Reviews History writing in exile. Alternative stories arose

East and Central European History Writing in Exile 1939–1989, Editors: Maria Zadencka, Andrejs Plakans, Andreas Lawaty Brill Rodopi: 2015, 433 pages.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 4 2016, p 97-98
Published on on February 3, 2017

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It was no mere coincidence that it was Jewish Eastern European immigrants in Paris, who laid the foundation for the first French historical accounts of the Holocaust. The prior experience of exile and, for many of these immigrants, a more traditional Jewish life facilitated the understanding of this European trauma.1 From a broader perspective, the intellectual flight of the previous century from the Soviet Union had a significant impact on the historical consciousness of the West. Evidence of this is presented clearly in a new, multi-disciplinary anthology that brings together sixteen researchers from universities across Europe, the US, and Canada, an anthology in which the relationship between exile experiences of those from Eastern and Central Europe from 1939 to 1989 and historical research is brought into focus. These experiences of fleeing one’s home country (particularly emphasized here are the Baltic states, Belorussia, Poland, and Ukraine), often under dramatic circumstances, made history’s relation to values such as orientation, identity, and rootedness stronger, while the political climate of the Cold War had ideological implications for any assessment of one’s relation to the past. But these refugees also expanded the research horizon through their knowledge of several languages and awareness of cultural and political traditions outside the West. In this way, alternative stories to the national historiographies and remembrances arose. Much of the literature is written in the exiled groups’ home language, while other individuals and groups tried to integrate historical representations into the new nations in which they found themselves.

East and Central European History Writing in Exile 1939—1989 is divided into three parts. In the first part, papers investigate how organizations, networks, and individuals functioned in the countries to which these thinkers emigrated, and how this functioning was related to the exile communities. The papers provide valuable, concrete insights into the conditions under which these historians and activists worked, something that is often lacking in studies of historical research, where the focus more often falls on the image of the past that is conveyed. In Sweden, intellectuals among the growing Estonian population founded The Estonian Learned Society in 1945. The organization played both a social and a scientific role among Estonians in Sweden by combining cultural activities and research initiatives. It is symptomatic that one of the first research initiatives concerned an investigation into the fate of university employees in Tartu during World War II: obviously, history here had a moral and existential function when the stories of particular people were traced in a commemorative volume published at the end of the 1940s. But the academic claims were also important for the members themselves: the political dimension of the group’s activities rose to the surface during the unsuccessful Hungarian revolution of 1956, when the Society expressed its support for the fight against Soviet rule. At that point, it became apparent that the exile would be prolonged.

The exiled historians’ integration with their new environments was influenced both by traditions among the immigrant population, and by the political culture of the new country. This integration is a significant focus of the second part of the book, which investigates the influence of historians and the contexts in which their knowledge was conveyed. For Polish cultural institutions of different types in London, Paris, Rome, and New York, this concerned both the spread of knowledge about Poland but also the strengthening of links between various exiled research groups and individuals. There was an element of what can be called a diaspora nationalism, which could be expressed as a newly awakened longing for the glory days of Poland, something nourished by knowledge of the work of past activists. At the same time, the international nature of the network enriched current research with new perspectives and methods. Many academics naturally positioned themselves completely outside these sorts of organizations, however. In Denmark, for example, the Estonian-born historian VelloHelk contributed to Danish, Northern European, and Estonian history. Helk fled to Denmark in 1945 and worked mainly at the Danish National Archives, but gained national and international stature through numerous studies in Danish and German. His distancing himself from the exile community created a more apolitical image: he was simply an academic in Denmark. But his dual social identities still played a meaningful role in his career and were reflected in his research interests.


The final part of the anthology discusses the extent to which exiled historians contributed to new lines of thinking and thus renewed historical research. As far as the political sphere is concerned, many intellectuals who fled the Soviet Union strove to spread knowledge about the totalitarian system there, but also to highlight underlying cultural and political traditions that communism sought to stifle. Within the field of history, such efforts contributed important alternative perspectives during the first decades of the postwar period at a time when increasing numbers of Western academics were being influenced by Marxism. This, however, also created conflicts in the new homelands. The Polish major general Marian Kukiel, who participated in both world wars, was a prominent historian in London during the postwar period and looked with distaste upon the increased international influence of the historians of the French Annales. For Kukiel, the thinking of the Annales intellectuals marked a crisis in the Western historical research of the 1950s. The strong anti-Marxist tendency among exiled historians undeniably contributed to a certain type of dogmatism and inability to look positively on studies that had points in common with historical materialism. A struggle involving academics in the Polish People’s Republic, for example, was: What was the significance of the fall of the Polish-Lithuanian Republic in 1795? What was the relationship between Poland’s independence in 1918 and the Russian Revolution? However, the ideological connotations of the works of exiled historians must also be considered against a background of growing leftwing radicalization and blindness to communism’s totalitarian inclinations at Western European universities.


Overall, the anthology gives general insights into how the experiences of exiles and the writing of history can interact. The anthology is therefore an important contribution to research regarding the relationship of historical research to national identity in the postwar years. This is the sphere in which we find works such as the German historian Stefan Berger’s large international project on national historiographies in Europe.2 Especially important are the East and Central European experiences. The anthology’s structure and content is not, however, unobjectionable. The political context around the Cold War is present throughout, but there is no general attempt to explain how the ideological polarization came to affect and influence the writing of history. It is also regrettable that the Jewish exile from Eastern and Central Europe is discussed far too sparsely. The Jewish historians worked in separate institutions and networks, and contact with the non-Jewish exile environments could be strained by anti-Semitism. Jewish immigrants in the West such as Léon Poliakov (born in St. Petersburg), Philip Friedman (born in Lviv), Michel Borwicz (born in Kraków), and Joseph Wulf (born in Chemnitz in Germany but raised in Kraków) were sometimes affected both by Communism and Nazism. From an interdisciplinary perspective, they laid the foundations of what is today called Holocaust studies, with Paris as an important center in Western Europe, as mentioned above, during a time when contemporary history was not a developed academic field.3 In this case, one can indeed, in the words of the anthology, speak of “new styles of thought” — in particular with consideration of the status that Holocaust studies has today throughout the Western world.


The book would have benefited from a more explicitly articulated purpose, with distinct research questions, as well as a common method. The lack thereof creates a certain sprawl in the anthology, and the three parts overlap to some degree. It thus becomes difficult to draw any general comparative conclusions from the results. In addition, some of the contributions have an entirely too descriptive character. At the same time, such essays can have a great value for future studies, but the research’s critical approach is lost when, for example, one essay has the subtitle “Homage to VelloHelk”; or when the Soviet experts and exile historians Richard Pipes, Leopold Łabędź, and Adam Ulam are repeatedly called heroes. Such things would find perfect placement in a Festschrift from one of the exile organizations that are described in the book, but fit less well in an academic project with ambitions to impart new knowledge within a developing research area.≈




1                    Johannes Heuman, Holocaust and French Historical Culture, 1945—65 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).

2                    For an overview of this project in Swedish, see “Writing the Nation: Enhistoriografiskundersökningavdetnationellaparadigmet” [Writing the nation: A historiographic investigation of the national paradigm], HistoriskTidskrift [Journal of History], ed. Bo Eriksson, no. 2 2016: 248—296.

3                    Laura Jockusch, Collect and Record!: Jewish Holocaust Documentation in Early Postwar Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).

  • by Johannes Heuman

    Researcher at the Hugo Valentin Centre in Uppsala and the Centre Alberto Benveniste in Paris. Currently works on a project on Jewish-Muslim relations during the postwar era in France.

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East and Central European History Writing in Exile 1939–1989, Editors: Maria Zadencka, Andrejs Plakans, Andreas Lawaty Brill Rodopi: 2015, 433 pages.