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Reviews On the road towards a “European culture of memory”? Coming to grips with Stalinism

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds pages 35-37, Vol III:1, 2010
Published on on mars 24, 2010

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This anthology is a collection of papers from a conference held in Wiesneck, Germany in the fall of 2005. The contributors are young scholars and senior researchers. The editors are careful to note that the contributors are “from 12 different countries”. However, whereas the individuals were, of course, born and raised in nation-states, as a group they represent the fact that social scientists and historians in contemporary Europe and North America move around during the course of their academic careers and thus belong to and identify with a multinational community of scholars.

The editors recognize the indisputable fact that the contemporary international scholarly community uses English as its lingua franca, while also realizing that English is not a panacea that makes other languages superfluous as instruments of history and social science. They observe that concepts can be specific to different natural languages. In the case of oral history and memory studies, we are confronted with the pre-eminence of German:

German has the advantage of certain terminology which are [sic!] difficult to express in other languages, such as “Zeitzeuge” (eye-witness to a whole period of time) and “Aufarbeitung” (the coming-to-grips with, assessing, debating and processing of history, especially of a collective catastrophe or crime). German language oral history also stands for an especially conscientious treatment of the sources and for a research tradition in which less practical but more interpretive and methodological problems are paramount. (p. 47)

The German-language version of the introductory chapter just quoted omits the explanations that the English text provides within parentheses, for obvious reasons. The historical and sociological reasons for the specific and prominent role of German as the ultimate language for analyzing and discussing historical memory have to do with the Holocaust. After World War II, the “Aufarbeitung” and the related concept “Vergangenheitsbewältigung” (indirectly referred to with the expression “coming-to-grips with” in the quote above) came to stand for a new, sophisticated stance in history and the social sciences. It was generally recognized by scholars who subscribed to the notions of democracy and human rights that it is necessary, in history and the social sciences, to take into account the fact that there cannot be any “pure”, “scientific” history, as with mathematics or physics. The moral and political impact of history and social science writing must be acknowledged and taken into cognizance.
When “coming-to-grips with” the communist period, Stalinism would have to be treated in a manner similar to the German approach to the Nazi period. Although Russia, in the guise of the Soviet Union, experienced a genocidal regime, there has been no counterpart to the German “Aufarbeitung” and “Vergangenheitsbewältigung” in Russian historiography — despite the fact that Russian oral-history studies are, today, a vital area of studies. Thus, in a recent review of a Russian book on the history of the Soviet occupation of the Baltic States, the reviewer praises the book in question because it subscribes to the principle of observing ”a sharp contrast between history as a science of past events and, on the other hand, the memory of the past or the politicized use of historical events”.1 Erinnerungen/Remembering is a forceful refutation of that futile principle.

In his overview of oral history in Western and Eastern Germany, Alexander von Plato directly challenges the smug Russian approach cited above by referring disapprovingly to the cult of Stalin in contemporary Russia. von Plato quotes a vice director of a major state museum in Moscow, who in the year 2005 described Stalin as the most eminent politician and military commander (“Feldherr”) of the twentieth century. One is reminded of the contemporary reference, in Nazi Germany, to Adolf Hitler as “Grösste Feldherr aller Zeiten” (ridiculed as “Gröfaz” by critics). von Plato asks us to imagine the reaction to the 2005 Moscow statement if it had, instead, taken place in the German Historical Museum in Berlin with Adolf Hitler as the venerated hero.

von Plato’s objection to the Russian way of not-coming-to-grips with the past is supplemented with a plea, which he himself admits may sound pathetic, for the creation of a scholarly ethos along the lines of the European tradition of the history of science. According to von Plato, the different national memory cultures in Europe must be investigated in a spirit of independence and tolerance, with the final aim of creating a “European remembrance culture” (p. 81).  Although von Plato’s uneasiness concerning the Stalin cult in Russia is warranted, it must be acknowledged that there are Russian scholars who view the Stalin period critically, especially members of local Memorial Societies. A fine example of critical oral research in Russia is Alexey Golubev’s contribution in Erinnerungen/Remembrance. His conclusion, based on a research project carried out among different ethnic groups in Russian Karelia, is that Russians have obliterated any remembrance of the Stalinist repressions from their memory. An explanation of this fact is that “generally the traumatic experience was kept away from the Soviet collective memory. […] Soviet society couldn’t offer social mechanisms of reacting to the historical trauma.“ Golubev quotes a report from his compatriot, historian Alexander Daniel, who “considers this true even for the contemporary Russian collective memory”. (p. 269)

It is worthwhile elaborating on the difference between the Russian and the European stances concerning history and remembrance culture. Whereas an obviously representative Russian view is that “it would be bad history, if not a flatly falsified history, to use the values and standards of our time as a screen for the representations of the past”1, the alternative attitude that inspires contemporary European historical research and especially memory studies and oral history takes into consideration the importance of “the values and standards of our time”. In a perceptive chapter on “identity elaboration” (“Identitätsarbeit”) in this anthology, Ulrike Jureit observes that “our memory is inscribed in social relations and thus in current and past discourses”. (p. 88) The observation is valid not only for the evaluation of oral history sources but also for the evaluation and analysis of texts, such as letters, state papers and other documentary material that is preserved in historical archives. Jureit’s reference to the salience of current and past discourses in the investigation of remembrance culture is an updated version of the German critical hermeneutic tradition epitomized by the name of Jürgen Habermas.

The uses of oral history in Erinnerungen/Remembrance are examples of emancipative history. The conscious and elaborative confrontation between different epochs with different official values, social relations and frameworks of interpretation results in a multifaceted and intriguing image of the societies of “really existing socialism” (“Realsozialismus”) and of the experiences of identity and history in the post-socialist societies. This is history from below that places state-centered historiography in a sobering perspective. It is recognition of the fact that historical actions and processes, that are the effects of political decisions at the highest level, are not the whole history, perhaps not even the most important history for ordinary people, those who constitute the social fabric of society.

The chapter on the theories that guide and the methods used in historical memory research and oral history is published in both German and English. Of the remaining 25 chapters, 15 are in English and 10 in German. After von Plato’s principal discussion, in German, on the German experience of two successive dictatorships, the Nazi Reich and the Communist GDR, and the resultant special German obsession with coming-to-grips with the past, five special sections follow. These all have both a German and an English title, but the articles themselves are in either German or English. Bearing in mind von Plato’s emphasis on the salience of the German language in the field of memory studies and oral history — in spite of the fact that the French scholar Maurice Halbwachs was the founding father of historical memory studies and in spite of the long tradition of oral history in Britain — the bilingual presentation might be interpreted as an attempt to induce the reader to grasp the whole intellectual universe of the project.

On the one hand, the conceptual and thus theoretical advantage of using German terms in the context of their natural language is obvious. On the other hand, it is certainly advisable to anchor the project in the hegemonic language of contemporary international historiography and social science, i.e. English. It must be assumed that readers of the book have at least reading knowledge of both languages.

The five sections, all of which are presented in the table of contents with the German title first, cover a wide range of subjects. The first section, “Regime Changes, Identity Construction and Current Disputes about the Past”, approaches the legacy of both Nazism and Communism in post-GDR and Ukraine and probes into the sensitive question of how former Communist party members remember and interpret their history. A chapter on memories of the 1989 Romanian revolution (this is the term used for the events) is noticeable for its sophisticated analysis of the interplay between the institutional production of testimonies and the remembrance of individuals. The author writes about “competing narratives”, thus calling attention to the fact that insight from oral history projects helps give substance to the notion that postmodernism is an ample label for the state of mind of people who try to come to grips with the past in post-socialist societies.

The second section, “The Inheritance of the Emancipation ‘from above’: Female Experience and Gender Roles in Socialism and Post-socialism”, can be read as a refutation of  Joan W. Scotts unconditional anti-essentialism. Socialist reality, as well as the tribulations of the transition period, has made it sensible and fruitful to approach women as women, as individuals with gender-specific experiences. In this context, it is worth quoting from the conclusion of the short chapter on women’s history in the Bulgarian town of Ruse: “Women have become more emancipated during socialism and post-socialism, but nevertheless the female way of life has not been made any easier: its changes follow the ‘traditional model of division between the male and the female’.” The quote within the quotation is from Pierre Bourdieu. A footnote inserted after the word “post-socialism” reads: “The female way of life is being relieved of the socialist obligations to be a mannish girl.” (p. 170)

The remaining three sections are devoted, respectively, to “Competing Images of History”, “Victims and Perpetrators”, and “Everyday Life in Socialism”. Space does not permit a separate presentation of the different items. Suffice it to say that these studies, and the volume as a whole, give highly readable and empathic accounts of the hard life of people in the eastern half of Europe under Communism as well as during the transition period and in the post-socialist societies. Last but not least, the contributions by the young scholars from the region bear witness to the fact that — at least when it comes to history and social sciences — one can speak of one coherent European intellectual space.


  1. Lennart Samuelson, “The history of Soviet incorporations” (Review of Elena Zubkova, Pribaltika i Kreml, 1940­—1943, 2008), Baltic Worlds, vol. I:1.
  2. Samuelson, op. cit.

+ Julia Obertreis & Anke Stephen (eds.) Erinnerungen nach der Wende: Oral History und (post)sozialistische Gesellschaften, Essen: Klartext Verlag 2009, 401 pages.