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The Lost Populations of Eastern Europe. Notes for the week of May 25, 2009. With the collapse of communist rule.

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the lost populations of eastern europe

The Lost Populations of Eastern Europe

Notes for the week of May 25, 2009

with the collapse of communist rule
With the collapse of communist rule

has come not just a return to Europe but also the return of history and continuous efforts to bring official historical narratives into line with the ‘real’ events under repressive rule that were suppressed during communism. In fact, the revolutions of 1989 were accompanied by (and some might argue even triggered by) reburials (Nagy in Hungary); rehabilitations (Dubcek in Czechoslovakia) and acknowledged culpabilities (the Soviet Union for Katyn). Inevitably, perhaps, this return of history could not just end with bringing to light the injustices of communist rule and so we have also seen efforts to bring official historical narratives into line with the injustices perpetrated by local actors against the now lost populations of eastern Europe, most consequentially the lost Jewish communities but also the German communities forced to leave in the aftermath of WWII.

the post communist re construction of history
The post-communist re-construction of history

While distinctive in each national setting, the re-construction of history across the post-communist space entails a number of shared characteristics:

  • Navigating the victim-perpetrator divide – acknowledging culpability in the context of a national identity privileging the ‘victimhood’ of the nation
  • Containing defensive reactions as the pressure to acknowledge locally committed crimes often comes from external actors
  • Balancing efforts to gain broader international recognition for the injustices suffered under communist rule with the efforts to address local crimes, culpabilities and complicities
  • Determining the appropriate commemorative response: how much to admit, to acknowledge, to apologize for; how much atonement with what symbolism; with what physical marker?
explaining the turn to history and memory
Explaining the turn to history and memory

Most often observers place the ‘blame’ for obsessive engagement with the past on east Europeans and the extent to which they now, ‘unfrozen’ from communism, are returning to the obsessions of the interwar and wartime periods. More accurately, however, engagement with the past may be a reflection of the broader geopolitical context and “the uncertain geopolitical order after the fall of communism”(Kenney) or the power asymmetries between western and eastern Europe that encourage the former to exercise control over the latter through the construction of particular historical narratives (Janos).

padraic kenney
Padraic Kenney

“Since the end of the Cold War, observers have chronicled a growing obsession with problems of the past, and many have assumed that this too would pass into history, soon or eventually. The generation possessing direct memories of WWII (the most intense focus of conflicts over the past) is passing on. Politicians have been learning the wisdom of facing difficult pasts – and thus, perhaps, defusing conflict – rather than evading or denying painful memories. Insofar as memory conflicts are a product of the uncertain geopolitical order after the fall of communism, these uncertainties should eventually give way. Concerns with the past should give way to a focus on the future – the future of a united Europe – or on the problems of democracy and the global economy. Even so, skeletons from the closet have shaken and toppled governments, reminding us that the relationship between the uses of the past and the health of the polis is key to understanding the 21st century.” In Kenney, “Martyrs and Neighbors: Sources of Reconciliation in Central Europe,” Common Knowledge 13:1, 2007.

andrew janos
Andrew Janos

“But with the cold war ‘won,’ the balance of discourse [in the West] quickly returned to the narrative of the Second World War. This shift is manifest in the extraordinary proliferation of war stories on the screen and in both popular and scholarly writing. It is further manifest in differing public and press responses to the display of the symbols of the two totalitarianisms, in the continued vigor displayed in ferreting out malefactors of fascism while neglecting to develop international standards for dealing with the malefactors of communism, in revising immigration laws and practices, and, overall, in the de-demonization of communism in public discourse.” At the same time, east Europeans are faced with …”a moral agenda requiring that East Central Europeans recognize their collective transgressions of liberal norms, less under the decades of communism than before and during the Second World War.” Janos, “From Eastern Empire to Western Hegemony: East Central Europe under two international regimes,” East European Politics and Societies , 15:2, 2001.

german expulsions
German Expulsions

The case of these expulsions, largely from Polish and Czech territories after WWII, and on-going efforts in Germany to demand formal Polish and Czech recognition of these expulsions as criminal, illustrates well the extent to which not only east Europeans have experienced the return of memory. In fact, the reunification of Germany represents one of the key geopolitical uncertainties giving rise to revisionist impulses. If, after WWII, “the moral diminution of the country was a major guarantee that, its economic, demographic, and military potential notwithstanding, it could and would not strive again to achieve continental hegemony,” (Janos, p. 233) after the cold war the moral diminution of Germany has been challenged by re-casting the Germans as victims “while relativising the German past, especially National Socialism and WWII.” (Salzborn, p. 87) See, Samuel Salzborn, “The German Myth of a Victim Nation: (Re-)presenting Germans as Victims in the New Debate on their Flight and Expulsion from Eastern Europe,” in Helmut Schmitz, ed., A Nation of Victims? Representations of German Wartime Suffering from 1945 to the Present , Rodopi Press, 2007. See also,

For a history of the expulsions: Norman M. Naimark, Fires of Hatred: Ethnic Cleansing in 20th Century Eurpe, Harvard University Press, 2001 Fires of hatred: ethnic cleansing in ... - Google Book Search

And Expulsion of Germans after World War II - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


For the impact of the debate on German-Polish relations:

Eurozine - The burden of history and the trap of memory - Philipp Ther

For a general review of post-reunification German historiography:

Sample Chapter for Jarausch, K.H. and Geyer, M.: Shattered Past: Reconstructing German Histories.


“That the ideas and demands of the expellee organizations still find an audience today is related to the new claim to sovereignty and normality in the politics of the Federal Republic which results from the transformations in Eastern Europe after 1989/90. Part of this new ‘normality’ is the ‘levelling of the Nazi past’ in everyday consciousness; people’s concrete historical knowledge about National Socialism is in decline and loses the meaning it had for the old Federal Republic. This goes hand in hand with a tendency to detach historical realities, events and developments from their concrete socio-political context in favor of a moralizing view. One of the most prominent examples of this is the representation of flight and expulsion of Germans from the eastern territories, a development which is not seen in the context of National Socialism’s politics of expansion and extermination. Thus flight and expulsion can be morally condemned (e.g. as condemnation of violence) without taking into account the historical and social responsibilities for those consequences of National Socialism.” (p. 89)


“this line of argument essentially aims to relativise the political, historical and social relevance of National Socialism. The expellee organizations supplement this with an attempt to redefine the perpetrator-victim relationship. This is of extreme importance for their image of history and the narratives of political legitimacy that are derived from it. The ultimate aim of a rewriting of the perpetrator-victim relationship is the moral and historical legitimation of their hegemonic interests, that is , the claim to financial compensation by the Polish or Czech state. Simultaneously, this allows them to play a passive or innocent role through the ‘construction of a victim community,’ since the German responsibility for flight and expulsion is negated. The aim of this redefinition of the victim-perpetrator paradigm is to legitimize the image of the ‘self-confident nation’ as it was, for example, developed by the so-called ‘New Right’ in the 1990s. The motivation of the expellee organizations is thus of a political nature rather than being concerned with a historically adequate interpretation of the past.”(Salzborn, p. 90)

the centre against expulsions
The Centre against Expulsions

“The Centre is supposed to be placed in ‘historical and spatial proximity to the Berlin Holocaust memorial.” It would, however, “cost an estimated 82 million euros in contrast to the Holocaust memorial which cost around 25.5 million euros.”

…”the desired spatial closeness to the Holocaust memorial takes the flight and expulsion of the Germans out of its historical context. The purpose of this is to lend legitimacy to the claim that Germans, too, had been victims, since they had suffered under Hitler. While this certainly applies to Hitler’s racial and political victims as well as to those who were designated ‘inferior’ by Nazi ideology, it is certainly incorrect with respect to the majority of Germans.” Nonetheless, a 2003 opinion poll “found that over 90% of Germans are of the opinion that the Germans are victims of the Second World War.”

“The expellee organizations’ desire for ‘historical’ proximity of their Centre to the Holocaust memorial is thus directly connected to their desire for a discursive proximity of the expulsion to the German mass murder of European Jews, or more precisely, to their status as victims.” (Salzborn, p.91)

power and the re construction of historical narratives
Power and the Re-Construction of Historical Narratives

The debate over the Centre and the claims made on Poland and the Czech Republic by German expellee groups (neglecting the fact that German refugees were mistreated in Denmark and the Netherlands as well), clearly indicate the extent to which not just geopolitical uncertainties are implicated in the current re-construction of history but also power; the power a newly reunified Germany has to dictate the cultural terms of accession to Europe for east Europeans. On another level, as Kenney points out, “there is a normative, even prescriptive, element in much work on contemporary collective memory: the scholar measures the achievements or actions of a nation or group against an unspoken ideal and seems even to scold that group or nation for its shortcomings.” (p. 152) Consequently, power, in terms of granting or withholding approval, is also inherent in scholarly treatments of post-communist re-constructions of history.

irrespective of german agendas
Irrespective of German Agendas..

…in this re-construction of history, what should/has the East European response been to the loss of the German populations. After all, as Judt points out:

“The German communities of the Sudetenland, of Silesia and East Prussia, whole townships of traditionally German language and culture throughout the region, were destroyed or expelled by the postwar governments of Soviet-dominated Europe. [note: he neglects to add that these expulsions were undertaken with the approval of the English and American governments] The result was a radically altered social landscape: ethnically more homogeneous, socially less variegated, culturally more provincial.”(“A Grand Illusion,” p. 62) While one might also dispute Judt’s conclusion regarding the cultural impact of the German loss (arguably being behind the Iron Curtain rendered east European culture more provincial than the loss of German communities which were themselves steeped in regionalism and hence were quite provincial), it is undeniable that a consequential loss occurred and that it occurred in a very brutal fashion with 12 million Germans displaced from among which an estimated 2 million perished.

comparing czech and polish responses
Comparing Czech and Polish Responses

Although the proposed Centre Against Expulsions is deeply resented in Poland, largely for the reasons presented by Salzborn, “the state of collective memory among Poles and Czechs could not be more different” as Kenney notes with regard to the expulsions. A difference demonstrated in opinion polls:

Czech Republic 2002, 64% regarded the expulsions as just with only 3% feeling that an apology was necessary

Poland 1996, 47% believed the expulsions were an injustice; just over one-quarter felt that an apology would be appropriate (p. 152)

Kenney goes on to explain the different attitudes toward reconciliation and commemoration with reference to the nature of dissent in Poland in the 1970’s and 80’s; dissent that was motivated both by anti-communism, the teachings of Pope John Paul II and Solidarity to seek and embrace alternative representations of Germany and the shared Polish-German history.


“Polish society has turned out to be more receptive than Czech society to reconciliation with Germany and with Germans. First, by making chauvinism a trait associated with the regime, Polish communists managed inadvertently both to subvert nationalism and to encourage the search for a national ideal no longer based upon martyrdom and fear. Second, the Catholic Church in Poland came to endorse reconciliation, as did Karol Woytyla after his election as Pope; Polish society has been receptive to such teachings since at least the 1970s. Finally, a broad-based civic opposition developed a new approach to Poland’s neighbours and to Polish nationalism, an that opposition found a wide audience both in the Solidarity years and after. These factors each played its part in rendering Polish nationalism a benign force in the period since 1989.” (p. 168) Sadly, Czech society after 1968 lost the intellectual leadership that enabled more positive outcomes in Poland: after 68 “thousands of scholars and artists went into exile, and thousands more lost their positions to become menial laborers. Czechoslovak society as a whole would no longer have ready access to ideas contrary to those advanced by the consistently xenophobic, chauvinistic communist party leadership.”(p. 164) Thus, when President Havel apologized for the expulsions in 1991, this effort at atonement fell on deaf ears and even damaged his popularity.

jan gross and neighbours
Jan Gross and Neighbours

Additional sources:

Jedwabne pogrom - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

President Kwasniewski's Speech at the Jedwabne Ceremony

Race Matters - Poles Jews Deep Guilt

Yedwabne, Poland (Burning Alive article)

THOU SHALT NOT KILL - Poles on Jedwabne

CER | Poland: Making sense of the Jedwabne pogrom

Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland after Auschwitz - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Jewish Heritage Europe - Poland News Page


John Connelly, “Poles and Jews in the Second World War: the Revisions of Jan T. Gross,” in Contemporary European History II, 4 (2002) and

Marci Shore, “Conversing with Ghosts: Jedwabne, Zydokomuna, and Totalitarianism,” in Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 6, 2 (Spring 2005)

Antony Polonsky and Joanna Michlic, editors, The Neighbours Respond , 2003.

polish responses debate and denial
Polish Responses: Debate and Denial

While many Poles persist in blaming the Germans for all of the crimes against Jews and, accordingly, deny that any Poles participated in the Holocaust, there is no doubt that Gross’ work has spurred a vigorous debate in Poland, especially among journalistic and intellectual circles. (On this, see the essays contained in “thou shalt not kill”) There is also no doubt that official apologies have been made and contrition expressed by the Presidents of Poland for both Jedwabne and Kielce. New monuments have been erected and new official histories have been validated by the Institute of National Remembrance. (Institute of National Memory in Gross) In this context, Kenney notes that in a 2002 poll between ¼ and ½ of Poles surveyed expressed a significant degree of regret and a willingness to accept collective responsibility for Jedwabne; over ½ believed that the crime was committed by Poles alone or with only German encouragement; those who approved of President Kwasniewski’s apology outnumbered those who did not; “the survey also found widespread support for changing the way the Polish experience in the war is taught: large numbers want children taught that Poles in WWIi were murderers as well as rescuers of Jews.” (p. 158)

Why continued concern on both sides: are Poles sufficiently repentant? Is Gross genuinely engaged with the pursuit of truth?

Even as Gross declared himself guardedly optimistic about the ability of Poles to “boldly confront their unflattering past,” (p. 123) in the afterward for Neighbours, he still felt that “much remains to be done to set straight the historical record of this period” (p. 124) and hence he published Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland after Auschwitz in 2006 (English edition), 2008 (Polish edition) This book again raised concerns in Poland over Gross’ insufficient attention to context, his incomplete use of sources and the sacrifice of nuanced analysis for emotional immediacy. Whereas the debate over Neighbours was, for the most part, willing to overlook such deficiencies in order to focus on the larger issues raised by the work, the debate over Fear has been much more critical of Gross’ methods and motives. This time, for example, a new head of the Institute of National Remembrance, maintains that this work “will not be accepted, even conditionally, in the historical community.” (wikipedia entry on Fear) . The current political climate in Poland appears much less receptive to the re-construction of post-communist Polish history along the lines suggested by Gross. In fact, Paczkowski a Polish historian maintains that “Memory and history are two different things; memory is black and white while history is about shades of grey.” (wikipedia entry on Fear ) To the extent that these two books by Gross rely on memory, on memoirs, testimonials and family histories as legitimate sources, they are, according to Paczkowski, presenting black and white views of the past which actually impede the pursuit of a nuanced, historically accurate representation of the past.

a polish nationalist backlash against the re construction of history
A Polish Nationalist Backlash against the re-construction of history?

According to Zubrzycki, “For Poles, the Communist ‘occupation’ was merely one more in a long string of unwelcome foreign squatters. The year 1989 and the post-Communist period therefore do not simply mark the transition from a centrally planned economic system to a free-market economy, and from a totalitarian regime to a democracy. Rather, they signify the recovery of national independence, territorial sovereignty, and the reconstruction of a ‘truly national’ nation-state.” (p. 205) She goes on to note that “religion is therefore used by the Right and the Far Right to define the symbolic boundaries of the Polish nation, where the determination of who truly belongs depends to a great extent on one’s commitment to a very specific- and narrow- vision of Polishness: that of the Polak-katolik. Jewishness, in this context, itself becomes a symbol, standing for a civic-secular Poland.” (p. 209) …”ideological difference is ‘ethnicized’ such that an ‘un-Polish,’ or ‘Polish-speaking’ (that is, ‘non-Polish’) liberal intellectual advocating a civic-secular Poland becomes a “Jew”. Magical anti-Semitism is activated against a specific set of values, whether capitalism or communism, since either of these threatens a traditional way of life and its religious values.” (p. 210) “Jewishness serves to exclude ‘unwanted ideological elements’ that do not fit with the Right’s ideally defined model of Polishness. Hence, we witness the strange phenomenon of anti-Semitism in a country virtually without Jews.” (p. 211) In Zubrzycki, The Crosses of Auschwitz: Nationalism and Religion in Post-Communist Poland , 2006.

accountability for the past
Accountability for the Past

These contradictory outcomes in Poland, on the one hand official atonement and public debate conducted in the spirit of solidarity (and, if Kenney is right, informed by the experience of Solidarity) and, on the other hand, a backlash on the right against “Jewishness,” raises the question of how we judge a nation’s engagement with the past. Which of these two responses is the ‘true’ reflection of Polish society? Too often, the assumption is that the latter, negative response is truly reflective of a backward, hopelessly anti-Semitic Poland; an image that most outside observers in particular have of Poland. Arguably, both responses reflect the true Poland as a polity and society divided between progressive and reactionary actors (much like our own here in the US). In this context, it is important to note that the Far Right political parties suffered an electoral defeat in the parliamentary elections of 2007 in part because their politics of exclusion (discursively excluding all non-Catholics and all secular liberals from the polity by labeling them “Jews” regardless of whether or not they actually are Jews) was anathema to a younger generation of Polish voters more concerned with looking forward toward Europe rather than with the backward-looking cultural battles of extremist politicians.

the inevitability of acrimonious debate
The Inevitability of “acrimonious debate”

“It has been observed that memory of the past tells us perhaps more about present society than about the past: it tells us more about the current condition and self-image of society and its level of self-reflection over its collective history. The memory of the past…is an interpretive, meaning-making process framed by specific social groups – families, ethnic groups, and nations. In the case of nations, the memory of the past provides a self-portrait, which as a rule is dominated with images of glorious moments of the national past and of the martyrdom of the national community. What is frequently excluded from the collective self-portrait is the ‘dark past’ of the nation which encompasses painful internal divisions of the national community or its problematic relations with and unfair treatment of ethnic and national minorities. Such a dark past enters the realm of collective memory through acrimonious public debates in which members of the cultural elite play a leading role in presenting it as an integral part of the national self-portrait.” Michlic, p. 1

a special burden
A Special Burden

The vehemence of Poland’s backlash to Gross is, from this perspective, related to the power of the progressive cultural elite in Poland that has pushed so hard for the integration of the dark past into Polish historiography. Poland, it is sometimes noted, carries a special burden in relationship to the past as the country in which the Nazi death camps were located; as the country with the largest lost Jewish population; as the country with a deep and abiding anti-Semitism – thankfully, it is also a country with a special gift having been shaped positively and progressively by the legacies of Solidarity, as Kenney noted. Including the presence of an active cultural elite promoting ever deeper and more truthful engagement with the country’s past. But Poland is not alone in the region in facing a ‘special burden.’ Everywhere, where communities, towns, villages and shtetls have been lost there should be a recognition on the part of those remaining that, in fact, the loss of these worlds is both a horrific particular loss for those who perished and for those expelled, for Jews, Roma and Germans, and a collective loss for the nations and societies in which they lived. Both losses deserve commemoration and, where necessary atonement, even if this seems to place an unfair burden on east Europeans. West Europeans face far less obvious lost worlds and communities and can therefore perhaps more readily move on but with the landscape, the memories and the history they have inherited, east Europeans face a more difficult challenge in the post-communist re-construction of history.