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Sunday, October 2, 2022

Does Central European memory have specific characteristics?

By Prof. Csaba György Kiss

“Our historical memory differs from that of Western Europe in one important point: We are dealing with the difficult legacy of not just one, but two totalitarianisms,” writes the Hungarian literary scholar and cultural historian Prof. Csaba György Kiss.

These words come from Czesław Miłosz in his speech at the Nobel Prize award in 1980: “So memory is this strength of us, of all of us from the ‘other Europe’, it is what protects us from language wraps itself around itself like ivy wraps itself around itself when it cannot find support in a wall or a tree trunk. ” It is no coincidence that a Polish poet, even before the great wave of memory research, discovered the importance of memory highlighted for our Europe. (It was not until 1984 that Pierre Nora published the first volume in the Les Lieux de mémoire serieswho initiated the whole trend.) Places of remembrance. Not in the form of a different past, of stories that are in opposition to one another, but as a factor that creates a community. In this sense, as Anthony D. Smith, a scholar of nationalisms, defines: “No memory, no identity – no identity, no nation”.

In this part of the continent we have had the opportunity to witness the by no means doomed attempts at large-scale reworking of collective memory. The past and the development of the collective memory of the region of Central and Eastern Europe was created by the colonialist urge of a totalitarian state power controlled from abroad, which sought a complete change in collective consciousness in the interests of its own. In this dictatorship it became clear to everyone that memory is a factor of power. With brutal violence, manipulation and modern mass media, the struggle against traditional collective memory was waged, waving the flags of modernity, under the slogan “the trace of the past will be swept away from our hands”. These efforts had some different elements in each country, but their central point was the struggle against local nationalism, in the name of a “supranational” internationalism, which in reality meant accepting Soviet superiority.

If you look at the world of symbols, you had to z. For example, during the national and state holidays, choose the day on which the Soviet troops reached the borders of the respective country, whereby the previous political system was overthrown. Upon closer analysis, a distinction was even made between which country participated in the war as an ally of the Third Reich. Hungary and Romania, for example, received national emblems that were reminiscent of the member states of the Soviet Union.

An important turning point in our collective memory is the time of World War II. Most of the countries in our area – Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Croatia – belonged to the sphere of influence of the Third Reich or were its allies. The destruction of the war, the military and civilian casualties, the Gulag, the displacement of millions from their homeland – all of this hit Central and Eastern Europe much harder than the western part of our continent . Timothy Snyder’s excellent book gives an excellent picture of this time. In addition, the end of the war meant both “liberation” and entry into the sphere of influence of another totalitarian state.

And the political, ideological and social difference was fundamental. Obviously also in terms of collective memory.

The iron curtain beneath European memories?

After the “big” accession, there was an important debate in the European Parliament on the politics of memory. Thirteen years ago, Emmanuel Droit, a young French historian, attempted to investigate this dilemma in his publication entitled Le Goulag contre la Shoah (The Gulag Against the Shoah). With the expansion of the European Union it became clear that the culture of remembrance in the “old” and in the “new” member states is shaped differently. According to his analysis, there was some deconstruction of national history in the West in the 1990s.

In the east (the author consistently speaks of two parts of the continent), however, history has just been nationalized and a kind of ideological decolonization took place. We know that this is only partially true; after all, in Romania under Ceaușescu there were just as chauvinistic views of history as in Bulgaria under Schiwkow. In the western world, the Holocaust gradually moved almost exclusively into focus, while the eastern countries repeatedly pointed out that the suffering under the Soviets had disappeared from the collective memory of Europe. One of the conclusions of the comparative analysis performed in this study is that regardless of the political or scientific rationale behind this asymmetrical situation, the fact remains that the specific culture of remembrance of the “eastern” countries was not taken into account in the west. Of course it is correct to assume that it is not a good idea to look for a hierarchy between the sufferings of the Nazi era and the Soviet era, to consider what would have been more terrible and thus to relativize one period or another. Conclusion: It is to be expected that the dialogue between these memories will continue for some time. Andrzej Nowak, a Polish historian, asked in his 2015 study: Is it even possible to achieve consensus between different memories? An important point of his analysis was that one cannot avoid thinking about the difficulties that can arise

In 2005 the UN General Assembly declared January 27 (the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz) to be International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Since 2008 there have been initiatives in the European Union to introduce a day of remembrance for two totalitarian systems. In 2009, the European Parliament finally decided that August 23 would be Remembrance Day. On that day in 1939, the National Socialist and Soviet Foreign Ministers signed an agreement in the annex of which it was laid down how the two states of Central and Eastern Europe would be divided into zones of interest, with Poland being eliminated.

After the Second World War, the western intellectual elite gradually went this route into tragedy, but there was no discussion of the consequences of the fact that the Nazi empire could only be defeated in alliance with another totalitarian empire. We must not forget that with the fall of Berlin (although Stalin is said to have noticed, when receiving congratulations, that the Cossacks had watered their horses from Tsar Alexander on the banks of the Seine), the Soviet Union achieved considerable success in terms of language usage, up to to the Atlantic. The Western European left used the language in the same sense as they did themselves. In this understanding it was the schema of Manichean good and bad, which most closely corresponded to a pair of opposites such as progressive and reactionary or anti-fascist and fascist. There was little willingness in the Western political and intellectual elite to treat National Socialist and Communist symbols equally as symbols against humanity.

In 2005, the Spanish writer and then prisoner of the Buchenwald concentration camp, Jorge Semprun, said during his speech on the anniversary of the camp’s liberation that in ten years’ time the experiences of the Gulag would also be incorporated into the common European memory. But even fifteen years later, we cannot give a clear answer to this question.

How long is the shadow of the communist past?

Three decades after the “Great Transformation” (the so-called “Wende”), many people keep asking this question. And yet very serious studies have been written, both by interested countries and by foreign observers. With the exception of Romania, these political changes were characterized by a “velvety” character, not only in the fact that there were no bloody confrontations, but also in the fact that the democratic political forces that took over the authorities also worked on one Settlement in the matter waived. Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki said in his speech in the Sejm on August 24, 1989 that: “Let us cut with a thick line what was.”These words could also be interpreted to cover with a veil of forgetting what happened during the communist era. It should be noted, however, that that historic summer the changes in Poland could not be considered irreversible. There was a change in the nature of the settlement and the reckoning of the past was not one of the issues being negotiated. In this regard, reassuring opinions came from the western world, including the responsibility of the Soviet Union. Finally, we must not forget that these changes meant the abolition of a dictatorship and the liberation from foreign occupation at the same time. So the symbolic farewell to the communist system,

It was very revealing that the monoparties that had ruled during the dictatorship and had been renamed socialist were unreservedly recognized by the social democratic parties in Western Europe as representatives of democratic political forces. These “post-communist” groups managed to return to power more than once in Poland and Hungary. It is true that in Hungary in 1991 the parliament passed the so-called reparation law by a two-thirds majority, which could have made it possible to settle crimes committed on political grounds, but the Constitutional Court challenged this provision. In Czechoslovakia, the return of members of the communist nomenklatura to political life was prevented by what is known as lustration (background check). The 1993 constitutions in the Czech Republic and Slovakia unequivocally declared the political system of the totalitarian dictatorship to be inhuman and illegal. At the same time, discussions about the recent past took on a public character and were conducted in front of a wide audience. The “new” writing of the story began. The paradox of this situation is also indicated by the fact that it is not uncommon for the same textbook authors to refer to heroes as heroes who until recently were considered “counter-revolutionaries”.

In Poland and Hungary, for two decades after the fall of the Wall, political discussions about the publication of the data of the communist secret police and the abolition of accountability, which the majority of the population expected, flared up again and again. The so-called Wildstein List exploded like a bomb in Warsaw in February 2005 when a journalist published an extensive list of people who work with the security services on the Internet. These lists of agents have often become tools of blackmail and certain materials have not been made public for a long time. And the methodical processing of history in recent times did not begin until much later. After a while, citizens and researchers were given access to the data collected by the communist services in specially created archives. The Institute of National Remembrance (Instytut Pamięci Narodowej, 1999) was founded in Poland as the first independent institution dealing with research into the recent past, followed by Slovakia (Ústav památi národa, 2003) and the Czech Republic (Ústav pro study totalitních rezimű, 2007). In Hungary, a similar institution was only founded in 2014 (Nemzeti Emlékezet Bizottsága). followed by Slovakia (Ústav památi národa, 2003) and the Czech Republic (Ústav pro studium totalitních rezimű, 2007). In Hungary, a similar institution was only founded in 2014 (Nemzeti Emlékezet Bizottsága). followed by Slovakia (Ústav památi národa, 2003) and the Czech Republic (Ústav pro studium totalitních rezimű, 2007). In Hungary, a similar institution was only founded in 2014 (Nemzeti Emlékezet Bizottsága).

On a German-Polish initiative, a very important international institution (European Network Remembrance and Solidarity) was founded in 2008, which wants to investigate the tragic past of the 20th century together with Hungary and Slovakia. This network, which was created thanks to the material support of the interested countries, supports the complex scientific discovery of the epoch and undertakes the dissemination of the research results in education as well as in the circles of the younger generations. In recent years the network – expanded to include Romania – has organized valuable thematic conferences and produced scientific and popularizing publications.

Does Central Europe exist as a community of remembrance? What are we, the “Visegráder”?

Undoubtedly there is a characteristic community of shared spiritual traits in which we find the traits of rebels and robbers fighting for social justice, as well as exiles, heroes of freedom and those who throw themselves headlong into the sun. More than once we have had the experience that when we meet our Visegrád “compatriots” in a larger international group, we get along much faster than with people from other parts of the world. Usually a few overtones are enough to find yourself in a home-like atmosphere. The similarity of thinking, of mentality, becomes clear quite quickly. Above all, the characteristic joke and self-irony. In this peculiar mixture there are of course the traditions of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, the German or Jewish bourgeoisie, but also of the landed gentry and the peasantry, as well as the Central European memory of the national past, garnished with a peculiar mixture of pride and undervaluation. Many people like to characterize us in such a way that our predominant trait is eternal identification with victims. Based on our history of modernity, it can be said without a doubt that we are more of the losers than the winners garnished with a peculiar mixture of pride and undervaluation. Many people like to characterize us in such a way that our predominant trait is eternal identification with victims. Based on our history of modernity, it can be said without a doubt that we are more of the losers than the winners garnished with a peculiar mixture of pride and undervaluation. Many people like to characterize us in such a way that our predominant trait is eternal identification with victims. Based on our history of modernity, it can be said without a doubt that we are more of the losers than the winners

“So we got used to celebrating alone our losses in the great battles we endured. Perhaps we have even got used to seeing defeat as something more exciting, made of denser material and more important than victory – in any case we thought it was more truthful ” , we can read in the story“ Gézy Ottlik ”(“ Schule an the border”).

Although the national anthems of the Visegrád countries differ in terms of genre and style, each of these anthems contains in its own way the memory of tragic national fates, a vision of possible destruction. For example, we find the theme of a hurricane in the Slovak anthem and in the Hungarian anthem. “There is lightning over the Tatras, the sky thunders sharply” , so begins the poem by Janko Matúski (1844). In the fourth stanza of the “Hymne” (1823) by Ferenc Kölcsey, the near end of proud Hungarian history is represented by the divine answer “You have buried your lightning / In your thundering clouds.”The Czech hymn by Josef Kajetan (1834) only evokes a certain power through gentle suggestion that is able to withstand destruction. The Polish anthem from the pen of Józef Wybicki was written in 1797, when his homeland had been wiped off the political map of Europe for two years.

It is no coincidence that Milan Kundera refers to this in his famous lesson on Central Europe: “The French, Russians or English do not wonder whether their nation will survive. Their hymns speak of greatness and eternity. The Polish anthem, on the other hand, begins with the words: Poland is not lost yet… ” . Part of the way we think is the “still” syndrome. Hope that shines in the depths of hopelessness.

A characteristic feature of our history – our stories – when we think of such similar narratives: There is a lack of continuity, that is, it is impossible to speak of it as a story along a straight line. Again and again this story is pervaded by catastrophes: We have lost our independence, we have seen our revolutions and our struggles for freedom get kicked in the mud. The memory of the struggle against superior forces remains. In our country there is a tradition of rebellion and a mentality of resigned servitude combined with the ability to survive under all conditions. Added to this is the experience of the often changing historical situation.“The west treats us like the east and the east treats us like the west”.

According to the Hungarian poet, Endre Ada, Hungary is “a ferry state”, as if our story were a constant journey from one bank to the other – and back again. Somewhere in the space between the center and the periphery. It is no coincidence that here, even in the 21st century, a sense of history has been preserved that is much stronger than the European average. And behind this for a long time there was a traditional literary education.

We have such emblematic heroes as the Slovak robber chief Juraj Jánošík, who robs the rich to give his treasures to the poor, or Lúdas Matyi, the Hungarian goose-herder, who outwits his master with ingenuity. Or Tadeusz Rejtan, the symbol of the hopeless resistance who threw himself on the floor in protest in front of the entrance to the parliament hall during the first partition of Poland. In a panorama, our heroes for freedom and those who wave their hoes at the sun stand side by side. Last but not least, our common hero is the brave soldier Schweik, who even managed to overcome tyrants who imposed inhuman restrictions.

The wave of modernization of the 19th century, which can also be described as bourgeois transformation, mainly reached provincial societies in our region. This process therefore had different components than in Western Europe, where the peasantry formed an absolute majority and had inherited the nobility from the feudal world. It is no coincidence that the great epic of the European peasant world, the short story “The Peasants” (1904–1909), was written by the Poland and Nobel Prize winner Stanislaus Wladyslaw Reymont. It should also not be forgotten that the social changes, the creation of a market economy and the development of a modern bourgeois culture are in no small part due to the contribution of two national groups, who live scattered in almost every corner of our region. German settlers have been coming to us for several hundred years, a Jewish diaspora has lived here for a long time – and under the Austro-Hungarian monarchy it enjoyed the protection of the liberal constitutional order. It is our shared tragedy that, at the beginning of the 21st century, due to the crimes of the Holocaust and the aftermath of the end of World War II, we can speak only of the humble remnants of these national groups today.

Similar historical and cultural experiences led to similar considerations. Added to this is the often common state authority of the peoples of our region, the commonalities of our social structures, the commonalities of our fates.

All of this combined with constant mutual ethnic and linguistic assimilation and dissimilation. Indeed, we can say: “In Central Europe we are of the same blood”. With cultures that are interwoven. Perhaps the best example of this is an essay by the Austrian (and Hungarian!) Art historian Móric Csáky on the great composer Bartók, in which he depicts the constant interplay of Hungarian and Slovak musical folklore. In this way, shared virtual spaces were created that we often do not even know. In addition – and not least – we could learn from our 20th century literature with its Central European variant of the absurd. Starting with Sławomir Mrożek, through Václav Havel, to István Örkény.

In European culture, perhaps through fortunate circumstances of mediation, it was music that was able to show our unmistakable face to the whole world. Thanks to such modern classical musicians who were able to draw their original works from folk culture, whose sources in our region go back to the 20th century. Suffice it to mention the Czech Leos Janacek, the Hungarian Béla Bartók, the Romanian George Enescu or the Slovak Eugen Sukhout .

We are all aware, a number of approaches, connections and similarities of this collective memory have already been discussed by historians, sociologists and literary historians, and this is reinforced by our everyday experience, but this mental affinity is not part of our knowledge or weight with sufficient weight become of our views.

Are there common Visegrád monuments?

As already mentioned, our historical memory differs from that of Western Europe in one important respect: we are dealing with the difficult legacy of not just one, but two totalitarianisms. At the same time, the great democratic and national movements – from 1956 to 1968 to 1980 – clearly showed that we are linked by a common fate and common interests. It is instructive to see how a sense of solidarity gradually developed in these three countries. While in 1956 the Czech and Slovak intelligentsia treated the events in Poland and Hungary either passively or in accordance with the expectations of the official bodies,

In retrospect, it seems that the central European collective memory has two different levels. One level is the collection of interwoven memories that come from large areas inhabited by ethnically and religiously mixed people – with differently valued common traditions, common heroes, with similar myths about the same countries and geographical phenomena, with rich diversity. And the second level is collective memory, which is related to the creation of the nation, with its homogeneous characteristics. The question arises: What is the relationship between the places of remembrance that belong to certain national and cultural codes? And actually, how do we see ourselves in our history? Because without neighbors Without presenting common experiences and contradictions, it is impossible to speak of the nation’s past. Century tries to build a unified narrative, the so-called “ours”. And in Central Europe it is practically impossible to delimit such separate national areas. It was no coincidence that László Németh, in his essays after the tragedy of ancient Hungary, urged the past of the Central European nations to be linked in a comparative approach. If there is one place where transnational historiography makes sense, it is surely our region. In the sense in which Étienne François (one of the editors of the three volumes of German memorials) tried to to expand the concept of the place of remembrance (“lieux de mémoire”) according to Pierre Nora by taking into account the relationships, connections, and entanglements between different cultures. With this in mind, Polish and German historians began a large work in five volumes (2006–2013) on the common places of remembrance of both nations.

Of course, a large joint scientific program of the Visegrád states could list these monuments taking into account the methodological experience mentioned above. There have been attempts like this before, and our broader and more recent history uses many examples to demonstrate the intricate character of the national narrative of our region. Even in cases where the same events, places, have been inscribed in the traditions in a different – and perhaps even opposite – way. Such a perspective is necessary in this research, just as one examines the parallel and mutually influencing phenomena of the individual national literatures in literary studies. Of course, to a certain extent this can also mean a rethinking of the national narrative, and this can also go hand in hand with a certain modification of the national history canon. This can lead to interesting results if both national and Central European identities can mutually reinforce one another.

We would like to show in broad outline or with a few illustrative examples what types of common monuments it can be. Each national ideology values the “sacred” mountains and waters of its community. Rather, they are parallel monuments. From the point of view of “Visegrád”, the Carpathian Mountains come into particular consideration. It is a known fact that the Carpathian Mountains have rich traditions in the classical literature of all four nations. But we can also imagine a parallel treatment of our “national” rivers (Vistula, Moldau, Waag, Tisza). When looking at historical events, one can speak of monuments with asymmetrical or opposing content. One of the key points in Hungarian memory is the Battle of Mohács, 1526. Despite the fact that in addition to the Hungarians there were also Czechs, Poles and probably Slovaks in the Christian army, and that this defeat sealed the fate of all of Central Europe, this battle remains marginal in other memories, besides the Hungarian one. The revolutions of 1848-49 shook the whole region, this time was marked by the uprising of the peoples, but the Hungarian and Slovak or Czech-Hungarian memories created contradicting images of it. The same can be said about the end of the First World War. As for historical figures, we undoubtedly have common heroes, suffice it to mention Saint Adalbert (Szent Adalbert, Svatý Vojtěch), who was also a common symbol of the unification of Europe in the 10th century. The common Central European Marian cult speaks for itself and testifies to the interweaving of national and religious identity. The main actors of the national movements (e.g. Kossuth, Palacky, Štúr) can, however, be imagined in the name of competing endeavors as a place of remembrance along the lines of “our hero – your enemy”. The important universities of our region, the Charles University in Prague, the Jagiellonian University in Cracow, the Royal University of Hungary in Nagyszombat (Trnava), which was active from 1735 to 1777, or the European pioneer, the Mining Academy in Selmecbánya (Banská Štiavnica). The main actors of the national movements (e.g. Kossuth, Palacky, Štúr) can, however, be imagined in the name of competing endeavors as a place of remembrance along the lines of “our hero – your enemy”. The important universities of our region, Charles University in Prague, the Jagiellonian University in Cracow, the Hungarian Royal University in Nagyszombat (Trnava), which operated from 1735 to 1777, or the European pioneer, the Selmecbánya (Banská Štiavnica). The main actors of the national movements (e.g. Kossuth, Palacky, Štúr) can, however, be imagined in the name of competing endeavors as a place of remembrance along the lines of “our hero – your enemy”. The important universities of our region, Charles University in Prague, the Jagiellonian University in Cracow, the Hungarian Royal University in Nagyszombat (Trnava), which operated from 1735 to 1777, or the European pioneer, the Selmecbánya (Banská Štiavnica).

The communist era is a separate chapter in relation to our memorials. As far as resistance is concerned, the writers’ associations, for example, played an important role. The purpose of these Soviet-style organizations was actually to control writers, to keep them on a short leash, and yet these organizations in Budapest, Prague and Warsaw soon became – in the name of Central European traditions – forums of free exchange Thoughts in those historical years.

Three dates stand out from this period as important symbols of Central European aspirations for freedom: 1956, 1968 and 1980–1981. Extensive historical literature has been written on each of these series of events. There is a growing body of such works that emphasize the Central European context of these dates, the direct link between the events of 1956 in Poland and Hungary. In addition, we can read reviews from Czech and Slovak authors about the behavior of the Czech and Slovak intelligentsia at that time. As far as 1968 is concerned, it is becoming increasingly clear what impact the suppression of the Czechoslovak reforms had on the thinking of the Polish and Hungarian opposition. The Polish Solidarność movement, on the other hand, had an obvious message for Prague, Bratislava and Budapest. In the years 1988–89, Czechoslovakia looked to the liberation movements in Poland and Hungary as role models.

In 1982 Gáspár Nagy published a poem entitled Diversity (Változat), the motto of which refers to Milan Kundera, and the list obviously represents a unit:  “At the train station the passengers stand in silence, born fifty-six, sixty-eight, seventy-six, eighty-one”.

Source: Trimarium.pl /UME

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