the OSCE – and especially the intensified activities of the European Union since 2004 in the field of the politics of history.

It is important to emphasise once again, however, that only in exceptional cases do the negotiations at the EU, OSCE and European Council level and their effects, in terms of the politics of history, have repercussions in the media, public sphere and politics (as well as in the academic study of memory). 53 The culture of remembrance in Europe as well as the rest of the world is first and foremost a national matter, which as a rule has few transnational common spaces. Like Europe Day on 9 May, or 27 January, 23 August as Black Ribbon Day or the European Day of Remembrance of the Victims of the Stalinist and Nazi Atrocities remains in the shadows of most national cultures of remembrance in the Northern Hemisphere. The fact that it has over the course of almost three decades even been anchored as such must, however, be assessed as a genuine success of pan-European /trans-Atlantic, and here primarily Central and Eastern European, politics of history and memory. The misgivings of intellectuals and academics, based on reasons pertaining to teaching about memory, on the perceived devaluation of 27 January, and even the implicit equation of the Holocaust on the one hand with the gulags, Holodomor and the Great Terror on the other, prove to be of little political importance given the broad transnational- parliamentary consensus of 23 August. Yet whether the new Euro- Atlantic day of remembrance will turn out to be of great significance in all or at least the majority of the cultures of memory of the national societies of Europe, Eurasia, and North America is a question to which the answer lies in the future.



Prof. Dr. Stefan Troebst, University of Leipzig. Born in 1955 in Heidelberg, 1974-1984 Studies in History, Slavic Studies, Balkanologie and Islamic Studies at the Free University Berlin and at the universities of Tübingen, Sofia (Bulgaria), Skopje (Yugoslavia, now Macedonia) and at Indiana University Bloomington, (USA) 1984; 1984-1992 Wiss. Staff and Assistant Professor of East European History at the Eastern European Institute at the Free University of Berlin, Since 1999, Professor of Cultural Studies at the University of Leipzig, East Central Europe, also a senior fellow at Geisteswissenschaftliche Zentrum Geschichte und Kultur Ostmitteleuropas.




1. K. Zernack, ‘1. September 1939: als hochstes Stadium “Negativer Polenpolitik”’, in: E. Francois and U. Puschner (eds), Erinnerungstage. Wendepunkte der Geschichte von der Antike bis zur Gegenwart (Munchen, 2010), pp. 305-318 and 437-440, here p. 317.

2. Ibid., p. 305.

3. J. Rydel, ‘Der 1. September als ein Fokus der Erinnerung’, in: S. Raabe and P. Womela (eds), Der Hitler-Stalin-Pakt und der Beginn des Zweiten Weltkrieges / Pakt Hitler- Stalin i wybuch II Wojny Światowej (Warszawa, 2009), pp. 7-12, here p. 12. The Warsaw historian Jerzy Kochanowski, however, has at the same time pointed out that the Polish lieu de mémoire ‘1 September 1939’ has in the meantime been given stiff competition by that of ‘17 September 1939’ – the day of the Red Army invasion of eastern Poland – ‘The ‘German’ part of the Polish history of World War II has been pushed to the side to such a degree that one might gain the impression that the war began not on 1 September 1939, but 17 days later.’ Cf. id., ‘Der Kriegsbeginn in der polnischen Erinnerung’, in: Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte 36-37 (2009), pp. 6-13, here p. 12.

4. S. Troebst, ‘Der 23. August 1939 – ein europaischer lieu de mémoire’, Osteuropa 59 (2009) 7-8, pp. 249-256, also www.eurozine.com, accessed: 30.06.2011.

5. ‘Das Jahr 1989 feiern, heist auch, sich an 1939 zu erinnern! Eine Erklarung zum 70. Jahrestag des Hitler-Stalin-Pakts’. Berlin, 23. August 2009, Die Zeit 35 (20.08.2009), pp. 22. See also www.23august1939.de, accessed 01.06.2011. You can also find versions in German, Russian, Polish, Czech and Hungarian here.

6. ‘Przepraszamy za 1939, dziękujemy za 1989. List niemieckich intelektualistow w 70. rocznicę II wojny światowej’, Gazeta Wyborcza, 21.08.2009, p. 1, wyborcza.pl, accessed 26. 06. 2011.

7. On this and other dividing lines in memory culture in Europe cf. C.S. Maier, ‘Heises und kaltes Gedachtnis. Zur politischen Halbwertzeit des faschistischen und kommunistischen Gedachtnisses’, in: Transit. Europäische Revue 22 (2001/2002), pp. 153-165; S. Troebst, ‘Holodomor oder Holocaust?’, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 152 (04.07.2005), p. 8; id., ‘Jalta versus Stalingrad, GULag versus Holocaust. Konfligierende Erinnerungskulturen im groseren Europa’, Berliner Journal für Soziologie 15 (2005), pp. 381-400; U. Ackermann, ‘Das gespaltene Gedenken. Eine gesamteuropaische Erinnerungskultur ist noch nicht in Sicht’, Internationale Politik 61 (2006) 5, pp. 44- 48; H.-A. Winkler, ‘Erinnerungswelten im Widerstreit. Europas langer Weg zu einem gemeinsamen Bild von Jahrhundert der Extreme’, in: B. Kauffmann and B. Kerski (eds), Antisemitismus und Erinnerungskulturen im postkommunistischen Europa (Osnabruck, 2006), pp. 105-116.

8. For the context cf. K. Hammerstein and B. Hofmann, ‘Europaische “Interventionen”: Resolutionen und Initiativen zum Umgang mit diktatorischer Vergangenheit’, in: K. Hammerstein et al. (eds), Aufarbeitung der Diktatur – Diktat der Aufarbeitung? Normierungsprozesse beim Umgang mit diktatorischer Vergangenheit (Gottingen, 2009), pp. 189-203; K. Hammerstein, ‘Europa und seine bedruckende Erbschaft. Europaische Perspektiven auf die Aufarbeitung von Diktaturen’, in: Werner Reimers Stiftung (ed.), Erinnerung und Gesellschaft. Formen der Aufarbeitung von Diktaturen, Berlin (forthcoming).

9. Cf. essentially W. von Scheliha, ‘Der Pakt und seine Falscher. Der geschichtspolitische Machtkampf in Russland zum 70. Jahrestag des Hitler-Stalin-Pakts’ (in this volume) and id., ‘Die List der geschichtspolitischen Vernunft. Der polnischrussische Geschichtsdiskurs in den Gedenkjahren 2009-2010’, in: E. Francois, R. Traba and S. Troebst (eds), Strategien der Geschichtspolitik in Europa seit 1989 – Deutschland, Frankreich und Polen im internationalen Vergleich, Gottingen (forthcoming). See also T. Timofeeva, ‘“Ob gut, ob schlecht, das ist Geschichte”. Russlands Umgang mit dem Hitler- Stalin-Pakt’, Osteuropa 59 (2009) 7-8, pp. 257-271, and Jutta Scherrer’s contribution to this volume.

10. On this cf. the contributions of A. Bubnys, K. Wezel and K. Bruggemann in this volume.

11. Council of Europe, Parliamentary Assembly: Resolution 1096 (1996) on measures to dismantle the heritage of former communist totalitarian regimes. Strasbourg, 27 June 1996, assembly.coe.int, accessed 01.06.2011.

12. Council of Europe, Parliamentary Assembly: Motion for a Resolution on the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, presented by Mr Paunescu, Romania, UEL, and others. Strasbourg, 12 July 1995 (Doc. 7358), assembly.coe.int, accessed 01.06.2011.

13. European Parliament resolution on remembrance of the Holocaust, antisemitism and racism. Brussels, 27 January 2005, www.europarl.europa.eu, accessed 01.06.2011. For the background cf. H. Schmid, ‘Europaisierung des Auschwitz- Gedenkens? Zum Aufstieg des 27. Januar 1945 als “Holocaustgedenktag” in Europa’, in: J. Eckel and C. Moisel (eds), Universalisierung des Holocaust? Erinnerungskultur und Geschichtspolitik in internationaler Perspektive (Gottingen, 2008), pp. 174-202; Jens Kroh, Transnationale Erinnerung. Der Holocaust im Fokus geschichtspolitischer Initiativen (Frankfurt a. M./ New York, 2008); D. Levy and N. Sznaider, Erinnerung im globalen Zeitalter: Der Holocaust (Frankfurt a. M., 2001), pp. 210-216.

14. Resolution adopted by the General Assembly on the Holocaust Remembrance (A/RES/60/7, 1 November 2005), www.un.org, accessed 01.06.2011.

15. European Parliament, plenary debates. Strasbourg European Parliament. Plenary debates. Strasbourg, 11 May 2005, www.europarl.europa.eu, accessed 01.06.2011.

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid.

18. European Parliament resolution on the sixtieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe on 8 May 1945. Strasbourg, 12 May 2005, www.europarl.europa.eu, accessed 01.06.2011.

19. Putin o pakte Molotova-Ribbentropa: ‘Chorošo ėto bylo ili plocho – ėto istorija’, Regnum. Informacionnoe agentstvo (10.05.2005), http://www.regnum.ru/news/451397.html, accessed 29.06.2011. On this see also Jutta Scherrer’s contribution in this volume.

20. European Parliament. Plenary debates. Tuesday, 4 July 2006 – Strasbourg: 70 years after General Franco’s coup d’etat in Spain, www.europarl.europa.eu, accessed 01.06.2011.

21. Ibid. (Speech of the Social Democrat Martin Schulz.) The debate took place in the context of the ‘Recommendation 1736 (2006) Need for international condemnation of the Franco regime’, passed by the European Council on 17 March 2006. This had given Spain’s government detailed recommendations for dealing with the memory of the legacy of the Franco dictatorship of 1939 to 1975. Cf. Council of Europe, Parliamentary Assembly: Recommendation 1736 (2006) Need for international condemnation of the Franco regime. Strasbourg, 17 March 2006, http://assembly.coe.int/main.asp?Link=/documents/adoptedtext/ta06/erec1736.htm accessed 01.06.2011; K. Hammerstein and B. Hofmann, ‘Europaische ‘Interventionen’’, pp. 194-196. On the structural parallels of strategies for dealing with the past of the late and post-dictatorial periods between Southern Europe and Central and Eastern Europe see S. Troebst, Diktaturerinnerung und Geschichtskultur im östlichen und südlichen Europa. Ein Vergleich der Vergleiche (Leipzig: Leipziger Universitatsverlag, 2010), www.uni-leipzig.de/gesi/documents/working_papers/GESI_WP_3_Troebst.pdf, accessed 30.06.2011.

22. On this subject cf. B. Hofmann, ‘Europaisierung der Totalitarismustheorie? Geschichtspolitische Kontroversen um das ‘Schwarzbuch des Kommunismus’ und die Europaratsresolution zur ‘Verurteilung der Verbrechen totalitarer kommunistischer Regime’ in Deutschland und Frankreich’, in: id. et al. (eds), Diktaturüberwindung in Europa. Neue nationale und transnationale Perspektiven (Heidelberg, 2010), pp. 331-347; K. Hammerstein and B. Hofmann, ‘Europaische “Interventionen”’, pp. 196-202.

23. Council of Europe, Parliamentary Assembly: Resolution 1481 (2006) Need for international condemnation of crimes of totalitarian communist regimes. Strasbourg, 25 January 2006, assembly.coe.int, accessed 01.06.2011.

24. The Slovenian EU Presidency of the EU Council thus held a hearing on 8 April 2008 in Brussels, primarily with the participation of experts from Central and Eastern Europe, on the crimes of the totalitarian regimes, with communist state crimes being of central concern. On this cf. the comprehensive report by von Peter Jambrek (ed.), Crimes Committed by Totalitarian Regimes. Ljubljana 2008, 316 pp. www.mp.gov.si, accessed 01.06.2011.

25. Prague Declaration on European Conscience and Communism. Prague, 3 July 2008, www.praguedeclaration.org, accessed 01.06.2011.

26. K. Hammerstein and B. Hofmann, ‘Europaische “Interventionen”’, p. 196. See also F. Wenninger and J. Pfeffer, ‘Total normal. Zur diskursiven Durchsetzung des Totalitarismus-Begriffs in Debatten des Europaischen Parlamentes’, Conference Papers, Momentum-Kongress 2010 (Hallstatt, 21.-24.10.2010) (forthcoming). However, even the influential Copenhagen document of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe of 1990, passed at the climax of the euphoria over the collapse of communism in 1990, stated ‘The participating States clearly and unequivocally condemn totalitarianism’. Cf. Document of the Copenhagen Meeting of the Conference on the Human Dimension of the CSCE (Copenhagen, 29 June 1990), Point 40, http://www.osce.org/odihr/19394, accessed 01.06.2011.

27. Declaration of the European Parliament on the proclamation of 23 August as European Day of Remembrance for Victims of Stalinism and Nazism. Brussels, 23 September 2008, www.europarl.europa.eu, accessed 01.06.2011.

28. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization: 23 August: International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and of its Abolition, portal.unesco.org, accessed 01.06.2011.

29. European Parliament resolution of 23 October 2008 on the commemoration of the Holodomor, the Ukraine artificial famine (1932-1933). Brussels, 23 October 2008, www.europarl.europa.eu, accessed 01.06.2011. On the historical background cf. G. Kasianov, ‘The Great Famine of 1932-1933 (Holodomor) and the Politics of History in Contemporary Ukraine’, in: S. Troebst (ed.), Postdiktatorische Geschichtskulturen im Süden und Osten Europas. Bestandsaufnahme und Forschungsperspektiven (Gottingen, 2010), pp. 619-641; and W. Jilge, ‘Geschichtspolitik in der Ukraine’, Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte 8-9 (2007), pp. 24-30.

30. Cf. also the plenary debate on the motion for the resolution in the European Parliament on 22 October 2008, in which Helmuth Markov, the Brandenburg MEP from the party ‘The Left’, argued in favour of Russia: European Parliament. plenary debates. Strasbourg, 22 October 2008. 14. Commemoration of the Holodomor, the Ukraine artificial famine (1932-1933) (debate), www.europarl.europa.eu/sides/getDoc.do?type=CRE&reference=20081022&secondRef=ITEM-014&language=EN&ring=P6-RC-2008-0571, accessed 01.06.2011.

31. M. Lehti, M. Jutila and M. Jokisipila, ‘Never-Ending Second World War: Public Performances of National Dignity and the Drama of the Bronze Soldier’, Journal of Baltic Studies 39 (2008), pp. 393-418; K. Bruggemann and A. Kasekamp, ‘The Politics of History and the War of Memories in Estonia’, Nationalities Papers 36 (2008), pp. 425-448; K. Bruggemann, ‘Denkmaler des Grolls. Estland und die Kriege des 20. Jahrhunderts’, Osteuropa 58 (2008) 6, pp. 129-146. On the comparable tensions between Russia on the one side and Latvia and Lithuania on the other cf. the contributions from K. Wezel, A. Nikžentaitis and C. Scheide in the same issue of Osteuropa as well as D. Bleiere, ‘Overcoming the Communist and Authoritarian Past in Latvia: History and Monuments in the Political Discourse’, in: S. Troebst (ed.), Postdiktatorische Geschichtskulturen, pp. 330- 404.

32. European Parliament resolution of 15 January 2009 on Srebrenica. Strasbourg, 15 January 2009, www.europarl.europa.eu, accessed 01.06.2011. On the mass execution in the UN protection zone, classified by international law as genocide, cf. Julija Bogoeva/ Caroline Fetscher, Srebrenica. Dokumente aus dem Verfahren gegen General Radislav Krstić vor dem Internationalen Strafgerichtshof für das ehemalige Jugoslawien in Den Haag, Frankfurt a. M. 2002.

33. On this see the website of the group: Reconciliation of European Histories. For a better understanding of Europe’s shared history, eureconciliation.wordpress.com, accessed 01.06.2011.

34. European Parliament resolution of 2 April 2009 on European conscience and totalitarianism. Brussels, 2 April 2009, www.europarl.europa.eu/sides/getDoc.do?pubRef=-//EP//TEXT+TA+P6-TA-2009-0213+0+DOC+XML+V0//EN, accessed 01.06.2011. The resolution was passed with 553 votes in favour, 44 against and 33 abstentions. A public hearing on the subject ‘European Conscience and Crimes of Totalitarian Communism: 20 Years After’ had taken place previously on 18 March 2009 in the European Parliament on the initiative of the Czech Presidency of the EU Council. The program of the hearing can be found on the website of the Hungarian Fidesz MEPs, http://fidesz-eu.hu/galeria/File/Invitation_18_March_2009.pdf, accessed 01.06.2011.

35. Y. Bauer, ‘On Comparisons between Nazi Germany and the Soviet regime’, undated, www.gedenkdienst.or.at, accessed 01.06.2011. On the state of historical knowledge on this issue cf. M. Geyer and S. Fitzpatrick (eds), Beyond Totalitarianism. Stalinism and Nazism Compared (Cambridge, 2009); J. Baberowski and A. Doring-Manteuffel, Ordnung durch Terror. Gewaltexzesse und Vernichtung im nationalsozialistischen und im stalinistischen Imperium (Bonn, 2006); D. Diner, ‘Gedachtnis und Erkenntnis. Nationalsozialismus und Stalinismus im Vergleich’, Osteuropa 50 (2000), pp. 698-708; D. Beyrau, ‘Nationalsozialistisches Regime und Stalin-System. Ein riskanter Vergleich’, ibid., pp. 709-720; I. Kershaw and M. Lewin (eds), Stalinism and Nazism. Dictatorships in Comparison (Cambridge, 1997).

36. H. Uhl, ‘Neuer EU-Gedenktag: Verfalschung der Geschichte?’ On the website: science ORF.at’, 21 August 2009, sciencev1.orf.at, accessed 01.06.2011.

37. G. Morsch, ‘Schlachtfeld EU. Wie der Jahrestag des Hitler-Stalin-Pakts fur einen erinnerungspolitischen Deutungskampf missbraucht wird’, Jüdische Allgemeine (20.08.2009), www.juedische-allgemeine.de, accessed 01.06.2011.

38. Parliamentary Assembly of the OSCE, Resolution on Divided Europe Reunited: Promoting Human Rights and Civil Liberties in the OSCE Region in the 21st Century, in: Vilnius Declaration of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and Resolutions Adopted at the Eighteenth Annual Session, Vilnius, 29 June to 3 July 2009 (AS (09) D 1 G), pp. 48-49, www.oscepa.org, accessed 01.06.2011.

39. Cf. on the wording, Katja Wezel’s contribution to this volume, and on the background E.-C. Onken, ‘The Baltic States and Moscow’s May 9th Commemoration: Analysing Memory Politics in Europe’, Europe-Asia Studies 59 (2007), pp. 3-46. However, US President George Bush had declared, during a stopover on 7 May 2005 in the Latvian capital Riga on the way to Moscow: ‘For much of Eastern and Central Europe, victory brought the iron rule of another empire. V-E Day marked the end of fascism, but it did not end oppression. (...) The captivity of millions in Central and Eastern Europe will be remembered as one of the greatest wrongs of history.’ Cf. ‘President Discusses Freedom and Democracy in Latvia’. Riga, Latvia, 7 May 2005, www.whitehouse.gov.edgesuite.net/news/releases/2005/05/print/20050507-8.html, accessed 01.06.2011.

40. The President of the European Parliament, 70th anniversary of the Molotov- Ribbentrop Pact. Brussels, 14 October 2009, www.europarl.europa.eu, accessed 01.06.2011.

41. Ibid.

42. House of Commons, Resolution to Establish an Annual Day of Remembrance for the Victims of Europe’s Totalitarian Regimes. Ottawa, 30 November 2009, www.blackribbonday.org, accessed 01.06.2011.

43. On the memory politics of the Russian Federation since 2008/09 cf., alongside the cited analyses of Wolfram von Scheliha and the contribution of Jutta Scherrer in this volume, see especially C. Kuhr-Korolev, ‘Erinnerungspolitik in Russland. Die vaterlandische Geschichte und der Kampf um historisches Hoheitsgebiet’, Neue politische Literatur 54 (2009), pp. 369-383 and J. Morre, ‘Die Erinnerung an den Zweiten Weltkrieg im heutigen Russland’, Jahrbuch für historische Kommunismusforschung (2011), pp. 253- 256; B. Dubin, ‘Soziologische Perspektiven auf das ‘kollektive Gedachtnis’ des heutigen Russland, in: S. Troebst and J. Wolf (eds), Erinnern an den Zweiten Weltkrieg. Mahnmale und Museen in Mittel- und Osteuropa (Leipzig, 2011), pp. 113-119; I. Scherbakowa, Zerrissene Erinnerung. Der Umgang mit Stalinismus und Zweitem Weltkrieg im heutigen Russland, (Gottingen, 2010); A. Vatlin, ‘Die unvollendete Vergangenheit: Uber den Umgang mit der kommunistischen Geschichte im heutigen Russland’, Jahrbuch für historische Kommunismusforschung (2010), pp. 279-293; Themenausgabe „Geschichtspolitik und Geschichtsbild”, Russland-Analysen Nr. 196 (12.02.2010), www.laender-analysen.de/ russland/pdf/Russlandanalysen196.pdf, access 29.06.2011; E. Zubkova, ‘The Filippov Syndrome’, Kritika 10 (2009), pp. 861-868; A. Roginski, ‘Fragmentierte Erinnerung. Stalin und der Stalinismus im heutigen Rusland’, Eurozine (02.03.2009), www.eurozine.com/articles/2009-03-02-roginski-de.html, accessed 29.06.2011. On the traditional lines of memory politics which shaped the memory of Stalinism and the World War from Leonid Brezhnev via Boris Yeltsin to Vladimir Putin, see B. Dubin, ‘Erinnern als staatliche Veranstaltung. Geschichte und Herrschaft in Russland’, Osteuropa 58 (2008) 6, pp. 57-65; Lev Gudkov, ‘Die Fesseln des Sieges. Russlands Identitat aus der Erinnerung an den Krieg’, Osteuropa 55 (2005) 4-6, pp. 56-73; B. Dubin, ‘Goldene Zeiten des Krieges. Erinnerung als Sehnsucht nach der Brežnev-Ara’, ibid., pp. 219-233.

44. A typical example of the concept of a ‘Russian nation’ (rossijskaja nacija) or the ‘multinational people of the Russian Federation’ (mnogonacional’nyj narod Rossijskoj Federacii), as it was termed in the constitution of 1993, can be found in the leading article of one of Medvedev’s advisers in the New Year’s edition of the Kremlin-backed newspaper Izvestija: V. Nikonov, ‘Ideja našej nacii’, Izvestija (30.12.2010-10.01.2011) 246/247 (28261), p. 7, www.izvestia.ru/comment/article3150213/, accessed 01.06.2011.

45. On this cf. ‘Russland kampft. Gesetz und Kommission gegen Geschichtsfalscher’, Osteuropa 59 (2009) 7-8, pp. 273-275; MEMORIAL, ‘Zur neuen Kommission beim Prasidenten der Russlandischen Foderation. Erklarung der Gesellschaft MEMORIAL. Moscow, 22 May 2009, ibid., pp. 277-278; and Wolfram von Scheliha, ‘Funf Jahre Haft fur Kritik an Stalin. Die russische Staatsmacht kampft um die Deutungshoheit uber die Geschichte’, in: Hoch und Guck (03/2009) 65, pp. 68-70.

46. Interv’ju Dmitrija Medvedeva gazete Izvestija. Gorki, 7 May 2010, www.kremlin.ru, accessed 01.06.2011.

47. Ibid.

48. Stenografičeskij otčet o zasedanii Soveta po razvitiju graždanskogo obščestva i pravam čeloveka. Ekaterinburg, 1 February 2011, www.kremlin.ru/transcripts/10194, accessed 01.06.2011.

49. A. Roginskij, ‘Erinnerung und Freiheit. Die Stalinismus-Diskussion in der UdSSR und Russland’, Osteuropa 61 (2011) 4, pp. 55-69, here pp. 66-69.

50. Study on how the memory of crimes committed by totalitarian regimes in Europe is dealt with in the Member States. Submitted by Prof. Dr. Carlos Closa Montero, Institute for Public Goods and Policy, Centre of Human and Social Sciences, CSCIC, Madrid, Spain (Contract No JLS/2007/C4/006). Madrid, January 2010, 480 pp. ec.europa.eu, accessed 01.06.2011.

51. European Commission: Report from the Commission to the European Parliament and to the Council: The memory of the crimes committed by totalitarian regimes in Europe (COM(2010) 783 final). Brussels, 22. 12. 2010, ec.europa.eu, accessed 01.06.2011.

52. Council of the European Union, Council conclusions on the memory of the crimes committed by totalitarian regimes in Europe. 3096th JUSTICE and HOME AFFAIRS Council meeting. Luxembourg, 9 and 10 June 2011, www.webcitation.org/5zO7mIFTb, accessed 01.06.2011.

53. The most recent and relevantly titled publications contain no reference to the establishment of 23 August as a European day of remembrance. Cf. pars pro toto C. Joerges, M. Mahlmann and U.K. Preus (eds), ‘Schmerzliche Erfahrungen der Vergangenheit’ und der Prozess der Konstituierung Europas (Wiesbaden, 2008); B. Strath and M. Pakier (eds), A European Memory? Contested Histories and Politics of Remembrance, (London, New York, 2010), M. Blaive, C. Gerbel and T. Lindenberger (eds), Clashes in European Memory: The Case of Communist Repression and the Holocaust (Innsbruck, Wien, Bozen, 2010). The same is true of the chapters on Europe in A. Assman, Der lange Schatten der Vergangenheit. Erinnerungskultur und Geschichtspolitik (Munchen, 2006). An exception that stands out is C. Leggewie and A. Lang, Der Kampf um die europäische Erinnerung. Ein Schlachtfeld wird Besichtigt (Munchen, 2011), which states that ‘the memory of 23 August 1939, when the pact was concluded between Hitler and Stalin’ belongs ‘no longer just to the margins’, but to ‘a truly Europeanised politics of memory’ and ‘a pan-European history narrative’ (p. 11), and where the content and results of the resolution of the European Parliament of 2 April 2009 are described (p. 192). Cf. also ibid., pp. 58, 65, 68 and 77-78, and id.: ‘Schlachtfeld Europa. Transnationale Erinnerung und europaische Identitat’, in: C. Bieber, B. Drechsel and A.-K. Lang (eds), Kultur im Konflikt. Claus Leggewie revisited, Bielefeld 2010, pp. 29- 44, with commentaries from W. Schmale, S. Troebst, H. Uhl und S. Kattago, in: ibid., pp. 45-64. It was no coincidence that Leggewie participated as an expert in the ‘Study on how the memory of crimes committed by totalitarian regimes in Europe is dealt with in the Member States’ of 2010 commissioned by the EU Commission and cited above.



This article has been published in the first issue of Remembrance and Solidarity Studies.


Photo of the publication „1945” mint az európai emlékezés helye?
Stefan Troebst

„1945” mint az európai emlékezés helye?

21 August 2011
  • Kelet-Közép-Európa
  • emlékezés helye
  • Európa
  • rok 1945
  • németek
  • Jalta
  • Oskar Halecki

Walter Benjamin híres diktuma szerint „történelmet írni […]” nem jelent mást, mint „évszámoknak arcot adni”[1]. Az évszámok nemcsak technikailag nyújtanak segítséget az értelmezésben, hanem erőteljesen absztrakt kulminálódási pontokat, átalakulásokat és töréseket is kifejeznek, és ezzel az emlékezés Pierre Nora által metaforikus értelemben meghatározott helyeinek minőségét öltik magukra. Dan Diner lipcsei történész ugyanakkor a közelmúltban arra hívta fel a figyelmet, hogy egy olyan évszám, mint 1945, egyidejűleg több, egymástól teljesen különböző, sőt egymással ellentétes lieu de mémoire-t is jelképezhet. 1945. május 8. jelentését Diner a „Reims, Karlshorst, Sétif” kulcsszavakkal írta körül, amelyek a nyugati szövetséges, a szovjet és a nem-európai perspektívát világítják meg[2].

„Reims” és „Karlshorst” természetesen Németországnak az amerikai és a szovjet főhadiszálláson celebrált feltétel nélküli megadását jelöli, míg „Sétif” egy olyan gyarmati bűntettre utal, amely során francia biztonsági erők több tízezer muzulmánt mészároltak le ugyanezen a napon.

Amit Diner az „1945. május 8-i emlékezeti ikonra” és a hozzá kapcsolódó, többszörös – nyugati, keleti és gyarmati – jelentésre nézvést a fenti példán szemléltetett, „1945”-re mint az emlékezés átfogó helyére még inkább igaz. Az 1945 nyarán Hiroshimára és Nagaszakira ledobott atombomba, valamint Japán kapitulációja például az ázsiai jelentéskomponenst szimbolizálja. Nemzeti konnotációjuk miatt az emlékezés ilyen helyei konfliktusok tárgyát és okát képezhetik a különböző nemzeti emlékezőközösségek között. Ez viszont azt jelenti, hogy „1945” talán nem is alkalmas arra, hogy egy eljövendő, páneurópai emlékezési kultúra alapjául szolgáljon. Ezt az alábbi tíz, „1945” eltérő összeurópai és nemzeti jelentésszintjét, az egyezéseket és a konfliktusokat körülíró tételben látjuk bizonyítottnak.

I. „1945” kétségkívül központi lieu de mémoire, a ma élő európaiak emlékezetének talán legfontosabb helye. Ennek ellenére, ahogy már említettük, megítélésében igen vitatott, hiszen Európa egyes részein teljesen eltérően értelmezik. Richard von Weizsäcker német köztársasági elnök 1985-ben, a második világháború végének 40. évfordulója alkalmából elhangzott beszédében a következőket mondta: „Győzelem vagy vereség, felszabadulás a jognélküliség és az idegen uralom alól, vagy átmenet egy új függőségbe, felosztás, új szövetségek, az erőviszonyok jelentős eltolódása – 1945. május 8-a olyan dátum, amelynek történelmi jelentősége meghatározó Európában”.[3]

II. „1945” eltérő értelmezéseinek feltérképezéséhez nagyban segítségünkre lehet Oskar Halecki felosztása, aki kultúr- és vallástörténeti szempontok alapján három nagyobb történelmi régiót különít el Európa területén: „Nyugat-Európát”, „Közép-Európát” és „Kelet-Európát” (további tagolásban „Közép-Európa” tovább bontható „Nyugat-Közép-Európára” és „Kelet-Közép-Európára”)[4]. Halecki hosszú távú, makrotörténelmi perspektívája ellenére ez a felosztás nem véletlen, hiszen közelebbről vizsgálva történettudományi munkásságának e része a második világháború és a kezdődő hidegháború közvetlen produktuma.

III. Az 1945-re való emlékezésben mind a mai napig meghatározó a szövetségesek, vagyis a Hitler-ellenes koalíció nézőpontja, miszerint „1945” kapcsán a lieu de mémoire „Európa felszabadítását”, „a fasizmus feletti győzelmet”, sőt a „demokrácia diadalát” jelenti. Ez az értelmezés dominál a Halecki-féle „Nyugat-Európában”, főleg Nagy-Británniában és Franciaországban (ideértve az USA-t is), csakúgy mint „Kelet-Európában”, vagyis a FÁK területén, mindenekelőtt Oroszországban.

IV. Halecki „Nyugat-Közép-Európájában”, vagyis Németországban és Ausztriában „1945” mint az emlékezés helye ambivalens képet mutat: egyrészt egy gyilkos diktatúra végét jelöli, másrészt viszont sokáig a „vereség”, az „összeomlás”, sőt a „katasztrófa”, a „megszállás”, a „győztesek igazságszolgáltatása” és a „felosztás” fogalmakkal, Németország keleti részében pedig egy új diktatúra kezdetével társult. „Május 8-a nekünk, németeknek nem ünnepnap” – mondta Richard von Weizsäcker fent említett beszédében, ám így folytatta: „és mégis […]: május 8-a a felszabadulás napja volt”.[5]

V. A Halecki-féle „Kelet-Közép-Európában”, elsősorban Lengyelországban és a három balti államban „1945” egyértelműen negatív jelentésű, mivel szinte teljesen azonos egy másik emlékhellyel, „Jaltával”. „Jalta” az angol és amerikai szövetségeseknek arra az árulására utal, amellyel ezen országokat Sztálinnak kiszolgáltatták, valamint az átmenetre az egyik diktatórikus, idegen megszálló rendszerből a másikba.

VI. 1989 korszakalkotó éve megteremtette a lehetőséget „1945” emlékezeti pluralitására, amely a politika terén heves emlékezeti konfliktusokhoz vezetett. Ez elsősorban a „Kelet-Közép-Európa” és „Kelet-Európa” közötti éles ellentétben nyilvánul meg. A balti és lengyel nézőpont szerint „1945” az egyik idegen, a nemzetiszocialista uralomból a másikba, vagyis a szovjetbe való átmenetet jelenti. Az oroszországi értelmezés viszont a „hitleri fasizmus szétveréséről”, valamint „Európa népeinek felszabadításáról” beszél, közéjük értve az észteket, litvánokat, letteket és lengyeleket is.

VII. „Kelet-Közép-Európa” és „Kelet-Európa” megkeseredett emlékezési konfliktusaival szemben szinte teljesen eltűnt az ellentét a világháború egykori ellenfelei között. Ez a szövetségesek „Nyugat-Európája” és a nemzetiszocialista „Nyugat-Közép-Európa” konszenzuális értelmezésére, miszerint „1945” a nácitlanítás, a demokratizálódás és a gazdasági csoda kezdetét jelöli, ugyanúgy érvényes, mint „Nyugat-Közép-Európa” és „Kelet-Európa”, vagyis az újraegyesített Németország, Ausztria és a posztszocialista társadalmak közötti egyetértésre a nemzetiszocialista támadó háború bűnös jellegét és a német megszálló és megsemmisítő politika kriminális voltát illetően.

VIII. „1945” emlékezete hasonlóképpen nagyrészt egybevág manapság „Nyugat-Közép-” és „Kelet-Közép-Európában”, vagyis egyrészt Németország és Ausztria, másrészt Lengyelország és a Cseh Köztársaság között, bár az „elüldözés” fogalma mint emlékezési hely részben felülírja „1945” emlékezési helyét, és ezzel gyengíti a „közép-európai” emlékezeti konszenzust. A „kelet-közép-európai” post hoc, vagyis propter hoc-érvelés „Nyugat-Közép-Európa” társadalmainak egyes részeiben azzal a nézettel találja szemben magát, miszerint nem létezett ilyesfajta kauzalitás. Ennek megfelelően a németek „elüldözését” sui generis, és nem a nemzetiszocialista, erőszakos kitelepítésekkel és etnikai tisztogatásokkal járó megszálló politika következményeként értelmezik.

IX. „1945” és az „elüldözés” mint emlékezési helyek egymáshoz való viszonyánál is több konfliktust rejt „1945” és a „holokauszt” kapcsolata. „Kelet-Közép-Európában” az összeurópai „holokauszt”-emlékezetet a saját „Jalta”-értelmezés konkurenciájaként, nem kívánatos figyelmeztetésként, sőt rejtett antiszemitizmus vádként fogják fel. A „holokausztot” a posztszovjet „Kelet-Európában” is valami idegen, eredendően német, a saját nemzeti és birodalmi történelemtől független jelenségként értelmezik.

X. A „holokauszt” és „1945” emlékezési helyeinek „nyugat-európai” és „nyugat-közép-európai” perspektívából való szoros összekapcsolása, valamint ennek összeurópai vonatkozású, normalizáló igénye más okból is ellenállásba ütközik „Kelet-Közép-Európában” és „Kelet-Európa” egyes részein. Mivel a szovjet diktatúra ezen országok emlékezési kultúrájában a nemzetiszocialistával egy szinten található, a nyugati holokauszt-emlékezettel egy azzal egyenrangúnak ítélt, keleti gulág-emlékezetet állítanak szembe. Ezt Németországban és az USA-ban heves tiltakozások és antiszemita vádak követték, anélkül, hogy „1945” ambivalens megítéléseinek magvát közelebbről megvizsgálták volna.

„1945” negatív észak-afrikai jelentését illetően Dan Diner kétségbe vonta, „hogy 1945. május 8. jelképének, mint nyugati indíttatású, pozitív alapítóeseménynek, háborítatlan lesz-e a jövője”[6]. Ugyanez igaz a „keleti indíttatású”, pozitív alapítóeseményként értelmezett 1945. május 8-ára is (illetve a szovjet használat szerint május 9-ére) a már említett kelet-közép-európai „Jalta”-ellentézis miatt. Csakúgy, mint ahogy „Sétif” Európán kívül megkérdőjelezi „1945”-öt mint európai emlékezeti ikont, „Jalta” is ezt teszi, csak éppen Európán belül. Ebből fakad a bevezetőben közölt gyanú, miszerint az ellentétek nyílt megvitatása, amely 1989 által „1945” emlékezési helyét illetően lehetővé vált, nemhogy folytatódni, de élesedni fog. A háború végére és a háború utáni új rend megteremtésére manapság túl ellentétes és részben túl traumatikus az emlékezet ahhoz, hogy „1945” egy európai emlékezési kultúra alapjául szolgálhatna.


Stefan Troebst professzor - A Közép-Kelet Európa Humán Történeti és Irodalmi Központjának (GWZO) igazgatója és a Lipcsei Egyetem Közép-Európai Kulturális Stúdiójának professzora. Számos alapítvány tagja és elnöke. Az Európai Emlékezet és Szolidaritás Hálózat Tudományos Tanácsának tagja.


[1]Walter Benjamin: Das Passagen-Werk. Rolf Tiedemann (Hg.). Bd. 1. Frankfurt am Main, 1983. 595. o.

[2]Dan Diner: Reims, Karlshorst, Sétif: Die multiple Bedeutung des 8. Mai 1945. In: Frei, Norbert (Hg.): Was heißt und zu welchem Ende studiert man Geschichte des 20. Jahrhunderts? Göttingen, 2007. 190-195. o.

[3]Richard von Weizsäcker: Der 8. Mai 1945. Ansprache bei einer Gedenkstunde im Plenarsaal des Deutschen Bundestages am 8. Mai 1985 (A beszéd teljes szövege megtalálható a http://www.bundespraesident.de honlapon.)

[4]Oskar Halecki: The Limits and Divisions of European History. London, New York, NY, 1950. (németül: Europa. Grenzen und Gliederungen seiner Geschichte. Darmstadt, 1957.; Reprint 1963.)

[5]Richard von Weizsäcker: Der 8. Mai 1945. (vö. fent)

[6]Dan Diner: Reims, Karlshorst, Sétif. 194. (vö. fent)

Photo of the publication „1945“ als europäischer Erinnerungsort?
Stefan Troebst

„1945“ als europäischer Erinnerungsort?

21 August 2011
  • Európa
  • rok 1945
  • Deutsche
  • Erinnerungsort
  • Gedächtnis
  • Ostmitteleuropa
  • Jalta
  • Oskar Halecki

Walter Benjamins berühmtem Diktum zufolge heißt „Geschichte schreiben […], Jahreszahlen ihre Physiognomie geben“1. Daten dieser Art sind dabei nicht nur mnemotechnische Interpretationshilfen, sondern stellen vor allem hochabstrakte Zuspitzungen, Umwälzungen und Brüche dar. Insofern können sie also durchaus die Qualität dessen gewinnen, was Pierre Nora als Erinnerungsort im metaphorischen Sinne definiert hat.

Der Leipziger Historiker Dan Diner hat indes unlängst darauf hingewiesen, dass eine Jahreszahl wie „1945“ für ganz unterschiedliche, ja gegensätzliche lieux de mémoire stehen kann, und hat die multiple Bedeutung des 8. Mai 1945 anhand der drei Chiffren „Reims, Karlshorst, Sétif“ aus westalliierter, sowjetischer und außereuropäischer Perspektive exemplifiziert2.

„Reims“ und „Karlshorst“ stehen dabei natürlich für die beiden Zeremonien der bedingungslosen Kapitulation Deutschlands in den Hauptquartieren der US-amerikanischen bzw. sowjetischen Streitkräfte, wohingegen „Sétif“ ein Kolonialverbrechen am selben Tag meint, ein Massaker an mehreren zehntausend Muslimen durch französische Sicherheitskräfte in Algerien.

Was Diner auf die „Gedächtnisikone 8. Mai 1945“ und ihre multiple westliche, östliche und koloniale Bedeutung zugespitzt hat, gilt für den übergreifenden Erinnerungsort „1945“ in noch größerem Umfang. Die Atombomben auf Hiroshima und Nagasaki sowie die Kapitulation Japans im Sommer 1945 etwa stehen für dessen asiatische Komponente. Erinnerungsorte der genannten Art sind national konnotiert – mit der Folge, dass sie Gegenstand, gar Auslöser von Konflikten zwischen nationalen Erinnerungskollektiven werden können. Dies aber bedeutet, dass „1945“ möglicherweise nicht als Fundament einer künftigen paneuropäischen Erinnerungskultur taugt. Warum dem so ist, soll im Folgenden mittels zehn Thesen zu den verschiedenen gesamteuropäischen und nationalen Bedeutungs-, Konsens- und Konfliktebenen des Erinnerungsortes „1945“ belegt werden.

I. „1945“ ist unzweifelhaft ein zentraler europäischer lieu de mémoire, wenn nicht gar der Erinnerungsort der heute lebenden Europäer. Er ist dabei, wie gesagt, höchst umstritten, da er in den verschiedenen Teilen Europas gänzlich unterschiedlich interpretiert wird. Bundespräsident Richard von Weizsäcker hat 1985 in seiner bekannten Rede zum 40. Jahrestag des Kriegsendes festgehalten: „Sieg oder Niederlage, Befreiung von Unrecht und Fremdherrschaft oder Übertragung zu neuer Abhängigkeit, Teilung, neue Bündnisse, gewaltige Machtverschiebungen – der 8. Mai 1945 ist ein Datum von entscheidender historischer Bedeutung in Europa“3.

II. Als überaus hilfreich bei der Kartierung der divergierenden Interpretation von „1945“ erweist sich Oskar Haleckis nach kultur- und religionsgeschichtlichen Kriterien vorgenommene Einteilung Europas in drei große Geschichtsregionen – „Westeuropa“, „Mitteleuropa“ und „Osteuropa“ (bei weiterer Untergliederung Mitteleuropas in „Westmitteleuropa“ und „Ostmitteleuropa“)4. Dies ist ungeachtet Haleckis makrohistorischer Langzeitperspektive insofern kein Zufall, als sich dieser Teil seines geschichtswissenschaftlichen Œuvres bei näherer Betrachtung als unmittelbares Produkt von Zweitem Weltkrieg und beginnendem Kalten Krieg herausstellt.

III. Noch immer prägend für die Erinnerung an 1945 ist die „alliierte“ bzw. transatlantische Komponente, also diejenige der Mächte der Anti-Hitler-Koalition, derzufolge der lieu de mémoire „1945“ für eine „Befreiung Europas“, für den „Sieg über den Hitlerfaschismus“, gar für den „Triumph der Demokratie“ steht. Diese Interpretation ist dominierend im Haleckischen „Westeuropa“, also vor allem in Großbritannien und Frankreich (einschließlich der USA), wie in „Osteuropa“, das heißt im GUS-Bereich, hier primär in der post-sowjetischen Russländischen Föderation.

IV. In Haleckis „Westmitteleuropa“, also in Deutschland und Österreich, weist der Erinnerungsort „1945“ ambivalenten Charakter auf: Er steht für das Ende einer mörderischen Diktatur, aber zugleich lange Zeit auch für „Niederlage“, „Zusammenbruch“, gar „Katastrophe“, für „Besatzung“, „Siegerjustiz“ und „Teilung“, im Ostteil Deutschlands überdies für den Beginn einer neuerlichen Diktatur. „Der 8. Mai ist für uns Deutsche kein Tag zum Feiern“, so Richard von Weizsäcker in seiner besagten Rede zum 8. Mai 1985, „[u]nd dennoch […] gilt: Der 8. Mai war ein Tag der Befreiung“5.

V. Im Haleckischen „Ostmitteleuropa“, hier vor allem in Polen und in den drei baltischen Staaten, ist die Chiffre „1945“ eindeutig negativ besetzt, da nahezu identisch mit einem anderen Erinnerungsort, nämlich mit „Jalta“. „Jalta“ steht dabei für den Verrat durch die eigenen anglo-amerikanischen Verbündeten mittels Auslieferung an Stalin und für den lückenlosen Übergang von einem diktatorischen und fremdethnischen Besatzungsregime zu einem anderen.

VI. Die durch das Epochenjahr 1989 möglich gewordene Erinnerungspluralität von „1945“ hat im politischen Raum die Form heftiger Gedächtniskonflikte angenommen. Dies gilt primär für den diesbezüglichen schroffen Gegensatz zwischen „Ostmitteleuropa“ und „Osteuropa“. Aus baltisch-polnischer Sicht steht „1945“ für den Übergang von der einen, nationalsozialistischen Fremdherrschaft zur nächsten, nämlich der sowjetischen, in russländischer Perspektive hingegen für die „Zerschlagung des Hitlerfaschismus“ und die „Befreiung der Völker Europas“ – einschließlich der Esten, Letten, Litauer und Polen.

VII. In einer gegenläufigen Entwicklung zu den erbitterten erinnerungskulturellen Konflikten zwischen „Ostmittel-“ und „Osteuropa“ ist der Gegensatz zwischen den ehemaligen Weltkriegsgegnern nahezu geschwunden. Dies gilt sowohl für die mittlerweile konsensuale Interpretation von „1945“ zwischen dem „Westeuropa“ der Alliierten und dem nationalsozialistischen „Westmitteleuropa“ – als Beginn von Entnazifizierung, Demokratisierung und Wirtschaftswunder – als auch für die interpretatorische Übereinstimmung zwischen „Westmitteleuropa“ und „Osteuropa“, also zwischen dem wiedervereinigten Deutschland samt Österreich und den postsowjetischen Gesellschaften, bezüglich des verbrecherischen Charakters des nationalsozialistischen Angriffskriegs und der kriminellen deutschen Besatzungs- und Vernichtungspolitik.

VIII. Gleichfalls weitgehend konsensual ist mittlerweile die Erinnerung an „1945“ in „Westmittel-“ und „Ostmitteleuropa“, also zwischen Deutschland und Österreich auf der einen und Polen und der Tschechischen Republik auf der anderen Seite. Allerdings wird der Erinnerungsort „1945“ von demjenigen der „Vertreibung“ partiell überlagert und damit der „mitteleuropäische“ Erinnerungskonsens geschwächt. Der „ostmitteleuropäischen“ Post hoc, ergo propter hoc-Argumentation steht in Teilen der Gesellschaften „Westmitteleuropas“ die Ansicht gegenüber, eine solche Kausalität sei nicht gegeben. Entsprechend wird die „Vertreibung“ der Deutschen als Verbrechen sui generis, nicht als Konsequenz nationalsozialistischer Besatzungspolitik samt ihrer Komponenten Zwangsumsiedlung und Ausrottung gedeutet.

IX. Noch konfliktträchtiger als das Verhältnis der beiden lieux de mémoire „1945“ und „Vertreibung“ ist dasjenige von „1945“ und „Holocaust“: In „Ostmitteleuropa“ wird das Postulat einer gesamteuropäischen Holocaust-Erinnerung als unmittelbare Konkurrenz zur eigenen „Jalta“-Interpretation, als unerwünschte Ermahnung, gar als unterschwelliger Antisemitismusvorwurf aufgefasst. Und auch im postsowjetischen „Osteuropa“ gilt „Holocaust“ als fremdes, da genuin deutsches, entsprechend mit den eigenen National- und Imperialgeschichten unverbundenes Erinnerungsphänomen.

X. Die aus „westeuropäischer“ wie „westmitteleuropäischer“ Perspektive enge Verknüpfung der Erinnerungsorte „Holocaust“ und „1945“ samt gesamteuropäisch-normierendem Anspruch stößt in „Ostmitteleuropa“ sowie partiell in „Osteuropa“ aber auch noch aus einem anderen Grund auf Widerspruch: Die sowjetkommunistische Diktatur wird hier erinnerungskulturell mit der nationalsozialistischen auf eine hierarchische Stufe gestellt, entsprechend dem westlichen Holocaust-Gedächtnis eine als gleichwertig apostrophierte östliche GULag-Erinnerung entgegengesetzt. Dies wiederum hat etwa in Deutschland und den USA heftigen Protest samt Antisemitismusvorwürfen ausgelöst, ohne dass die Kernfrage nach den Ambivalenzen des Erinnerungsorts „1945“ thematisiert würde.

Mit Bezug auf die negative nordafrikanische Prägung des Erinnerungsorts „1945“ hat Dan Diner es als zweifelhaft eingestuft, „ob dem Signum des 8. Mai 1945 als positives Gründungsereignis westlicher Prägung eine unbehelligte Zukunft beschert sein wird“6. Dasselbe gilt für den 8. (bzw. gemäß sowjetischem Brauch 9.) Mai 1945 als positives Gründungsereignis „östlicher Prägung“ aufgrund der genannten ostmitteleuropäischen „Jalta“-Antithese. So wie „Sétif“ die europäische Gedenkikone „1945“ in außereuropäischer Perspektive in Frage stellt, so tut dies „Jalta“ aus einer binneneuropäischen Sicht. Daher die eingangs geäußerte Vermutung, dass die durch das Epochenjahr 1989 möglich gewordene offene Austragung der Kontroversen um den zentralen europäischen Erinnerungsort „1945“ nicht nur weiterhin anhalten, sondern an Schärfe zunehmen wird. Die Erinnerung an das Kriegsende und an die Errichtung der Nachkriegsordnung ist derzeit bei weitem zu gegensätzlich – und auch partiell zu traumatisch –, um als Fundament einer europäischen Erinnerungskultur dienen zu können.

1 Walter Benjamin, Das Passagen-Werk. Hrsg. v. Rolf Tiedemann. Bd. 1, Frankfurt/M. 1983, S. 595.

Photo of the publication Zum Thema der Tagung „Erinnerungsorte in Ostmitteleuropa – Erfahrungen der Vergangenheit und Perspektiven“
Matthias Weber

Zum Thema der Tagung „Erinnerungsorte in Ostmitteleuropa – Erfahrungen der Vergangenheit und Perspektiven“

21 August 2011
  • Bukovina
  • Erinnerungsort
  • Gedächtnis
  • Ostmitteleuropa
  • Erinnerungskultur
  • Czernowitz
  • Tagung

Die Bukowina war seit 1849 eines der so genannten „Kronländer“ der multinationalen Habsburger Monarchie. Traditionelle Hauptstadt der Bukowina war ein in der zweiten Hälfte des 12. Jahrhunderts gegründeter, moldauisch-rumänischer Ort; ein Ort, der auf Deutsch den Namen Czernowitz – auch in der Schreibung Tschernowitz – trägt, auf Ukrainisch Tscherniwzi heißt, auf Russisch Tschernowzy, auf Rumänisch Cernăuţi und auf Polnisch Czerniowce. Heute ist die Stadt das Zentrum der ukrainischen Oblast Tscherniwzi.

Czernowitz steht für vielfältige Erinnerungen: Für die einen ist es das östlichste Zentrum österreichisch-deutscher Kultur, „eine bunte Stadt, in der sich das germanische mit dem slawischen, lateinischen und jüdischen Kulturgut durchdrang“, wie Rose Ausländer schrieb, für die anderen ist es die Stadt der „Todesfuge“ Paul Celans. Für wieder andere ist Czernowitz das durch Umsiedlung aufgegebene Zentrum der Bukowinadeutschen beziehungsweise ein – verlorenes – Zentrum rumänischen Geisteslebens. Für die meisten heutigen Bewohner ist Tscherniwzi eine nach den bleiernen Jahren der sowjetischen Herrschaft wieder auflebende Metropole der Ukraine.

Für sehr viele ist Czernowitz auch ein Ort der Erinnerung an das Zusammenleben von Ukrainern, Rumänen, Deutschen, Polen und Juden. Sie erinnern sich an die Zeiten der wechselseitigen Toleranz verschiedener Religionen und Kulturen im europäischen Geist, in dem man – wie Georg Drozdowski es formuliert hat – gut lebte „in jenen Tagen, in denen noch kein Satan die Unduldsamkeit eingeimpft hatte und keiner um seiner Sprache oder Rasse willen minderwertig war“; sie erinnern sich an einen Ort also, an den man sich zurücksehnt, noch mehr, den man herbeiwünscht. Insofern kann die Erinnerung an den Schauplatz Czernowitz emblematisch für das Thema der internationalen Fachtagung „Erinnerungsorte in Ostmitteleuropa - Erfahrungen der Vergangenheit und Perspektiven“ stehen, die vom 11. bis 13. Januar 2008 im Warschauer Königsschloss stattfand.

Die Staaten Europas haben durch ihren Zusammenschluss in der Europäischen Union in vielen grundsätzlichen Fragen bereits Konsens erreicht, auch wenn zahlreiche Einzelheiten des künftigen Zusammenwirkens noch offen sind. Mit der politischen Einheit des Kontinents sind die Chancen gewachsen, dass die Menschen im östlichen und westlichen Teil Europas nicht nur voneinander erfahren, sondern sich selbst ein Urteil bilden und auf diese Weise näher zusammenrücken. Sie stellen nun nicht nur die Frage, wie die Zukunft gemeinsam gestaltet werden kann, sondern blicken auch zurück und fragen, welche Phasen der Vergangenheit ein gemeinsames Erinnern nötig machen. Erinnerung ist stets subjektiv, betrifft einzelne Menschen oder Gruppen, die ein Ereignis unmittelbar erlebt haben – etwa die Grausamkeit des Krieges oder die gewaltsame Auflösung gewachsener Strukturen und Identitäten bis hin zum Holocaust. Die Diskurse in und zwischen den Gesellschaften zeigen, dass es in Europa ein wachsendes Interesse für eine bestimmte Erinnerungskultur gibt, die Vergleiche zieht, Analogien entdeckt und insofern über Ländergrenzen hinweg zu verbinden vermag.

Es stellt sich heute die Frage, in welchen Bahnen eine bi- bzw. multilaterale gemeinsame Erinnerung in Europa verlaufen könnte. Wie kann aber insbesondere vor dem Hintergrund der Erfahrungen des 20. Jahrhunderts, vor den singulären, von Deutschen ganz besonders im östlichen Europa und in Polen begangenen Verbrechen des Nationalsozialismus eine gemeinsame Sprache gefunden werden, in welcher sich zum Beispiel Nachbarn gegenseitig ihre Geschichten erzählen und Erfahrungen austauschen? Wo liegen die gemeinsamen Erinnerungsorte? Gibt es sie überhaupt?

In Ostmitteleuropa gibt es zahlreiche Orte, die – ähnlich wie die Bukowina mit der Hauptstadt Czernowitz – von einer Vielfalt der Beziehungen von Ethnien und Konfessionen geprägt sind. Verschränkungen und Mehrfachkodierungen ein- und desselben Erinnerungsortes sind für Ostmitteleuropa charakteristisch. Beispielsweise verbinden Polen, Ukrainer, Juden, Slowaken, Deutsche, und Ruthenen mit Städten wie Pressburg/Bratislava/Pozsony oder Lemberg/Lwów/L’viv ganz unterschiedliche Assoziationen und Erinnerungen. Viele Regionen haben im Lauf der Jahrhunderte infolge eines Herrschaftswechsels, (Zwangs-)Migrationen der Bevölkerungen und konfessionellen Wandels eine doppelte oder gar mehrfache historische und politisch-kulturelle Identität erhalten. Auch historische Ereignisse und Umbrüche sowie die entsprechenden Jahreszahlen haben in jedem Land Mittel- und Ostmitteleuropas andere Bedeutungen und Inhalte und werden in unterschiedlichen Kontexten diskutiert. Die geschichtlichen Beziehungen ethnischer Gruppen manifestieren sich im kollektiven Gedächtnis der Nationen  unter anderem in Form unterschiedlicher Erinnerungen an mitunter ein und dieselben Erinnerungsorte.

Der Begriff „Erinnerungsort“, wie er hier verwendet wird, umschließt die Erinnerung an den konkreten, topographisch benannten Ort, also an eine bestimmte Stadt, eine Region, einen Fluss oder an einen anderweitig geographisch festgelegten Ort. Auch eine Gedenkstätte, ein Konzentrationslager, eine Grablege oder ein Denkmal sind Orte, die in besonderer Weise in der Erinnerung verankert sein können. Der Terminus „Erinnerungsort“ wird aber in einer noch weiter ausgreifenden, übertragenen Dimension als eine Metapher verwendet. Der französische Historiker Pierre Nora hat dafür den Begriff lieu de mémoire geprägt und meint damit, dass auch historische Ereignisse, Persönlichkeiten, Institutionen, Bücher, Kunstwerke und andere kulturelle Artefakte, geschichtliche Daten oder Begriffe – im übertragenen Sinn – Orte der Erinnerung sind. Gerade solche Erinnerungsorte im übertragenen Sinn sind oft „langlebige, Generationen überdauernde Kristallisationspunkte kollektiver Erinnerung und Identität“, wie es Étienne François und Hagen Schulze in dem von ihnen herausgegebenen Werk „Deutsche Erinnerungsorte“ beschreiben. Als Beispiele mögen die „Schlacht bei Tannenberg/Grunwald“, „Nikolaus Kopernikus“ oder die in der vorliegenden Dokumentation behandelten Erinnerungsorte „Katyń“ oder das „Jahr 1945“ gelten.

Indem die Tagung gerade auch solche gemeinsamen, metaphorischen „Erinnerungsorte“ in den Mittelpunkt stellt, stehen weniger konkrete historische Ereignisse oder ein bestimmter Sachverhalt im Zentrum des Interesses. Es geht gerade nicht darum, den Verlauf der Geschichte neu zu erforschen, zu rekonstruieren und sich womöglich auf ein objektives Ergebnis zu einigen. Im Mittelpunkt des Interesses stehen vielmehr die Erinnerung als Phänomen, das der permanenten Konstruktion unterliegt, mithin das Fortleben und die Veränderung individueller Erinnerung und des kollektiven Gedächtnisses an historische Ereignisse und Sachverhalte sowie der Diskurs darüber, warum Erinnerungen unter den europäischen Nationen so unterschiedliche Ausprägungen erhalten haben. Gerade das 20. Jahrhundert hat im Gefolge von totalitären Systemen, zwei Weltkriegen, durch Zwangsmigrationen und durch neue Grenzziehungen dazu geführt, dass viele Erinnerungsorte heute einen anderen Sinn erhalten und eine andere Bedeutungen gewonnen haben. Manche Orte sind fast nur noch in der Erinnerung, in „musealisierter Form“ vorhanden. Die Erinnerungslandschaft in Ostmitteleuropa kann man sich als ein Mosaik von Erinnerungsinseln vorstellen, die im Zeitalter des Nationalismus miteinander in Konkurrenz gerieten

Durch die Diskussion über gemeinsame Erinnerungsorte soll eine Erweiterung der Wahrnehmung und der Aneignung angeregt werden, indem die Chancen transnationaler Erinnerungsorte konstruktiv aufgegriffen und weiterentwickelt werden. Denn geteilte Erinnerungsorte müssen nicht zwangsläufig antagonistisch sein, sondern können zur Überwindung der ihnen innewohnenden Gegensätze beitragen. 

Man muss sich davor hüten, aus falsch verstandener political correctness (neue) Stereotype zu produzieren. Demokratische Gesellschaften entwickeln ihre Bilder von der Vergangenheit unter anderem im Für und Wider gesellschaftlicher Diskurse; es besteht daher auch kein Bedürfnis, ein einheitliches, normiertes Geschichtsbild zu erfinden. Es geht im heutigen Europa, das endlich im Begriff ist, auch mental die unnatürliche Trennlinie des „Eisernen Vorhangs“ zu verarbeiten, vielmehr darum, unterschiedliche Geschichtsbilder und Erinnerungen zu vergleichen und somit für die Erinnerungen der jeweiligen Nachbargesellschaften wechselseitig Verständnis und Empathie zu wecken.

Der Umgang mit der gemeinsamen Vergangenheit ist seit etwa eineinhalb Jahrzehnten auch in der wissenschaftlichen Forschung stärker in den Mittelpunkt gerückt. Dabei wird ein Akzent auf die Betrachtung von Erinnerungsorten gerichtet – zuerst geschah dies im nationalen Rahmen, seit einiger Zeit richtet sich das Interesse auf übernationale, europäische Erinnerungsorte. In diesem Zusammenhang ist auch diese Dokumentation von Erinnerungsorten in Ostmitteleuropa zu sehen. Sie behandelt zwei wesentliche Aspekte, die sich in den folgenden beiden Fragen zusammenfassen lassen: In welchem Verhältnis steht die Geschichte des 20. Jahrhunderts, wie sie heute von der wissenschaftlichen Forschung beschrieben wird, zur Erinnerung der nationalen Gemeinschaften an eben diese Geschichte und wie lassen sich die unterschiedlichen Erinnerungen der Menschen und Nationen zusammenführen und untereinander verbinden?

Im Folgenden werden materielle Erinnerungsorte und Erinnerungsorte im übertragenen Sinn thematisiert. Die Gliederung in: 1. Städte als transnationale Erinnerungsorte,  2. Orte der Erinnerung an totalitäre Systeme und 3. Historische Umbrüche im geteilten Gedächtnis –1944/45, 1956, 1968, 1980/81, 1989 orientiert sich an den Sektionen der Tagung.

Durch die Auseinandersetzung mit dieser Thematik können die verschiedenen Bedeutungen materieller und immaterieller Erinnerungsorte in Ostmitteleuropa herausgearbeitet und Gemeinsamkeiten und Unterschiede verdeutlicht werden, um das Verständnis für die Erinnerungskultur des Anderen auszuprägen. Die Nation als klassische Erinnerungsgemeinschaft kann problematisiert und die wechselseitige Aneignung von transnationalen Erinnerungsorten befördert werden. Durch eine multiethnische Perspektive sollen Abgrenzungen und Verschränkungen sichtbar gemacht und ein Beitrag zu einer dialogischen Erinnerungskultur in Europa geleistet werden.

Prof. Matthias Weber (geb. 1961) - Historiker, Germanist. Seit 1999 ausserordentlicher Professor an der Universität Oldenburg. Seit Mai 2004 ist er Direktor im Bundesinstitut für Kultur und Geschichte der Deutschen im östlichen Europa, Mitglied des Steuerungsausschusses des Europäischen Netzwerkes Erinnerung und Solidarität.