Last weekend marked 25 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, an event which is remembered today as one of the iconic moments of the East European revolutions of 1989. Of course, the fall of the wall and the capitulation of the communist regime in East Germany did not represent the beginning of the changes that swept the communist bloc during that tumultous year – by 9th November 1989 Solidarity had already achieved electoral success in Poland, and the Hungarian communist party had announced sweeping reforms, proposed democratic elections and opened up their borders with the West – a move that also directly contributed to the final destabilisation of the communist regime in East Germany. Neither did the fall of the wall signal the end of the East European revolutions: the following day Bulgarian leader Todor Zhivkov announced his resignation after 18 years in power, later in November the Velvet Revolution led to the end of communist rule in Czecholovakia and in December the Romanian Revolution resulted in the Christmas Day execution of communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena. However, between its construction in August 1961 and its destruction in November 1989, the Berlin Wall came to symbolise the ‘Iron Curtain’ that separated Western Europe from the communist Eastern Bloc during the Cold War, so when the Wall finally crumbled and live images showing thousands of Germans celebrating by hacking at the hated structure with hammers and pick-axes were transmitted around the world, it created one of the most iconic moments of the revolutions of 1989, the collapse of communism and the end of the Cold War. As Soviet foreign policy advisor Anatoly Chernayev recorded in his diary on 10th November 1989: “The Berlin Wall has collapsed. This entire era in the history of the socialist system is over … This is the end of Yalta … the Stalinist legacy and “the defeat of Hitlerite Germany”.
Although I was still only a child, I do remember the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. I remember sitting transfixed in front of the TV, watching ‘John Craven’s Newsround’ on CBBC, as footage of the collapse of the wall and the first emotional meetings between Germans from East and West was shown. While I wasn’t old enough to really understand what was going on, I do remember the vivid sense that something *really* important was happening – the first sense I ever had of ‘living through history’. That feeling stayed with me over the years, and I have often wondered whether that was the reason why I became so interested in Central and East European history, eventually making a career out of it!
Five years ago, in November 2009, I was also lucky enough to be able to visit Berlin for the 20th anniversary ‘Mauerfall’ celebrations, as giant dominoes were set up following the former route of the Wall, before being symbolically toppled on the evening of 9th November:
This year, a different kind of installation – a ‘border of light’ or ‘Lichtgrenze‘ was created in Berlin, comprised of 8000 illuminated balloons that were then released, one by one, on the evening of 9th November 2014:
Although I wasn’t able to visit Berlin, the power of the internet meant I could still watch the release of the balloons and the dramatic firework finale from the comfort of my own sofa on Sunday evening via the official livestream. Granted, it wasn’t as good as actually being in Berlin, but alongside the proliferation of photos and videos posted on Twitter, it was a pretty good substitute!
However, although I wasn’t able to visit Berlin this year, I was able to organise an event to commemorate the 25th anniversary here at Leeds Beckett University, through our Centre for Culture and the Arts. Invited guest speaker Oliver Fritz, author of the critically acclaimed book The Iron Curtain Kid visited and spoke about his experiences of growing up ‘on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall’ in communist-controlled East Berlin, and about witnessing the fall of the Wall in November 1989. Oliver provided some fascinating – and often very humorous – insights into life in communist East Germany, attracting a lively audience comprised of staff, students and members of the public. Oliver’s talk was followed by a screening of the Oscar-winning film The Lives of Others (2007), a critically acclaimed portrayal of a Stasi agent assigned to conduct surveillance on a writer suspected of dissident activities in East Berlin during the 1980s.
A special exhibition, produced by Leeds Beckett students studying for a BA in Graphic Arts and Design (working with GAD Senior Lecturer Justin Burns), in collaboration with some of our final year BA History undergraduates was also displayed to mark the event. The impressively detailed and striking exhibition functioned as a visual timeline, spanning the initial division of Germany after WWII until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989:
You can read more about the event here.
Finally, the 25th anniversary commemorations have recived a lot of media attention and online coverage. Here is a short collection of some of my favourite features from the past week:
- This great RFERL infographic – 25 Years Later: The European Revolutions – for the ‘bigger picture’ of what was happening in 1989.
- The 25 Years Iron Curtain Twitter feed – who are tweeting short reports about key events that took place in Eastern Europe in 1989.
- This short video on Vine – The History of the Berlin Wall in 60 Seconds
- Special CWIHP documentary collection – 25th Anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall
- The Berlin Wall in Google Street View
- The Guardian’s interactive photo gallery of the Berlin Wall in the Cold War and Now
- The Berlin Wall – Before and After – photos in the Washington Post.
- Lichtgrenze on Vimeo
- A collection of stories from Berliners who Remember the Fall of the Wall and Berlin 1963: three stories of a divided city.
- Timoth Garton Ash’s article about The fall of the Berlin Wall – What it meant to be there
- Reuters photo slideshow – When Berlin Was Two.
- Deutsche Welle Opinion Piece – November 9th 1989: An unforgettable day for Germany, and for Europe.
- 25 years on – different international perspectives about what caused the fall of the wall.
As some of you will already know (particularly those of you who follow my personal twitter feed, so will have seen some of the photos I’ve posted recently), I’ve spent the last few weeks in Central Europe on a research trip. I’ve largely been based in the Czech Republic and Poland with a quick trip to Ukraine (Lviv) thrown in! It’s been a really great trip, both in terms of gathering data for my current research which focuses on drug abuse in communist central Europe and in terms of laying some initial groundwork for the next major research project I want to undertake, which I’m very excited about, and will relate to the repression of women, initially focusing on communist Czechoslovakia.
I’m currently in Warsaw, on the final leg of my trip before returning to the UK next week. It has been several years since my last visit here and I’ve noticed a lot of changes, something which has been enhanced by the fact that Warsaw currently feels very much ‘under construction’ – the central part of the Metro system is closed this summer to allow for major rennovations (which means I’ve been doing a LOT of walking – just as well, given my excessive consumption of beer, borscht and pierogi while I’ve been here!) and it feels very much as though Warsaw is going through something of a metamorphosis, preparing to emerge as a leading centre of twenty-first century Europe. I read this article a couple of days ago, which sums it up pretty well, describing Warsaw as a ‘fascinating capital of many layers’, one of the reasons why I like it so much.
I also arrived a couple of days after the 1st August anniversary marking 69 years since the outbreak of the 1944 Warsaw Uprising; the day when the Polish resistance took up arms in an attempt to liberate their city from Nazi control. Following 63 days of ferocious street fighting by the Polish Home Army, who were supported by the civillian population but failed to attract any substantial international support, the beleaguered resistance capitulated having suffered estimated losses of 16,000 resistance fighters and 150,000-200,000 civillians. Following the rising, the Nazis extracted revenge by systematically reducing most of Warsaw to rubble while executing and forcibly evacuating its surviving citizens – by the time Warsaw was ‘liberated’ by the Soviet Red Army in 1945, 85% of the city had been destroyed and from a pre-war population of 1.3 million only around 1000 people remained, hiding in the ruins. The defeat of the Home Army also removed any serious domestic resistance to Soviet control of the city, where a communist regime was swiftly imposed in the aftermath of the Second World War.
One of the things that has struck me during this visit, is how much more prominent the Warsaw Uprising has become in recent years. A recent poll found that today, a majority (34%) of those surveyed view the 1944 uprising as the most important insurrection in Polish history. 1st August is a major commemorative event in Warsaw: every year sirens are sounded at 5pm, marking ‘W hour’ (the official start of the uprising), followed by a minutes of silence in memory of those who lost their lives. Flags adorn the streets, flowers and candles are left at various memorials around the city and organised re-enactments are common. While I wasn’t in Warsaw during this year’s commemoration, my friends over at Crossing the Baltic have posted a short article with some photos, and when I arrived here a couple of days later the central monument remained bedecked with various tributes.
In addition, I discovered that the area around Rynek Nowego Miasta (New Town Market Square) was abuzz, as filming is currently underway for ‘Miasto ‘44’ (City ‘44), a new film about the uprising by acclaimed Polish director Jan Komasa. One of the streets nearby was cordoned off for the film crew, where barricades had been erected. I had a lunch meeting on the square one day earlier this week, and noticed several actors and film extras, who were wandering around and enjoying the sunshine whilst taking a break from filming!
Komasa has described Miasto ’44 as ‘a story of tragedy and heroism, sacrifice and terror, which will reflect modern issues and concerns’, claiming that the film will concentrate on the relationships between the (mostly young) men and women involved in the uprising. The screenplay has been approved by acclaimed historian Professor Norman Davies and former foreign minister and underground member Professor Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, while Komasa has said that surviving veterans who participated in the uprising have also visited the film set to advise on various aspects. The film premiere is scheduled to take place on 70th anniversary of the uprising next year and will be shown in front of a crowd of 15,000 people at Warsaw stadium. I’ll be very interested to see this film when it is released next year!
More generally, while walking around Warsaw during the past week, I noticed that the uprising has become much more ‘visible’ in the city’s heritage. In addition to the central monument, numerous smaller plaques and commemorative memorials are scattered around the city denoting various significant locations and events, while the anchored ‘P’ (PW), the symbol most commonly associated with the 1944 uprising and the Polish underground, is a very common sight. This post-communist resurgence is unsurprising if you consider that for many decades after WWII the communist authorities attempted to suppress popular memory of the uprising: emphasis was placed on the role played by the Red Army in the liberation of Warsaw, while the leaders of the Polish underground were denounced as German collaborators and terrorists, who acted to protect the interests of the bourgeoisie and rich landowners. Any official commemoration of the uprising was forbidden, and it was only after the fall of communism in 1989 that the first monuments were able to be openly erected.
I had some free time this morning, so decided to visit the Warsaw Uprising Museum (Muzeum Powstania Warszawskiego) which opened in 2004 and was highly
recommended to me by a number of Polish friends. The museum, housed in a former power station, has done much to raise the historical profile of the uprising, and is currently involved in plans to commemorate next year’s 70th anniversary. The museum is packed with information about different aspects of the uprising and generally succeeds in their aim to strike a balance between ‘traditional’ displays (for example, the extensive collection of artillery that forms one large portion of the display) and interactive engagement, as visitors are invited to view images through binoculars, peer through a German guard post and crawl through a (less smelly!) replica of the sewerage tunnels used by the resistance to move around Warsaw during the uprising. Unsurprisingly, the primary emphasis of the museum is on exploring the organisation of the Polish resistance (which is fascinating, and it was nice to see the role played by women in the underground movement acknowledged) and the military aspects of the uprising, but there is also some more general information about Nazi occupied Poland, the Warsaw ghetto and the role played by the Church. Video footage of veterans talking about their experiences are displayed and two films are included: the first, compiled of footage produced by the Polish Home Army Propaganda Division during the uprising, is included in the cost of the general entry fee, the second – ‘Miasto Ruin’ (City of Ruins), is not, but I’d highly recommend paying the extra 2 Zloty fee to view it! Miasto Ruin is a short 3D depiction of a flight over the ruins of Warsaw at the end of WWII, and this really bought home the level of destruction suffered by the city for me, more so than any photographs I’ve seen (if you’re interested, you can view the film trailer here). I would have liked to have learned a little more about the role played by civilians and their experiences of living through the uprising (although, admitedly, the Home Army video footage did cover this in some detail), and (perhaps unsurprisingly, given my own research interests!) I’d also have been very interested to learn more about the persecution of the surviving Polish resistance leaders by the communists (such as the Trial of the Sixteen in 1945), which was limited to one brief display. But I’d definitely recommend a trip here if you visit Warsaw!
Polish friends have told me that while the post-communist period has led to the resurgence of the Warsaw Uprising in popular memory, the availability of new information has also sparked serious academic debate and critical analysis of various aspects including the motivations of the resistance leaders, the high casualty rate and the wider international context. Questions surrounding Soviet attitudes to the Uprising and the lack of British support for the Polish resistance remain. However, at present, there tends to be much less emphasis on the Uprising in Western historiography of WWII (with a few notable exceptions). There is still much that we do not know about the 1944 Warsaw Uprising and to date, key intelligence files in both Russia and the UK remain classified.
In Russia today, Josef Stalin’s historical legacy remains a controversial topic – should Stalin be remembered primarily as a strong, heroic leader, responsible for leading the USSR to victory over Nazi Germany or as a cruel dictator, responsible for the death and suffering of millions of his own people? This article, by guest author John Harman, analyses some of the problems faced by those who attempt to memorialise and publicly mourn victims of Stalin-era repression in contemporary Russia; exploring the uncomfortable juxtaposition between the dominant heroic myth of WWII and the darker aspects of Stalinism in the contemporary Russian psyche.
Contesting Popular Memory in Contemporary Russia.
By John Harman.
‘If the problem in Western Europe has been a shortage of memory, in the continents other half the problem is reversed. Here there is too much memory, too many pasts on which people can draw, usually as a weapon against the past of someone else ~ Tony Judt.
Arseny Roginsky labels the memory of Stalinism as primarily the ‘memory of state terror’, a system of state rule that used terror as a universal instrument for solving any political and social task. For many people today, the word ‘Stalinism’ remains most synonymous with the execution, exile and traumatisation of millions of Soviet citizens. Revelations shedding light on the many crimes of Stalinism have been a feature of Soviet historiography ever since Khrushchev delivered his famous ‘Secret Speech’ denouncing Stalinist terror in 1956. The trickle of information that first began during Khrushchev’s ‘Destalinisation’ later became a flood: gathering pace during Gorbachev’s glasnost in the dying days of the USSR and further increasing due to the release of previously-classified information following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Today, while many aspects of the Stalinist era still spark contestation and controversy, the crimes of Stalinism can be documented more clearly than ever before.
Despite this, nostalgia for the despotic leader appears to be ever more apparent. Research undertaken by the Levada Centre in Moscow indicates that, two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, attitudes towards Stalin are becoming increasingly positive. In a poll taken in 2005, nearly 19% of respondents said they would either ‘definitely’ or ‘probably’ vote for Stalin in Russian elections if he were alive today, an increase from the findings of 2003 and 2004 when only 13% answered in the same way. In 2008, Stalin was voted the third-greatest Russian in history, during a public poll held by Rossiya, one of Russia’s largest TV stations. More recently a poll commissioned by VTsIOM (All-Russian Public Opinion Research Centre) in April 2011 showed that more than a quarter of those surveyed felt that Stalin’s wartime leadership means that he did ‘more good’ for the country than bad, a rise of 11% from a similar poll in 2007.
The contested nature of historical memory about Stalinism runs more deeply than the publication of controversial popular opinion polls, however. On October 30 2009 Russian President Dmitry Medvedev published a post on his official web portal to coincide with the annual Russian ‘Remembrance Day of Victims of Political Repression’. His blog post condemned continued public ambivalence towards Stalin’s legacy of mass repression, and was written in response to growing concerns about nostalgia for and glorification of the Stalin era in contemporary Russia. However, the State’s official policy towards Stalin has also frequently been called into question, particularly following the publication of Alexander Fillipov’s history textbook in 2007, which formed part of the official government-approved curriculum in Russian schools. The textbook portrayed the mass terror of the Stalin years as essential to ensure rapid modernisation in the face of military threats from Germany and Japan; avoided any attempt at a moral assessment of Stalinism and strongly implied that the (victorious) ends of World War II justified the repressive means of the pre-war years. The memorialisation of Stalin-era victims is also the subject of a contentious ongoing dialogue between the state and those who seek to commemorate the darker aspects of the Soviet past. In 2008 Vladimir Putin ordered the confiscation of digitally archived material from Memorial, a non-governmental organisation which aims to aid the process of memorialisation of state terror in Russia. Memorial representatives believed that the raid was not justified in any juridical sense, but constituted a state-sanctioned act of sabotage against their attempts to document and disseminate knowledge about the crimes of the Stalinist era (for more information about Memorial see their website HERE).
Negative Memorialisation: Terror and Repression
In Adam Hochschild’s The Unquiet Ghost (London: Penguin Books, 1994) Hochschild records a conversation he had with a clinical psychologist from Moscow. The psychologist described a former patient who had recently returned to him seeking treatment – she was in deep distress, because newly published accounts had described how her father, a former diplomat, had been responsible for the denunciations (and subsequent imprisonment and deaths) of many people during the Stalinist era. As a result of his actions, her father had not only remained alive but had even been promoted whilst most of his colleagues had perished. Her father was already dead, but now the woman had to confront and come to terms with his memory all over again.
This case illustrates an important point. During the Soviet terror, the line between victim and perpetrator was often blurred: the persecutors often became the persecuted. For example, the CPSU regional committee secretaries of 1937 were responsible for sanctioning many death sentences, but by November 1938 half of them had fallen victim to the terror themselves. Even Stalin’s feared secret police were purged, with Nikolai Ezhov, feared NKVD chief and leading orchestrator of the terror arrested and executed in 1940. During the Stalinist era, life for many people was never black or white, but instead comprised of shades of grey. Many people engaged with Stalinism, passively if not actively. Today, widespread public reluctance to confront the past can therefore be attributed to more than just general ignorance: in some cases outward ambivalence stems from a deep-rooted fear of uncovering atrocities committed by close friends and family members, or even confronting ones own past culpability, therefore leading to a greater sense of guilt about the past.
These ambiguities are also reflected in attempts at public commemoration. Memorial have compiled a database of all known monuments which are archived in its online ‘virtual gulag’. At first glance, the number of monuments and exhibits appear impressive: listing 109 museum exhibits and 337 monuments relating to Soviet-era mass repression. However, none of these monuments have been overseen by the central government, but were developed through the efforts of local communities and independent organisations such as Memorial. The location of the monuments are also telling: within cities, these monuments and commemorative signs are not located in central areas, but are overwhelmingly found in more remote locations. The choice of location may at times serve a function; for example, the Mendurskoe Memorial, located 13 Kilometres from the city of Yoshkar-Ola within the Mari El Republic, marks the mass grave of 164 prisoners who were executed by the NKVD in August 1937. However, one should question the lack of memorialisation in more central areas, which may also hint at a low level of state enthusiasm for such memorials, especially since Soviet era street names directly linked with state-sanctioned repression – such as Checkist Street (honouring the forerunners to the NKVD) in St Petersburg – still exist.
The contentious dialogue surrounding negative memorialisation is also reflected in the design of such monuments, which are largely depoliticised. Alexander Etkind has used the term ‘aesthetic minimalism’ to describe such monuments which regularly consist of plain granite stones and raw crosses. This aesthetic, created somewhere between the need for memory and political confrontation may hinder popular memory as a certain amount of accountability or even historical truth is lost in transmission. This confused representation also extends beyond ‘hard’ physical monuments, as illustrated by Etkind’s study of the Russian 500-ruble banknote, issued in the late 1990s and remaining in circulation today. The artwork on the bill depicts the Solovki monastery, a historical complex on an island in the extreme north of Russia. The architecture of the monastery dates to the 1920’s, a time of peak development of the Solovki camp, one of the earliest and most significant camps in the Soviet gulag.
Despite the existence of 337 Russian museum exhibits relating to mass repression, in reality only a few of these are specifically dedicated to the history of the terror. Roginsky argues that the exhibitions relating to the Gulag camps and labour settlements are usually embedded within wider displays relating to Soviet-era industrialisation, modernisation and economic development. The repressions themselves (i.e. the arrests and executions) are generally consigned to biographical stands and window displays. This, he argues, serves to represent the terror in a fragmented manner, creating the image of a succession of ‘localised disasters’ rather than the unified image of a national catastrophe. Today, there is still no national museum of state terror, which could play an important role in crystallising the image of the terror in popular consciousness.
Positive Memorialisation: Russia’s ‘Great Patriotic War’
Monuments are often used as a positive political tool, to demonstrate the continuity of the political tradition of a nation state and to represent its (perceived or desired) identity. Etkind describes monuments as ‘materialised forms of patriotic sentiment’, which create the future by ‘distorting the past’. As a result, it is perhaps unsurprising that attempts at negative memorialisation have been limited in post-Soviet Russia. In the search for a ‘usable’ or ‘promotable’ past, recent Russian administrations have thus relied heavily on the myth of the Second World War – Russia’s ‘Great Patriotic War’ – above the memory of the terror, for obvious reasons.
The memorialisation drive over the Great Patriotic War began during the Brezhnev era (1964-1982), and has evolved to become the greatest legitimising myth of Soviet history: mythologizing Soviet victory over Germany, presenting the USSR as the saviour of the world from fascist enslavement and the Red Army as the liberators of Europe, a hard-fought feat that was achieved through the spilling of large amounts of Russian blood, with limited outside help.
The memory of the Second World War therefore, serves important functions for the Russian state in a way that the memory of the terror could never do. Nina Tumarkin argues that the key functions of the narrative that has emerged around World War Two in Russia are as follows:
Respect for the Armed Forces and Russia’s Militaristic Past – the USSR defeated fascism because of their strong army, while the sheer number of Soviet casualties in World War Two (est. 20-25 million) promotes Russia as a country who understands the price of war.
A Rise in National Self-Esteem and Hard Work – war time victory, bolstered by the notion that Russia had to overcome all the odds in order to fight back after the surprise German invasion of June 22 1941.
Moral Courage – generated by nostalgia for a time before the uncertainties of post-communism, when it was made clear what (and who) was good and bad.
The absence of memorials dedicated to the victims of mass repression is further highlighted by the grandiose and hyperbolic nature of memorialisation dedicated the heroic triumph of the Red Army, although since the fall of the USSR the status of many Soviet war monuments has been challenged across Eastern Europe and the FSU (for more on the contested status of Soviet war memorials, see the previous blog post HERE). Such monuments rarely attempt subtlety: the famous ‘Motherland Calls’ statue in Volgograd was the largest statue in the world at the time of its public dedication on October 15, 1967 and the central monument in Moscow’s Victory Park conveys a huge dragon covered with swastikas, curled beneath a towering obelisk adorned with Nike, the goddess of victory engaging in battle with St. George on horseback – and this is but one part of the park complex whose museum also boasts the ‘Hall of Glory’, listing all names of the wartime ‘heroes of the Soviet Union’.
The scale of these monuments is nothing short of breathtaking. In contrast to the ‘collective amnesia’ often displayed when confronted with memories of terror and repression, the memory of the Great Patriotic War is actively commemorated with pomp and circumstance, in the form of the annual Victory Parade in Moscow each May 9th, illustrated in this recent VIDEO.
The immense pride in Soviet victory during the Second World War thus provides one of the most important bases for contemporary support for Stalin, particulalry amongst the older generations, effectively marginalising the darker aspects of Stalinist rule. The drive for truth and reconciliation, which constitutes a key part of the memory of Stalinist-era repression and terror, comes into direct conflict with this heroic ‘war narrative’. Some steps have been taken to revise elements of the Russian ‘war myth’ in light of new evidence available in the post-Soviet period, such as the 2009 publication of formerly secret documents relating to the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939, which Prime Minister Vladimir Putin condemned as ‘immoral’. In April 2010 the Russian Federation also published documents relating to the true nature of the Soviet role in the massacre of 20,000 Polish Army officers in the Katyn forest. When the mass graves were uncovered in 1943 the Soviet Union blamed the murders on the Nazis, and it was only in 1990 that Mikhail Gorbachev admitted Soviet guilt. The recent publication of these documents confirmed that the massacre was designed by Beria (head of the NKVD) and directly approved by Stalin. This was followed in November 2010 by the Russian Parliament’s adoption of a statement recognising Soviet responsibility for the massacre and condemning Katyn as ‘an act of lawlessness of a totalitarian regime’. Public acknowledgment of this crime may serve as indication of a renewed policy towards popular national memory, however it may be seen as an act of appeasement towards the west – and more specifically the Poles, especially in light of the recent death of Polish President Lech Kaczynski (for more on Katyn see the previous blog post HERE).
However, the Russian leadership have indicated that they will only allow historical revisionism to go so far. In response to mounting criticism from neighbouring states regarding elements of Russia’s ‘war myth’, in 2009 President Medvedev declared the creation of a special commission ‘to counteract attempts to falsify history that undermines the interest of Russia’. Any deviation from the dominant state-sanctioned war narrative in Russia was thus deemed hostile and against the national interest. This stance also makes it difficult for many people to combine the popular image of Stalin as a heroic wartime leader with their memories of Stalin as a murderous autocrat.
Unsurprisingly, since 1991 successive Russian administrations have chosen to emphasise aspects of the Soviet past that they view as ‘worth remembering’, in order to convey particular values and ideals, which sustain a positive identity. The dark chapter in their recent history involving terror, mass repression, denunciation and death does not fit with the heroism promoted by the dominant narrative of war memorialisation. Despite some indications that the current leadership are refining certain elements of Stalinist-era history, any revisionism must be state-sanctioned and thus transparency remains limited.
As Stalin’s popularity continues to rise in opinion polls it is difficult to predict how future Russian generations will approach the darker aspects of their Soviet past. Any true condemnation of Stalinism also requires closer scrutiny and possibly further reappraisal of the Soviet role in the Second World War, which may undermine its place in popular memory. The dichotomy of the Stalinist era is not one that can coexist peacefully, particularly while a significant proportion of the population hold some kind of personal attachment to the horrors of Stalinism. At the current time, the Stalinism that represents an era of glorious victory and great achievement outweighs the Stalinism of a criminal regime responsible for decades of terror.
About the Author:
John Harman is currently completing a Masters degree in History at Swansea University, UK. His MA dissertation considers changing perspectives on the commemoration and memorialisation of Stalinist-era repression from the post-Stalinist USSR to post-Soviet Russia.
This weekend marks fifty years since construction of the Berlin Wall began. Sunday August 13th 1961 became known as ‘Stacheldrahtsonntag’ (‘barbed wire Sunday’) as soldiers hastily constructed makeshift barriers across the city, but what began as little more than an impromptu barbed wire fence soon evolved into an increasingly impenetrable system of metal and concrete walls, which cut across neighbourhoods, dividing families and essentially trapping nearly 17 million people inside the GDR. For further information about the events surrounding the construction of the wall, including video footage from August 1961, please see my previous blog post Building the Berlin Wall.
Between 1945-1961 around 2.4 million people (15% of the population of the GDR) fled across into West Berlin, with this recent exhibition providing a fascinating depiction of their experiences in West German refugee camps in the 1950s. During the 28 years between the wall’s construction in 1961 and its collapse in November 1989 however, guards stationed along what quickly became known as ‘dead mans zone’ operated a ‘shoot to kill’ policy, with over 600 people thought to have died while trying to breach the wall.
Was the Berlin Wall Necessary?
Speaking ahead of the 50th anniversary of the Wall’s construction, British Foreign Secretary William Hague today described the building of the Wall as ‘one of the darkest days for post-War Europe’. In 1961 however, reactions to the wall were fairly muted, both within and beyond Germany. While there were some protests (particularly in West Berlin) most Berliners quietly carried on with their lives as far as possible, seeming bemused by and resigned to the sudden appearance of the wall, rather than outraged. Russell Swenson, who was stationed in Berlin with the US Army in August 1961, described the confusion he witnessed among citizens of Berlin: ‘Nobody expected it; that’s why there was no plan to do anything about it … I don‘t think people thought it was going to last very long, certainly not 30 years’.
In 1961 the East German authorities claimed the wall was necessary as an ‘anti-fascist protection barrier’ to protect against ‘subversive activity’ from the West. In a Letter sent by Soviet authorities to the governments of the USA, UK and France dated 18 August 1961, they claim that: ‘West Berlin has been transformed into a center of subversive activity diversion, and espionage, into a center of political and economic provocations against the G.D.R., the Soviet Union, and other socialist countries’. It has long been accepted that the primary motivation behind the wall’s construction was to stem the growing exodus of people leaving East Germany however, something which was both politically embarrassing and economically damaging for the communist authorities, with those leaving primarily comprised of younger, skilled citizens, amounting to a ‘brain drain’.
The idea that the Berlin Wall was ‘necessary’ still appears to hold some weight today, fifty years after its construction and 22 years after its collapse. This weekend, members of Germany’s Left Party (the successors to the East German SED) are debating a motion to officially accept that the building of the wall was an ‘inescapable necessity’. Perhaps more surprisingly however, around a third of Berliners also maintain that there was some justification for its construction – in a Forsa survey published in the Berliner Zeitung earlier this month, while 62% of those surveyed rejected the ‘necessity’ of the wall, 25% expressed the view that construction of the wall was ‘necessary and justified in part’ while a further 10% saw its construction as fully justified, to stem the exodus to the West and stabilise the political situation in Germany in the face of growing Cold War tensions.
In a recent article in History Today, Fredrick Taylor also believes that the wall was perceived as necessary – or at least, very convenient – by the Western powers, certainly more so that their condemnatory rhetoric suggested at the time. Despite a brief stand off between Soviet and American tanks in Berlin, overall the Western reaction to the wall’s construction was decidedly muted. Taylor details how, distracted by domestic and other pressing foreign commitments, Western statesmen and diplomats were largely ambivalent towards the permanent division of Berlin. Not only were the Western powers clearly unprepared to risk going to war to prevent the division of Germany, Taylor claims, but many privately saw the wall as a satisfactory solution to the ‘German problem’.
Mauer im Kopf: the ‘Wall in the Mind’
When the Berlin Wall collapsed in the autumn of 1989 it was largely obliterated, in part due to high numbers of Mauerspechten or ‘wall woodpeckers’ (souvenier hunters who chipped away at the remnants of the wall) and in part due to a concerted political effort to remove the wall from view and push ahead with reunification as quickly as possible. A few scattered sections of the wall remain standing today – most notably at Bernauer Strasse which functions as the official memorial to the wall – but visitors to Berlin increasingly maintain that it is difficult to pinpoint where the Wall formerly stood; where ‘West’ became ‘East’. To mark the 50th anniversary of the Wall’s construction SPIEGEL ONLINE have compiled an interesting interactive slideshow of photographs depicting life before and after the Wall here.
Many people believe that the speedy disappearance of the wall created a lack of opportunities for Vergangenheitsbewältigung or ‘coming to terms with the past’ in East Berlin. The growth of Ostalgie (nostalgia for East Germany) in recent years has led to suggestions that while the wall may have been physically removed, a less tangible barrier remains – a Mauer im Kopf or ‘wall in the mind’. Veena Venugopal believes that ‘it is clear that even though the Berlin Wall came down 22 years ago, it is still a defining force in the life of Berliners’.
In another recent poll where respondents were asked about lingering divisions between east and west Germans nearly 22 years after the Wall was torn down, 83 percent of those surveyed said they thought there was still an ‘invisible wall’ running through the country, while only 15 percent said they thought the differences between those who had lived in the West and the East had been surmounted.
These enduring divisions appear to be fuelled primarily by post-communist disappointment, political stereotyping (with ‘East’ Germans accusing ‘West’ Germans of arrogance while some former ‘Wessies’ see ‘Ossies’ as backward and stupid) and economic insecurity. The ‘brain drain’ halted by the Berlin Wall soon revived after its collapse: between 1989 and 2005 more than 1.6 million predominantly young (with 60% aged under 30) educated and skilled Eastern Germans left for better prospects in the West. Today unemployment in some areas of the former East are three times as high as in the West.
Commemorating the Construction of the Berlin Wall
Certain aspects of Berlin’s recent past remain highly charged issues and I previously wrote a short piece relating to the contested nature of memorialisation and commemoration in Berlin here. Today Berlin is a popular tourist destination with an estimated 5.5 million visitors to its memorials and contemporary history museums per year. A thriving and lucrative tourist industry has developed around Cold War Germany, but some events – such as the infamous ‘Trabi safaris’ which allow tourists to tour the route of the wall while driving ‘one of the last relics of real-life socialism’ while experiencing traditional Cold War-style checks by costumed border guards – have resulted in complaints about the ‘Disneyfication’ of Berlin, serving to trivialise and distort important aspects of its history for entertainment value.
A campaign has recently been launched for a new ‘Cold War Centre’ in Berlin which would aim to construct a dominant narrative pertaining to commemoration and remembrance of divided Germany. Some have suggested that the use of socialist symbols should be legally restricted, akin to the Nazi swastika. Others suggest that sections of the Wall should be properly reconstructed to stand as a visible and enduring memorial to the divisions in Germany’s recent past. The recent announcement of work to stabilise the best preserved remains of the Berlin Wall along Bernauer Strasse (financed by funds seized from the SED after German reunification in 1990), has led to calls from Axel Klausmeier, Manger of the Bernauer Strasse memorial, for the remains of the Wall to be declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In the coming days numerous events have been organised to mark the 50th anniversary of the Wall’s construction. On 13 August Chancellor Angela Merkel and other leading German politicians are attending an official ceremony at the Berlin Wall memorial on Bernauer Strasse. Further information about commemorative activities in Berlin can be found here, with a full programme in English here.
6th February 1989 – Twenty years ago today in Warsaw, fifty-seven representatives drawn from the Polish Communist Party (an official delegation led by then Minister of the Interior Czeslaw Kiszczak) and the banned trade union ‘Solidarity’ (led by Lech Walesa) quietly sat down around a large table to discuss the best way to quell the growing tensions evident in Polish society. The rest, as they say, is history.
Known as the ’round table talks’ these negotiations ran from 6 Feb – 4 April and the resulting agreement, signed on 5th April 1989 paved the way for freedom of speech, democratisation and reform in Poland, which ultimately led to the collapse of the communist regime. The willingness of the Polish Communist Party to enter into a meaningful dialogue with their opponents symbolised a radical break in party policy (just seven years earlier Polish leader General Wojciech Jaruzelski had sent tanks out onto the streets of Warsaw in a declaration of Martial Law to quell protests against his regime), and the events that unfolded in Poland as a result of these talks sent a strong signal to their ‘comrades’ across the East European region that change was now possible, igniting the spark that led to the revolutions of 1989.
Twenty years on from the opening of the round table talks, while it is events such as the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 that have stuck in the popular consciousness as symbolising the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the Poles remain justifiably proud of their part in the events of 1989 and a series of commemorative events are planned to mark the occasion. On 29th January a ceremony was held at the Gdansk shipyards (site of the 1980 strike movement and the ‘birthplace of Solidarity’) and a plaque unveiled to celebrate the recent granting of a European Heritage Label to the site for its historic significance. The old Polish embassy in Berlin yesterday (5th February) unveiled a banner bearing a large photograph of the round table talks and the slogan ‘It started with the Round Table’, with a conference also organised for 9th February to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the talks. The European Solidarity Centre are planning a series of events in coming months, including a musical about the 1980 Gdansk Shipyard strikes and the birth of Solidarity, while a film honouring Father Jerzy Popieluszko (the priest, a leading Solidarity activist, was arrested, interrogated and murdered by the secret police in October 1984) is to be released in March.
The Polish Newspaper Rzeczpospolita today published the results of a public opinion poll indicating that a growing number of Poles now say they feel ‘disatisfied’ with the outcome of the round table negotiations however, with many feeling that the Polish people were cheated or ‘sold out’ by arrangements which enabled former communist leaders to retain wealth and influence in the post-Communist period. Lech Walesa, former leader of Solidarity and Polish President 1990-1995 agreed on Monday that the round table talks were ‘a rotton compromise’ and admitted that some of the consequences of the talks ‘proved contradictory to expectations of the participants’. However he defended the actions of those involved and the need for a peaceful compromise, stating that he himself ‘had to behave dishonestly in that situation, but would do the same again’. Walesa went on to explain that:
(It was) a very rotten compromise, base, but without it we wouldn’t have been able to move on. Without the round table communism could have stuck around for 50 years and a day. Certainly, one day communism would have toppled, logically thinking in 30 or 50 years, and it would have ended then in a bloodbath
Current Polish President Lech Kaczynski also agreed, in a statement published in today’s Rzeczpospolita, that while ‘from today’s perspective I believe there was a possibility to negotiate more, that kind of thing is only obvious months or even years later’.
When covering the subject of the collapse of communism in East Europe with my students (most of whom were now not born until after communism had fallen across Eastern Europe), one of the biggest problems I often face is convincing them that the events of 1989, and the course these events took were by no means inevitable. With hindsight it is all too easy to look back twenty years ago and view the fall of communism across East Europe as the only natural outcome of the changes taking place, but at the time that was far from the case. The round table talks are a good case in point. Even today, twenty years on, those who were involved in the process look back and marvel at the way events unfolded in Poland. Tadeusz Mazowiecki (leading Solidarity activist and Poland’s first non-communist Prime Minister 1989-1991) stated earlier today that:
“No one on either side thought events would move so quickly and that six months later my government would see the light of day. All we hoped for from those negotiations at the most was the legalisation of Solidarity, seven years after it was banned by the communists … Nothing was set in stone. Hard-line communists were still very strong.“
And negotiators from the Polish Communist Party have also been marking today’s anniversary by recalling their shock at the course events took in 1989. Leszek Miller, a communist negotiator in 1989 (and later Polish Prime Minister 2001-2004) argues that:
“I thought it would be a step towards democracy and that Solidarity would take on the role of the opposition, certainly not the role of government straight away … Solidarity got much, much more than it had demanded”
Former Communist media advisor Jerzy Urban also disputes the ‘inevitability’ of the outcome of the round table talks. Referring to the elections held on 4th June 1989 where Solidarity triumphed, winning 99 out of 100 seats in the Polish senate, Urban reminds people today that the Communists were still in charge and that ‘we could have easily falsified the election results, but we chose to recognise them’.
Most other East European countries are organsing events to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the revolutions of 1989, so I will be writing more on this topic as the year progresses.