Cosmopolitan Memory, European Memory and Local Memories in East Central Europe

By Barbara Törnquist-Plewa

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A recent direction in the social sciences and humanities is transnational studies. Transnationalism, it is argued, allows one to grasp the multi-scalarity of socio-cultural processes and the mutual construction of the local, national and global in the contemporary world (De Cesari and Rigney). Inspired by this approach this article presents and discusses the main findings of a recently finished research project: ‘Remembering Ethnic Cleansing and Lost Cultural Diversity in Central and Eastern European Cities’.[1] My aim is to show how the ideas of cosmopolitan memory as well as the European Union’s politics of memory influence the formation of collective memory in local communities in East Central Europe. Moreover, I discuss the extent to which the transnational politics of memory contributes to the transformation of the local communities, their identities and attitudes to others.

The idea for the project originated in our research group’s interest in the contemporary after-effects of ethnic cleansings (genocides and large-scale expulsions) in Europe in the twentieth century. About ninety million people from around thirty different ethnic groups became victims of these events that took place in connection to wars and military conflicts. As a result the ethnic composition of cities, regions and whole countries changed fundamentally. The cultural diversity of many regions and cities vanished. We sought to investigate how the contemporary populations of the former homelands of the ethnically cleansed groups deal with the memory of the lost ‘others’ and the cultural heritage they left behind. This aspect has remained largely un-investigated because research, until recently, centred mainly on the history of ethnic cleansing and on the memories of the victims.[2] Since Eastern and Central Europe were the areas where the most of the twentieth-century ethnic cleansings took place, we decided to focus on a number of cities and towns in post-communist Europe. The project was case-focused. The cases selected came from main sub-regions of Europe: Centre, East and South, thereby demonstrating the scale of the problem and highlighting the importance of this study for the contemporary societies in these parts of Europe. Each researcher investigated one or a couple of cities as ‘sites of memory’. The places were: L’viv and Chernivtsi in Ukraine, Wrocław (Breslau) in Poland, Zadar in Croatia, Višegrad in Bosnia, as well as a few Czech towns—Pohořelice outside Brno, Postoloprty, Teplice nad Metují and Ústí nad Labem.[3] The cases were selected on the basis of some common features. All of the cities and towns examined had a radically changed population as a consequence of ethnic cleansings. They lost almost all of their former inhabitants, or at least a majority. The ethnic diversity that previously characterized these places largely disappeared. L’viv lost the Polish and Jewish populations that constituted the majority of its inhabitants and became a Ukrainian city with just small numbers of minorities. Chernivtsi, a truly multi-ethnic city before the wars, lost its Jewish, German, Romanian and Polish populations, which were replaced mainly by Ukrainians and Russians. The Germans that hugely dominated in Breslau (Wrocław) until the Second World War were forced to leave in the wake of the changed borders between Germany and Poland. This also happened with Italians who left Zadar when it became part of the postwar Communist Yugoslavia. The Czech towns were emptied by the German populations expelled in an act of collective punishment for their support of Hitler’s annexation of the prewar Czechoslovakia. Last, but not least, Višegrad’s Bosniak population was partially expelled and partially murdered during the Balkan war in the 1990s. Consequently, due to radical population changes in all the places we studied, the link between urban landscape and memory of the inhabitants had been broken.

Another common feature of the urban communities under scrutiny is their experiences of at least two authoritarian regimes: Nazism/fascism and communism (For history and discussion of this experience see Snyder). Under their rule, these places became arenas of violence and ethnic conflicts that left memory wounds. Furthermore, the traumatic events in these places have been, for quite a long time, subject to the official policy of oblivion conducted by ruling regimes and supported to a large extent by ordinary people unwilling to deal with the memory of ‘others’ due to national resentment, lingering prejudices and fear of digging up an uncomfortable past. Thus, these places today face the challenge of coping with their difficult pasts and overcoming deeply rooted resentments. Finally, all the places have undergone significant social transformation after the fall of Communism and have been more or less involved in the processes of European integration.

At the same time, there are of course also substantial differences between the cases. The cities differ in history, size and geographic location, in the scale of demographic changes, and in the extent of the material destruction they suffered in the twentieth century. It is precisely this complexity that makes comparison between them meaningful, provoking inquiry about the factors that influence the collective memory formation in the context of the traumatic past and dramatic population changes. The seemingly odd case of Višegrad (its Bosniak population being expelled quite recently in the Balkan wars of 1990s) has, for example, been chosen to highlight how much time and generational change matters for the shape of collective memory after ethnic cleansings.

While analysing these various cities and towns, we addressed the same set of questions: How do the present-day populations in these cities deal with memory of the vanished ethnic groups and the material legacy left by them? How are the ethnic groups remembered, acknowledged or blamed? Who are memory agents in the studied localities, what motivates them and how do they shape and use memories of the lost ‘others’? What kinds of changes in memory narratives and representations of the past can be observed since the fall of the communist regimes in the region and the end of the Cold War? What are the forces that influence the transformation of collective memory in the places studied? Can we see any efforts to overcome national memory narratives that focus on their own victimhood in favour of more cosmopolitan approaches to the memory of the others?

To answer these questions a variety of sources was used. These included in-depth interviews with a range of relevant local memory actors, analysis of media texts both in print and on-line, official documents, guide books, leaflets and local history writings, as well as examination of different visual representations of the past, such as commemoration ceremonies, buildings, inscriptions, monuments and memorials. We also applied a variety of methods, such as participant observation and other ethnographic methods, and various strands of textual analysis, such as content and narrative analysis, discourse and rhetoric analysis and, last but not least, elements of visual analysis. We draw from approaches of disciplines including cultural studies, ethnology, history, urban studies and political studies. Thus, the project was a result of a truly multi- and interdisciplinary effort.


Dealing with the Multi-ethnic Past: The Present State of Memory Work in the Cities

Our investigation began with the hypothesis that at least some transformation has taken place in local remembrance after the fall of communism since it constituted a radical political turn in the societies studied. Thus we compared local memories in the present with the situation during the Communist era when the memory of the ethnic cleansings and the cultural heritage left by the vanished ‘others’ were suppressed. The people that took the place of the vanished populations did not mind expunging the spatial traces of the previous inhabitants. The sites that were reminders of those inhabitants were often transformed and appropriated, or neglected and sometimes even demolished. For example, monuments and cemeteries were cleared away or left to decay, inscriptions in foreign languages were erased, names of places and streets changed, symbols of the new ruling nation added and emphasised. The new ethnic homogeneity shaped the urban landscape, especially in cities like Wrocław and Zadar that were extensively destroyed during the war and had to be rebuilt from the ruins. What was ruined could easily be treated as worthless rubble, cleared away and forgotten. In Chernivtsi, L’viv and the studied Czech towns where the war damage to the material fabric of the places was limited, the acts of demolition were not common (they hit mostly Jewish sites in L’viv, situated on the areas of the former Jewish ghetto). Here, instead, the sites of the ‘others’ were met with neglect or in most cases appropriated and vernacularised. These processes have been charted by some previous research (Thum; Bartov; Hirsch and Spitzer). While we can confirm their findings, we can also endorse our hypothesis about changes taking place since the 1990s. We were able to collect evidence showing that the interest in preserving and restoring the sites, thereby witnessing the towns’ and cities’ multicultural pasts, has been steadily growing since the1990s. Thus we can speak about the gradual restoration of the legacy of the vanished groups in the urban landscapes. An excellent example of this is the so-called White Stork Synagogue in Wrocław that has been lavishly renovated after decades of total neglect (For a history of this neglect see Meng).

A general picture that emerged from our investigations is that memory of the presence of the lost ‘others’ in the cities’ lives is no longer suppressed. Their past contribution to urban development is generally acknowledged, although the extent of changes in this respect varies between the places examined. While in the Polish city of Wrocław the pace of change is advanced, it is slower in Czech and Ukrainian cities[4] (with L’viv lagging behind Chernivtsi in this respect) and in Višegrad it is still at an embryonic state. Nevertheless, the changes as such are undeniable and the question to be answered here is how can they be explained and what can be said about their nature?

Liberalisation, Pluralisation and Generational change

Since the changes started to a large extent with the fall of Communist system, one cannot overestimate the significance of this event. The public space, controlled by the state during the Communist era, became liberalised, which also led to the liberalisation of discourses about the past. This also opened space for the questioning of the previous official politics of oblivion. The field of collective memory became inhabited by a range of memory actors with their own agendas about what should be remembered, how and why. The cases studied show that the representatives of the elites play the most visible role in the activities that aim to change the collective memory of their local societies. The memory actors identified in our project most often are active in scholarly, media, aesthetic, educational and political arenas. They include politicians, officials at local cultural or administrative institutions, journalists, writers, artists, dedicated public intellectuals, teachers and activists of non-governmental organisations. Our interviews with them showed that their actions are most frequently the result of a web of motives: ideological visions, existential longings and moral convictions, as well as political and often also financial interests. The balance between these driving forces is difficult to establish in each individual case. Nor is it easy to judge how representative these memory actors are of their communities at large. Their own perception, expressed in the interviews and in few cases confirmed by sociological surveys (see Czajkowski and Pabjan, ‘Perception of the Architectural Heritage Elements of Wrocław’; Czajkowski and Pabjan, ‘Pamięć Zbiorowa Mieszkańców Wrocławia a Stosunek do Niemieckiego Dziedzictwa Miasta’) is that they act in an environment of widespread indifference on the part of the wider public. From time to time, they can mobilise larger support, especially in connection to particular events such as anniversaries, unveiling of monuments or changes of topographic names. Moreover, an interesting and important observation was that it is not the pure quantity of supporters that matters but their authority, resources and/or capacity to influence others. Sometimes a single individual may have a significant impact on the politics of memory in a city, providing that this person has access to power (for example the mayor in the Czech city of Usti nad Labem (see Sniegon)), or can mobilise support through access to the media or close contacts with grassroots organisations (for example Beata Maciejewska, an active journalist at the news-paper Gazeta Wyborcza in Wrocław (see Pietraszewski and Törnquist-Plewa)). Thus, it turns out that initiatives by a single but persistent individual can make a difference.

The cases studied show that the collective memory constructed in the cities is a perpetual process of negotiation among the actors and between the actors and the wider public. This process involves conflict, contest and controversy, as well as attempts to achieve consensus. The most noticeable sphere of conflict in the local politics of memory is between those who give primacy to a national perspective and those who focus on local interests and are in most (but not all) cases open to transnational influences. The first are not prone to see the material substrate left in the cities by the previous inhabitants in terms of a legacy that obliges them to remember. They view this kind of memory politics as undermining the national narrative of their rightful place in the city. Thus they try to oppose the celebration of the historic ethnic diversity of the cities, undertaken by the actors who see it as beneficial for the city. The extent of opposition varies between the cases studied. In Wrocław and Chernivtsi the opposition is pronounced but largely marginalized due to the quite consequent politics of the local elites who are determined to create the images of their cities as multicultural and tolerant places. In L’viv and even moreso in Višegrad the resistance is clearly visible. It is manifested for instance in the erection of controversial monuments such as the monument to Stefan Bandera[5] or the demonstrations held at the monument to the fallen Serb soldiers in the Fatherland War 1992-1995.[6] In the Czech towns and Zadar the competing visions of the past exist without greater conflict because both sides avoid confrontations.

An important phenomenon noted by our research team was that those who most frequently oppose the changes in local remembrance largely belong to the older generation, while people born after the expulsions generally do not feel uneasy about the traces of the vanished populations. Very few of them associate these sites with violence or complicity and indifference on the part of their national community. Thus, the descendants of those who took over the places of the vanished ‘others’ may be fascinated by the former Jewish, German, Polish (etc.) sites out of pure curiosity about an exotic past, of longings for an imagined colourful world of different cultures so unlike their much more ethnically homogenous present. Usually they do not ponder over the lost world and why it disappeared. They express instead a largely unreflective nostalgia, for example, by organising festivals celebrating the lost past (the case of Chernivtsi), by opening thematic restaurants[7] and restoring decaying historical sites. These activities also allow them to emphasise their uniqueness: to make their cities stand out among the post-communist cities that are otherwise full of similar looking, decaying, grey apartment blocks built during the Communist era. By remembering and celebrating the pre-war vanished world, they also can reconnect to Europe and the outside world that for decades, beyond the ‘Iron Curtain’, was mostly out of their reach. Therefore, in discussing the changes in local memory politics one should not forget the significance of generational change. The postwar generation that came to power after the fall of Communism could use the newly conquered freedom and citizen rights to influence the memory landscape.

However, the generational change in combination with processes of liberalisation and pluralisation are not the sole factors behind the transformation of local memories. Our investigation revealed that the politics of memory in the localities we studied has been influenced by the processes of globalisation and Europeanisation, the latter meaning in this context the impact of the EU and European integration on European societies.


The Rise of Mass Tourism and Global Competition for Resources

The last few decades have witnessed a huge increase in mobility of capital and people across national borders in the world. Until the beginning of 1990s Eastern Europe was to a large extent isolated behind the ‘Iron Curtain’, but the opening of the borders resulting from the fall of Communist regimes exposed the region to globalisation processes including expansion of tourism. Eastern Europe has attracted so-called Heimattourism especiallypeople coming to look for the homes and other traces of their ancestors’ lives (see Veijola). The descendants of the murdered and expelled populations as well as of other migrants are interested in visiting the places of their family origins. The beginning of this development can be traced back to the 1980s, when the upsurge in the memory of the Holocaust worldwide led to, among other things, a transnational interest in Jewish sites in Eastern Europe. This increased after the fall of Communism. Moreover, in the 1990s, visitors came not only in search of the Jewish past but also for the German, Armenian, Italian, Polish, Romanian and other pasts. Tourists from abroad pouring into the cities stimulated and strengthened the inhabitants’ interest in rediscovering the past and their will to preserve many sites that were previously neglected. In this way, transnational memory enabled local memory, which in turn supported transnational memory by providing restored memory places. Gradually the renovated historical sites of the lost ‘others’ began to attract not only foreign tourists but also nostalgic tourism by nationals and locals wishing to encounter the forever lost pre-war, pre-Communist past. The growing number of visitors made the inhabitants aware of the fact that the historical legacy left in these cities by the vanished population was an asset that could be used. The primary use for the wider population was a commercial one. The legacy of the vanished ethnic groups became a commodity to sell to the tourist industry.

Cultural heritage has potential to attract tourists as well as new settlers, and has an impact on the city image which has emerged as a principal stake in global competition. This phenomenon is often defined as ‘city branding’. City branding refers to the way the city presents itself to the world and the way the world (and specific audiences in particular) forms its view of the city, which is important to attract assets in form of investments, human capital and commodities (Florian). Our research has demonstrated that the multicultural past and cultural heritage of both lost and existent ethnic minorities have started to be used by the local authorities in a number of post-communist, East-Central European cities as a strategic resource for branding cities. Struggling with poor municipal finances, the local elites are often receptive to the signals of potential sponsors. They welcome foreign foundations willing to contribute to the restoration of historic sites. In the cities studied, American-Jewish as well German foundations were active in supporting the restoration of the physical heritage left behind by the vanished Jewish and German populations, and Polish foundations engaged in the renovation of former Polish sites. In some cases however, this was met by opposition on the part of the nationalistic-minded memory actors, who view such restoration as a sacrifice of national interest and a submission to more powerful neighbours. An example of this process is the protracted Polish–Ukrainian controversy over the preservation of the Polish military cemetery (‘the Eaglet Cemetery’) in L’viv and the inscription on the commemorative monument. It could only be solved when the presidents of the two states intervened (Narvselius; Zhurzhenko).

City branding means competition for investments, attention, status and recognition in the national, European and global arenas. Consequently, our research also revealed that local elites have been alive to the politics of memory pursued by the organisations and institutions that can give access to this kind of resources and recognition—UNESCO (on behalf of UN), the Council of Europe and the European Union are the most powerful ones. Thus, to understand the changes in local memory we need to put it in the context of key developments in global, and especially, European, politics of memory.


The Impact of Cosmopolitan Thinking and the EU’s Politics of Memory

Over a decade ago, Natan Levy and Daniel Sznaider pointed out the universalisation of Holocaust memory (Levy and Sznaider). In their view, this memory could function as precursory to the rise of a cosmopolitan, global memory. Along with scholars such as Judith Butler and Appiah Kwame (Butler; Kwame), Levy and Sznaider claim that cosmopolitan memory can promote worldwide respect for human rights and thus become a foundation for global ethics. According to these theorists, cosmopolitan memory can have a transformative effect: to play down national identities (seen as being a potential source of conflicts) and to favour cosmopolitan, self-critical attitudes and post-national identification with larger entities such as Europe or the world. Cosmopolitan memory refers to sharing memories, especially memories of suffering of human beings, without focusing on the victimhood of one’s own group. Cosmopolitan thinking means to be able to shift focus from one’s own ethnic or national community and instead consider primarily the need to show respect for all human lives and possibly to feel compassion with all human suffering.

This intellectual discourse spilled over into political discourse. The research done by a number of scholars on the politics of memory in Europe has shown that many international organisations and institutions that work with human rights such as the UN, the Council of Europe and the EU have been, during the last two decades, oriented towards using remembrance as a tool in human rights education and prevention of ethnic conflicts and genocide (see, for example: Eder; Karaca; Waehrens; Macdonald; Sierp). The activities, promoted and often funded by these organisations, are directed to fight nationalism, racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism (see Waehrens; Sierp). There has been special focus on promoting reconciliation and looking for models of tolerance and peaceful multicultural co-existence. Moreover, as a part of ‘intensive reconciliationism’ (Mink and Neumayer), ‘the politics of regret’ has been encouraged, supporting a variety of practices (such as apology, reparation etc) which contemporary societies are expected to use in order to confront ‘toxic legacies of the past’ (Olick).

In many respects, the EU has been a leading force in the development of the politics of regret and the idea of transnational sharing of memories. One can presume here the influence of German thinkers and politicians with their profound experience of coming to terms with difficult past (Vergangenheitsbevältigung) after the Second World War. It is no coincidence that one of the most important promoters of the idea of cosmopolitanism and post-nationalism is the famous German philosopher and sociologist Jürgen Habermas (For example, see Habermas).

As pointed out by researchers such as Calligaro, Waehrens, and Sierp, the EU’s politics of memory is expressed in the Union’s cultural, educational and research programs (Calligaro; Waehrens; Sierp). Examples of these include the ‘Europe for Citizens Programme’ (2007-2013), especially Action Four of the Program, which is dedicated to ‘Active European Remembrance’, as well as activities by the Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research (ITF). A look at these activities gives a clear idea about the direction of the EU’s politics of memory. The past should be interpreted through the prism of values declared as ‘European’ in the EU’s founding documents, for example, the Lisbon Treaty. These are freedom, democracy, rule of law, respect for human rights, minority rights and cultural pluralism (the last expressed in the European motto: ‘Unity in Diversity’). Cultural diversity and mutual recognition are seen as important values and consequently the memory of cultural encounters and entanglement of histories is promoted. The EU boosts transnational commemoration, transnational debates about the past as well as reconciliatory acts and intercultural dialogue. Furthermore, it is important to emphasize that the EU’s initiatives in the politics of memory largely target subnational levels of society, bypassing the national level of governance and instead encouraging local or regional societal actors to deal with the past and communicate across national borders.

Consequently, competing for resources and recognition, the local elites in the cities that we examined have been encouraged to emphasise the multicultural legacy in their localities, to show that they care about it and to display how they work towards reconciliation. The cases we studied demonstrate how the local elites conform to the European politics of memory. For example, the Ukrainian city of Chernivtsi is branded as the embodiment of the famous pre-war ‘Bukovinian tolerance’ (Bernsand), the Polish city Wrocław as ‘the city of encounters’(Pietraszewski, Igor and Barbara Törnquist-Plewa), the mayor of the Czech Usti nad Labem has raised monuments to all victims of violence in the city during the Second World War, including Germans collectively punished by expulsion after the war. When the Polish organisations took initiatives to erect a monument to the murdered Polish professors in Ukrainian L’viv and the Austrian-German organisations wanted to honour the German victims of ethnic cleansing with a memorial plaque in Czech Pohořelice, the local elites complied, though they knew that these actions could awaken controversy in the local community and spark nationalistic reaction (see Narvselius; Sniegon). However, they understood that to resist was to go against European norms and risk their image as ‘European’ modern leaders. These examples demonstrate how the EU has acted here as a normative power in the sphere of the politics of memory. The EU is an international memory actor that can empower national actors such as activists in non-governmental organisations from one country to influence memory actors on a subnational level in another country, thus opening an arena for a transnational sharing and negotiation of memories.

As a result of our study, a general conclusion is that the local memories in the examined cities are a result of the mutual construction of the local, national, European and global. The impact of the nation state on forming of the local politics of memory has diminished. The centralising rule ended with the fall of Communism, and local memory actors have much more room for manoeuvre. The signals received from the state level can broaden or tighten this scope, but it is the political constellation in a city’s local government that now plays a much more important role. The local leadership seeks legitimacy on the local level (in order to be re-elected) and on the national, international and transnational level (in order to compete for resources). In the age of global economy and European integration, the international and transnational levels become as essential as the national one, and sometimes even have the upper hand. This is evident in the cities examined. The politics of memory in these cities are very much influenced by transnational flows: tourism and other commercial interests, but also international and transnational stakeholders that cooperate with civil society organisations and other groups of influence within the localities. The local elites try to adjust to global and European trends. In conformity with what is internationally recognised as valuable and attractive, they use memories of cultural and ethnic diversity in the branding of their cities. Since Europe (meaning European institutions and the leading elites of EU member states) celebrates democracy, cultural diversity, pluralism and tolerance, the local elites have tried to display these European values in their commemorations of the lost diversity and the restoration of its remnants. In some cases, especially Chernivitsi, they mythologise the past as a harmonious period of ethnic tolerance and use it as an optimistic scenario for the future. However, it is important to ask how much this is about a ritualistic, political and commercial performance, and how much it is evidence of the internalisation of the values celebrated through the commemoration of past diversity. To what extent do the new local politics of memory in these places contribute to the deeper transformation of the local communities? Do they promote cosmopolitan thinking including new forms of identification, tolerance, better understanding of human rights and reconciliation between former antagonists?


Memory and Ambivalence

Our project revealed a profound tension in the collective memory of the societies studied. The tension is between the acknowledgement of the previous populations’ contribution to the development of the cities on the one hand, and on the other, a lack of mourning and compassion for their plight and a denial of any responsibility for what has happened to them. While the cities celebrate the vanished multiethnic world by restoring its material traces, the memory of the sufferings of the victims of ethnic cleansings is handled by strategies of avoidance, dissociation and marginalisation.

Thus, the striking feature of dealing with the memory of the lost ‘others’ in today’s Zadar, Wrocław, L’viv and Chernivtsi is how it is decontextualized, that is, decoupled and dissociated from the historical events (including national and ethnic conflicts) of which it has been an integral part. The acknowledgment of the legacy left by the previous inhabitants is largely not followed by discussion about the circumstances in which they vanished from the cities. There is a general unwillingness to speak about the events in terms of ethnic cleansing or expulsions. The vanished population is largely not seen as victims, with the exception of Jews, whose victimhood, though not denied, is not emphasised. The disappearance of ‘others’ is almost never narrated in terms of tragedy or traumatic experience.[8] Except for some artistic creations and intellectual ideas, there is a lack of a deeper reflection on the nature of these dramatic events and on what can be done with the knowledge derived from them. Dissociation is a common strategy applied here. The morally problematic decisions are described as taken and carried out by ‘others’ (Western allies, Soviet Union, Germans or Romanian Nazis etc.). The suffering of the victims, if confronted at all, is often marginalised and presented either as a deserved collective punishment (in the case of Germans and Romanians) or understood as a kind of historical justice done to the former economic or political oppressors (Poles, Jews, Romanians, Italians, Bosnian Muslims).

The attitudes towards the lost ‘others’, who dominated in the cities in the past, are marked by ambivalence in all cases studied, except the case of Višegrad, where the attitudes tend to outright hostility (Nikolić). Behind the ambivalence there are historically and culturally solidified stereotypes of the vanished nationalities as ‘eternal’ enemies and oppressors who should be looked upon with distrust. While considering these attitudes and keeping in mind that we are studying post-conflict societies (after war and ethnic cleansings), we have to question the status of the reconciliation processes in the cases examined.

Reconciliation is a very complex phenomenon. In this context, I define it as a long-term process of building peaceful relations between former enemies that goes beyond conflict resolution. It transforms the nature of a relationship between the parties, by changing attitudes and creating trust and empathy.

The cases examined by our project suggest that reconciliation processes in the societies analysed by us are not yet very advanced. In the Višegrad case, it is difficult to speak about reconciliation at all, since the process has not moved beyond conflict resolution. There is still a profound enmity between the parties. It is not an exaggeration to say that the memory of ethnic cleansing in Višegrad is still an open wound. The time that has passed since the Dayton Peace Agreement in 1995 is too short to allow any distance from what happened. Memories of violence are still a part of communicative memory in the families and societies that experienced them. The memory actors who influence commemorative practices in Višegrad have first-hand experience of these violent events, and many are traumatised by memories of the past. The generational turnover among the memory actors has not taken place yet. In this respect, the case of Višegrad is very different from our other cases. It demonstrates the importance of temporal distance as a factor that has to be taken into account in all memory work.

In Wrocław, L’viv, Chernivtsi, Zadar and the Czech towns, examined by us, the reconciliation processes have advanced further, judging from the attitudes expressed by our informants. The hostility towards the ‘others’, formerly defined as national oppressors (Germans, Poles, Jews, Romanians, Italians), was not pronounced in the interviews and their material legacy in the cities has been largely acknowledged. Taking into account the intensity of the current cooperation between the nations, the level of trust is increasing, although it still leaves a lot to be desired, especially in relations between Poles and Ukrainians. In the Polish-German relations that are often presented as an example of successful reconciliation (see, for example, Feldman), the distrustful attitudes are from time to time clearly expressed. While the process of building trust is ongoing, the most striking element is a lack of the recognition of the sufferings of the lost ‘others’ and a lack of empathy, not to mention mourning,[9] for the population that had been forced to leave their homes in the cities. The victims of ethnic cleansings are not primarily seen as human beings exposed to violence and hence deserving empathy, but as representatives of the more or less guilty nations that deserved their fate in one way or another. Thus what is still required to accomplish the process of reconciliation is to stimulate in these societies a deeper reflection about the nature of what happened, a reflection that goes beyond simple national divisions and involves a critical reformulation of one’s own national identity to one that is more inclusive and not centered upon the idea of its own victimhood.

Generally, there are not many signs of cosmopolitan thinking in the cases examined. They do exist, however. Among the most visible are a few public commemorative sites created by artists in some of the cities under study. In Marianne Hirsch’s words these sites can be seen as ‘small acts of repair’[10] that can contribute to healing the wounded memory. In L’viv, one example is the reconciliatory monument dedicated to the Polish professors, murdered by the German Nazis with the support of their Ukrainian collaborators, which uses the Decalogue to express cosmopolitan ethics (see Narvselius, ‘Polishness’). In Wrocław, the best examples of expression of cosmopolitan memory and ideas of reconciliation are the artistic installations ‘The Bundle’ and ‘Memorial of Common Memory’ in the Grabiszyński Park (Pietraszewski and Törnquist-Plewa). The first one is a sculpture, made by Maciej Szankowski, that depicts a bundle of belongings (like the one carried by medieval wanderers and destitute migrants) and some abandoned keys that are placed in the water. The classic quote panta rhei inscribed above connotes to the river as a classic symbol of memory and forgetting since the inscription refers to the famous aphorism: ‘Everything changes and nothing remains still. You cannot step twice into the same stream.’ Thus the sculpture uses universal symbols as reminders about the fate of expelled people, with which the descendants both of Germans from Wrocław and of Poles expelled from the East and moved to Wrocław can identify. However, the sculpture speaks in universalistic terms about the suffering of the expellees. In no way does it indicate the national identity of the victims of expulsion. It can be seen as an attempt to create a transnational memory of this experience with which Wrocław is associated.

Another example also in Wrocław, ‘Memorial of Common Memory’, was designed by the artists Alojzy Gryt, Tomasz Tomaszewski and Czeslaw Wesołowski and financed by the city authorities. It is constructed of the fragments of grave stones from the German and Jewish cemeteries, destroyed after the disappearance of these populations from the city. The memorial bears an inscription in both German and Polish with the wording, ‘To the memory of the previous residents of our city, buried in cemeteries that no longer exist’. The monument does not commemorate any particular national group, but just mentions destroyed cemeteries according to religion (including Protestant, Catholic and Jewish). Thus it exceeds Polish national frames of remembrance and appeals to a transnational human practice of commemorating the dead by taking care of their graves.

The traces of this new kind of commemoration that could be referred to as cosmopolitan, in the sense discussed above, are also discernible in the Czech Republic. Here the best example of a deeper reflection and empathy is the monument in Teplice nad Metují called the ‘Cross of Reconciliation’ which commemorates the German civilians killed by Czechs during the expulsions (Sniegon). All of these artistic creations express attentiveness to the pain of others and point to the issues of present and future responsibility. Thus they may potentially suggest to the beholders the need to engage more actively and ethically in the past and present.[11]

Moreover, some evidence of empathy with the lost ‘others’ can be identified in the statements of the local elites from time to time. In L’viv, it can be found in essays and articles published in the independent magazine for cultural studies Ji, which gathers a number of Ukrainian intellectuals (see examples in Narvselius; Törnquist-Plewa, ed.). In Wrocław the cosmopolitan attitudes are sometimes expressed by engaged intellectuals and other opinion makers in the local media (see examples in Pietraszewski and Törnquist-Plewa) and the same can be noticed, on occasion in the local press in Zadar in Croatia (Sindbaek). However, an even more impressive piece of evidence of a cosmopolitan attitude is to be found in the case where it is the least expected, in a city where the process of reconciliation is embryonic—in Višegrad in Bosnia Herzegovina. The Serbian members of the civil organisation ‘Women in Black’ keep returning to the city to participate in the ceremonies commemorating the Bosniaks killed by Serbs in the war of 1990s. They are ostracised by their co-nationals, since they mourn and show empathy with the victims of the former enemy (see Nikolić). This is an interesting example of how individuals are able to transgress the current collective patterns of remembering in their communities and have the courage to challenge their co-nationals. These efforts may be just a drop in the ocean of forgetting and indifference, but in the longer term they may be the first step towards more profound changes in the social memory.


The results of our research point to the fact that since the 1990s considerable changes have occurred in local politics of memory within the cities examined by us, due to the influence of liberalisation, globalisation and Europeanisation. The most visible feature of these changes is that the memories of the vanished populations underwent the process of commodification and political instrumentalisation. These memories became objects of nostalgia and commodities for sale, but also tools used by sections of the national and the local political elites to display that they were complying with the values promoted by the EU. It is not possible to measure to what extent these changes represent pure performance and conformity and how much they reflect the real internalisation of these values. We can only draw general conclusions based on our observations and sources. Since we could not find many expressions of post-national identification and critical evaluation of the communities’ past regarding the lost ‘others’ we cannot speak of the rise of cosmopolitan memory in Central and Eastern Europe. However, we have found signs indicating that the restored memories of the multicultural past have the potential to become a resource for the transformation of existing national identities. The consideration given to the material legacy left by the former inhabitants has already, in some cases, provoked discussions about the relations between today’s core nations in the cities (for example Poles in Wrocław and Ukrainians in L’viv) and the nations that have vanished from them (Germans and Poles). It has led to questions, such as what it means today to be Pole or Ukrainian or Czech, or what kind of obligations we have to those who do not belong to ‘our nation’. Should we care about the legacy of the others and who are the others? Should we not protect and value cultural heritage of all ethnic groups who live or have lived in our cities since it is our common European legacy? These emerging discussions, as well as ‘small acts of repair’ undertaken by individuals and groups in the cities, should be seen as important steps in problematising belonging and developing cosmopolitan thinking, even if the majority of inhabitants is largely indifferent and still holds ethnic views of national identity.

In the local societies examined, we could not see signs of any radical transformations of the existing national identities. Nevertheless, in our view the rediscovery of the legacy of the multi-ethnic past that takes place there constitutes an important means that can be used to transform social imagination. For that to occur, however, memory should be historically contextualized and not decoupled from the history of the ethnic cleansings and war. These two stories have to be told together and reflected upon. More intellectual, educational and political work is needed to achieve such a transformation.


[sta_anchor id=”bio”]Barbara Törnquist-Plewa is professor of Eastern and Central European Studies, head of the Centre for European Studies at Lund University in Sweden and currently the leader of the international research network ‘In Search for Transcultural Memory in Europe’ (financed by EU’s COST-programme). In her research she focuses on nationalism, identity and collective memory in Eastern and Central Europe. She is the editor and author and of many books and articles in English, Swedish and Polish, all dealing with the modern history and culture of Eastern and Central Europe. The latest, co-authored with Niklas Bernsand and Eleonora Narvselius, is Beyond Transition?: Memory and Identity Narratives in Eastern and Central Europe (Lund, 2015).





[1] The project was conducted at Lund University in Sweden in the years 2012-2014 and resulted in the forthcoming volume Törnquist-Plewa, ed.

[2] Among the first historians writing about these questions were Schechtman (Schechtman, European; Schechtman, Postwar) and Kulischer (Kulischer). Later on, after a long silence during the Cold war, a new wave of books on the matter appeared. See for example: Barkan; Ther and Siljak, eds.; Ahonen; Chinnov; Clarc.

[3] Each case is analysed in a separate chapter in Törnquist-Plewa, ed.

[4] This confirms Uilleam Blacker’s suggestions about the differences between Polish and Ukrainian cities. See Blacker.

[5] Bandera was a leading figure in the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists accused of atrocities against Jews and Poles during the Second World War. For more about this monument see Törnquist-Plewa and Narvselius.

[6] See for example the demonstration in support of the war criminal Radko Mladić in 2011, described in Nikolić.

[7] For example Jewish and Polish restaurants in L’viv, owned and run by the Ukrainians. See Narvselius, Spicing.

[8] For a discussion of trauma in the societies after ethnic cleansing with the focus on Polish-Jewish or Polish-Ukrainian relations see: Törnquist-Plewa; Törnquist-Plewa and Narvselius.

[9] For an interesting analysis of mourning, especially in a post-communist context, see Etkind.

[10] The concept ‘Small Acts of Repair’ has been used by Marianne Hirsch in several lectures, among others in the lecture ‘Mobile Memories’ at Central European University in Budapest, 30 September 2014, attended by the author of this text.

[11] For an interesting and innovative discussion about the potential power of art and literature to bring about an engagement with ethical challenges of past and present, see Eshel.




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