Summary of the Conference

Panel I: Factors driving nation building processes after 1918 and their implications

Political scientists consider the Great War to be a decisive moment in modern history as new states had to redefine their concepts of a nation, as well as reconsider the elements the new nations consisted of. Magdalena M. Baran opended the first panel of the conference by addressing the issue of nation-building after the Great War. Overall, the first panel covered the topic of nation-building processes both from the general and particular perspectives. The main focus was on the role of nationalism as a constitutive element of the new states of central Europe. Together with the shifting perception on law, politics and society, one of the major changes was the role of the individual person as considered from the anthropological point of view.

Ivo Budil brought up the topic of contributions of modern anthropology to the contemporary understanding of history. Dorota Pietrzyk-Reeves focused on the differences among, and a potential synthesis of, civic and ethnic nationalism in the context of Central Europe after 1918. Tomáš Zálešák ventured a new perspective on Czech and Slovak nationalism by drawing parallels between the revolutions of 1918 and 1989. Miklós Zeidler tackled the issue of Hungarian revisionism in the interwar period and its implications for the nation-building process.

In the first contribution, Dorota Pietrzyk-Reeves talked about the challenges of building statehood after the First World War. She started off by differentiating between the two basic types of nationalism - the civic versus the ethnic type. Civic nationalism after 1918 tended to appear more in the democratic states whereas during the process of state-seeking, ethnic nationalism also emerged. Nations that lost their statehood during the Great War such as the Czechs or Poles became vulnerable and faced the challenge of redefining their identity even though both types of nationalism in certain forms appeared in both countries. Pietrzyk-Reeves was then asked about the civic-ethnic nationalism dichotomy. She pointed out that in history, a quick transformation of civic nationalism to the ethnic kind may at times be observed in order to mobilize the nation. However, the distinction between these two may be misleading as the culture component tends to be the most important factor and cannot be overlooked. A question from the audience then followed, asking whether we could replace the word “nationalism” with the word “populism.” Such potential replacement, in Pietrzyk-Reeves' view, depends on how we define populism, with this label not having a very broad academic support. If nationalism was the driving force of the interwar period then culturally we had a lot to do also with the civic approach. However, the goal at the time was how to unite a nation that was difficult to be united. Above the education and traditions as the means of uniting the nation there is also political culture. Populism may be understood as the whole complex of these factors portrayed in a simple manner, and may therefore be traced there.

In his presentation, Ivo Budil talked about how modern anthropology helps us understand history. Budil reviewed the work of Hannah Arendt - the boomerang effect and its implications for the Nazi ideology during the War. Throughout history, we may observe an effect called “mimetic rivalry” when competitors imitate each other. Ivo Budil then addressed Western collective imagination that was captured by the Euroasian revolution. The disappointment following the 1848 revolutions enabled the penetration of biological metaphors into the Western political ideology and the racial dichotomy brought a seed of a conflict. According to the Social Darwinists, racial revitalization could be freed from prejudices and could be achieved outside the lengthy historical process as was the case with the Anglo-Saxons when winning their dominance over Great Britain in the 5th century. Adolf Hitler then tried to achieve something similar; the Aryan ideology was planned to have been the ultimate triumph in the mimetic rivalry. A question from the audience regarded a comparison of what colonialists did in South Africa and what Nazi Germans did to the Czechs. The American approach of Hannah Arendt is anti-colonial and even though the colonial experience is much more complex and only a part of the interaction of civilizations her work can serve as a springboard for other research.

Miklós Zeidler’s presentation regarded the heritage of historic Hungary. He described the fall of the Hungarian empire which coincided with a very ambitious and successful quarter century before the First World War. When the empire collapsed, a lot of people assumed it was a plot from the West. In the post-war years the main goal therefore was a revision of the Trianon Treaty, which eventually evolved into a political agenda. Many Hungarians felt that the post-Trianon Hungary's border regions and their population are still a part of the empire and “potential comebackers.” To conclude, the formation of the new nation states after the war was not satisfactory solution for everyone and such a dismemberment of the former Hungarian empire became deeply incised in the collective memory of the nation until the end of the Second World War and its yet another defeat. Zeidler was then asked whether the Trianon treaty was final solution for Hungary. He reiterated that it was concluded in 1920 and has no expiration date and no legal expiry as well.

The first panel was closed by Tomáš Zálešák’s contribution about the respective national traditions mainly in the Czech and Slovak contexts. He drew a parallel between the revolutions of 1918 and 1989 and suggested that the success of these revolutions was not measured by violence but by the stability of the regime. That is especially relevant if we consider the historical vulnerability of Central Europe which, arguably, includes Germany as well. To overcome such vulnerability, new long term goals must be set, which include education and the civil society. Fellow panelists then asked about his comparison of the two revolutions. Zálešák suggested they could have been predicted as the initial division between East and West appeared already in the Roman Empire. In 1989, when the regime fell, communism was considered to have been brought from abroad and therefore unnatural. The parallel between the two revolutions lies more in the conspiracy theories that surrounded them. In 1918 marked the end of an extremely violent, and wider, war whereas 1989 marked the end of a communist regime that was created domestically. The difference was in the suffering and awakening from the dream of panslavic utopianism. After 1989, the prospect of the rebirth of a panslavic community was seriously challenged.

Case studies I: How does the experience of the 1918-1948 period influence national ideologies?

Speakers in this panel offered a variety of case studies illustrating the influence of the national experience of the 1918-1948 period on national ideologies in the second half of the 20th century and in the contemporary perspective. For creating one’s own identity, finding an enemy is often important. Before World War II, this need was translated into strong levels of anti-Semitism, which are still present in contemporary Central European societies. In the case of Hungarians, another strong element contributed to their national identity and is still painfully present – the strong feeling of injustice that emerged subsequent to the peace treaty of Trianon.

In the first speech of the second day of the conference Michal Vašečka from the Institute of Public Affairs talked about the fusion of paranoia and systemic functionalities of hatred as related to the uses of anti-Semitism in Central Europe in the 20th century, opening the first block of case studies on the influence of the inter-war period on national ideologies. Talking about the use of anti-Semitism in Central European countries, Mr. Vašečka pointed out that in his view, it is merely a means of exclusion and disqualification of liberal elites from the political battle connected not only to the fostering of liberal pluralism and multicultural society, but also change. He also argued that even though it is not perceived as a pressing problem, the anti-Semitic myths are still used in today's Central Europe. They are visible for instance in the case of anti-Semitic rants against Fedor Gál and Martin Bútora, the second of whom, though not having any Jewish origins, became the object of various accusations, which is reminiscent of Sartre’s de-Judeized portrait of a Jew as of someone that is perceived as a Jew by others. Mr. Vašečka furthermore spoke about the popular trend present in the circles of conspiracy theorists of every theory, however unlikely, eventually being connected to the Jews.

The second speaker, Tamás Stark from the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, devoted his speech to the Hungarian national traumas and their consequences, describing the national self-pity as a destructive attitude characterized by the separation of nation lacking self from reality. He put his remarks in the context of the most important historical traumas of the 20th century: the Trianon’s treaty, its re-confirmation in 1945 and the occupation of 1956. In response to the question from the panel’s moderator, Nadège Ragaru from Science Po, on the transformation of the traumas of ordinary Hungarians into national traumas, he replied that what is likely behind it are decades of the need to suppress the traumas under the totalitarian communist regime, where it was not possible to address them publicly. Mr. Stark offered the example of the forced labourers that were afraid to speak about their fate and the fate of many others in the USSR labour camps as an illustration. These traumas leave Hungary feeling like the loser, but Mr. Stark suggested that hope may be found in keeping the past behind and trying to build a better future.

Joanna Byrska from the Pontifical University of John Paul II., offered the audience an introduction into Carl Schmitt’s Freund x Feind and Identity building theories. Using examples from his works, she argued that the facing off an enemy presents perhaps the best opportunity to build one’s own identity. She, however, went deeper into the subject, stating that not only can we gain through having an enemy, but we can also gain from our friend befriending our enemy and acting as a moderator in order to stabilize the situation. She also believes that even today, we can use the Freund x Fiend concept to understand the humanist dilemmas we face.

As the last speaker, Jan Adamec from V4 Review presented his contribution on the remembrance of the Great War and its reflection in Czech media coverage in 2014, which had been caught in a dilemma of whether to praise the creation of the independent Czechoslovak state, or to proclaim the senselessness of the war (in keeping with the perception now dominant in the Western countries). He reinterpreted Clark’s works stating that the Czech national feeling is extremely weak, which provides an opportunity to express nostalgia, or rather the critique of the War as such. He also ominously paraphrased Helmut Schmidt’s comment on Clark’s Sleepwalkers as “The world of today resembling the one before 1914.” Either way, he reached the conclusion that through the media coverage, a hundred years after the beginning of WWI, Czechs were led to remember that war is in its core senseless instead of learning about our ancestors fighting on the side of Austro-Hungarian Empire during the Great War. The moderator concluded by pointing out that the panel highlighted the observation that national identities are at work when national ideologies become key to understanding social processes.

Case studies II: Persons who became myths

In this panel, speakers elaborated on the role of particular historical personalities who have had a great influence on the perception of history and the nation-building processes in the Central European countries and who have, as a result, attained a significant symbolic dimension in the eyes of their respective nations—though the prevalent narratives have often become rather distorted and distanced from reality.

The first case study was presented by Michal Kšiňan who introduced two conceptions of the Slovak national hero Milan Rastislav Štefánik. As he was also a French soldier, Štefánik had multiple identities that were sometimes contradictory; he could not be Slovak and Czechoslovak at the same time, for example. According to the Slovak narrative of his life and death, Czech leaders Masaryk and Beneš did not support him and were responsible for his assassination. On the other hand, according to the Czech view, Štefánik did not have any disputes with the Czech leaders because he was a Czechoslovak as they were—and his death was an accident. To sum up, these two approaches give us an insight into how the Czechoslovak identity was created. When asked about religious factors in creating the personified myths, Kšiňan mentioned the strong comparison of Štefánik to some kind of a saint martyr. According to the Czechoslovak concept, he is a fighter, also highlighting the reference to religion. From the perspective of identities, the famous question about how he actually died does not matter so much anymore. National heroes tend to be used as a cultural defense against other nations and the Slovaks no longer need to prove that they are not Czechs.

The case study of Gábor Egry compared two politicians who led the political representation of the Hungarian minority after the Trianon treaty - János Esterházy in Czechoslovakia and Imre Mikó in Romania. Both politicians promoted the notion of the renewal of the Hungarian Empire. In their view, this would be the result of political pressure from minorities. Esterházy faced oppression from the Czechoslovak side, partly because of his protests against the deportation of Jews. He was later brought to the Soviet Union and eventually died in prison back home. His suffering turned him into a Hungarian national hero. On the other hand, Imre Mikó in Romania managed to reach a settlement with the government and obtained partial autonomy for his minority. By implementing such political compromise, the political left could keep its credentials. Egry was asked to explain the social efficiency of the process of mythification of personalities and their use in the national perspective after 1989. In his view, the processes of mythification is not complete socially efficient. The inter-war period sources reveal a disappointment with Hungary because it lacked strong individuals. Nowadays, there is an important difference between Esterházy and Horthy in terms of how they thought about their communities.

In the following presentation, Jiří Němec talked about a politician who was forgotten in the Czech collective memory - Kamil Krofta, a historian and a former minister of foreign affairs. In his work, Krofta highlighted the importance of the great historical personas like Jan Hus or Jan Žižka. But the newly formed Czechoslovakia was not a Czech state. Successfully building a multiethnic state under conditions characterized by the absence of a Czechoslovak nation was the biggest challenge yet to be solved. As a result, the pantheon of Czech “national heroes” was expanded by Slovaks like Jánošík or Štefánik. Interestingly, however, the German minority was not included in this process, as the nation-building process was limited to Czechs and Slovaks. The Germans had had plenty of unknown heroes who came to the Czech lands in the medieval era and cultivated the lands in the area, yet this contribution was conveniently left unrecognized by the majority. According to Krofta, Czechs and Slovaks were to have a special status in a country that was mostly theirs. Looking back to the 1920s, according to Němec, we hardly ever realize the extent to which people were nationalistic. They only thought in terms of nation; that's what was an essential thing. If someone tried to be “not Czech,” he would be most likely called a traitor.  From a historical perspective, the year 1918 was a high-water mark for Czechs and Slovaks, but other nations found themselves on the losing side of history. but at the same time, other nations were on the losing side. Krofta suggested a sovereign Czechoslovak state where Czechs and Slovaks would have a special status compared to Germans, Poles, or Hungarians – the national minorities – but where their rights would be guaranteed. This is because Czechs and Slovaks founded the nation and, moreover, it is the existence of their own state, Krofta argued, that would guarantee their national existence in the future.

The subject of the last case study, presented by Michel Henri Kowalewitz, was the changeability in the perception of national heroes during different historical periods. Especially in Poland, it can be demonstrated on the example of Pilsudski who, in different time periods, had different image in the Polish collective memory. And even if it is quite easy to identify the heroes, the bigger challenge comes when identifying enemies. The 18th century was not so “glorious” for the Poles as it was for many other Central European states as the country was still much divided. Until 1939, the general model for the state in Poland was much closer to the German, Pilsudski’s inclination to German idealism included. The panelists then addressed the role of church in the forming of heroes, where Poland serves as a good example. In the time of Sobieski, Poland was relatively undeveloped and it managed to become a Catholic power anyway even though it might have seemed unnatural at that time.

In his summary, the moderator Paul Gradvohl focused on two main problems related with the study of personal myths. It is the coherence and efficiency in creating such myths. Especially coherence is almost impossible to reach as is evident from the example of Kamil Krofta. Persons tend to be perceived as a singular block, which is then projected onto groups. The issue is that the group cannot be coherent to such an extent. The stories addressed in the case studies also clearly differ in their efficiency and the way we assess it. The victim versus non-victim perspective, researching how myths function, differences in time and spatial lapse or a Christian point of view - these are some of the factors that helped create the personal myths that were discussed in the panel.

Working group I: What is the role of history in contemporary political discourses?

Participants of the first working group aimed at demonstrating the importance of history in contemporary reality. They brought up evidence proving that history is present in educational materials, the media and political campaigns and thus largely shapes people’s identities and political opinions of today.

The moderator of this working group, Dominika Kasprowicz (Pedagogical University Krakow), opened the discussion with a notion that not remembering the past makes it very problematic to imagine the future. According to her, this has been proven on the individual level, yet there is little scholarly evidence whether – and how this works at the collective level, where today, it is the politicians who are the depositors of this collective history.

Peter Bugge (Aarhus University) then started the debate with a definition of the past. He further mentioned confirmation bias in the work of historians and drew a parallel with the work of politicians. When historians declare 1989 to be the victory of democracy, they become blind to the injustices of transition and in so doing they leave the floor to populists claiming there was no revolution in 1989.

Ana Raluca Bigu (University of Buchurest) then took the floor to talk about post-communist Romania, specifically about the way religion is taught in schools. She further mentioned how political parties use this to build national identity of Romanians through using black and white figures or non-realistic heroes in the textbooks. Ms. Bigu subsequently backed her claims by her own analysis of high school teaching books. She found that textbooks shape the way Romanians see themselves through national and religious identity in particular. The books also constantly relate to the history to prove that Orthodox church has the right to be the national church of Romania.

Ágnes Tamás (University of Szeged) presented her project on newspaper analysis of caricatures depicting the most important events in Hungarian history – the loss and gain of the territory and signing of the peace treaties. Most of them presented the unfairness of the treaties and portrayed symbols of lost territories. Some of them even showed eating or amputations of the territory or a doctor/patient situations such as pain and suffering.

Łukasz Jasina (Polish History Museum) then talked about how history used to be relatively unimportant in Polish political life and that Polish political parties PiS and PO made it important again by using a nationalistic version of it. This is visible on various examples such as the building of the museum of the Polish uprising and the museum of Polish Jews. He further mentioned the importance of the internalization of important parts of Polish history, such as the destruction of Warsaw.

After completing the initial presentations the discussion went on and speakers tackled the issue of effective alternative ways of shaping political discourses of identities, where cinema, films and popularization of history in general were mentioned. Speakers then discussed how people are influenced by TV and how politicians have a free hand in this space. Ms. Bigu thereafter reflected on the relations between the Orthodox Church and the politicians, which according to her are undemocratic. The debate continued to develop in the direction of e-participation and how it has changed. Speakers talked about plurality and its advantages and disadvantages in the light of the recent Ukrainian revolution and Polish–Ukrainian relations.

Working group II: How to ask about the V4 identity from historical and contemporary point of view?

The second working group aimed at conceiving the Visegrad identity from a different point of view and used examples of various historical phenomena linked to the region to demonstrate and illustrate the development of the V4 identity.

Weronika Grzebalska of the Polish Academy of Sciences started the contributor speeches of the second working group by bringing to attention a recent shift in the perception of Polish women during the World War II, mainly during the Warsaw Uprising, which is now in a stark contrast with the way women have been viewed before, now depicting not only their martyrdoms, but also everyday struggles.

The second speaker, Cristine Griessler from Andrássy University Budapest brought the Austrian perspective on the Visegrad identity by comparing it to the Austrian one and presenting the historical efforts of the Austrians to create their national identity.

Ákos Bartha from the University of Debrecen then presented his insights on Endre Bajcsy-Zsilinszky, an interwar Hungarian politician with irredentist and largely revisionist visions for what are today the Visegrád countries and to whom many Hungarian revisionist look up to.

Bulcsú Hunyadi from the Political Capital and the Social Development Institute then contested the idea of an existence of any Visegrad identity by using the results of the Demand for right-wing extremism index (DEREX) which show that there is a clear division of Visegrad in the means of division as political and other values and attitudes existing in one country tend to differ from those in the others.

The last speaker, Wojciech Przybylski from the Res Publica Foundation and an editor-in-chief of Visegrad Insight, pointed out that the Visegrad regional identity is in transition which the aforementioned division may be just a sign of. Regardless of the attraction of the concept of Visegrad identity and the fact that the countries cooperate a lot, the speakers also agree on the existence of many differences between the historical and contemporary perceptions of the region and on a need of the people within the region to feel part of it in order for the others to see the region as interconnected just as it is with the Baltic countries.

Working group III: How to teach history today?

Participants of the third working group presented their project focused on contributing to teaching about history in non-traditional ways. The projects are mainly on-line and provide possibility of a virtual experience of various historical eras and settings.

Andrea Petö (CEU), the moderator of this working group, began with an explanation of the structure of the subsequent presentations as all of them are comments in response to the position papers available at the web page. She asked the speakers to explain what are they doing and what have they achieved, for it’s necessary to teach in an innovative way, which would work with the new generations of students.

Martin Šmok (Shoa foundation) presented two projects. First being iWalks which is a project, where it’s possible to visit an authentic location online. Second being iWitness, which is a similar revolutionary project possible to be used in multiple languages. He pointed out the importance of a human face of history in education and subsequently explained how it helps to increase a level of morality of the students. He finished mentioning the Czech project called Modern history (http://www.modernidejiny.cz/).

Štěpán Černoušek (http://gulag.cz/) presented his project concerning gulags, which is an online museum of an abandoned gulag camp in Russia. It was for the reason of abandonment that this online 3D museum was created. During the presentation the moderator raised an issue of a difference between experiencing these horrible places by yourself and seeing them from your comfy chair.

Martón Liska talked about a field trip with secondary school students, where they discussed how historical narratives are constructed and how propaganda uses these historical narratives. This allows students to get a first hand experience of the historical places.

Karina Hoření (Institute for Study of Totalitarian Regimes; Socialism Realized) presented a new digital platform called socialism realized, which offers teaching materials about the socialist period. The aim of this project is not only to familiarize people outside the CEE with the region, but also to promote critical thinking and to demonstrate, especially to high school students, why certain events are perceived differently than others.

Jan Darasz (Warsaw city-guide) offered some personal work experience from his job in Warsaw. He talked about prejudices and differences of customers from different countries and how a learning outcome differs depending on these prejudices.

Fedor Blaščák then talked about the importance of information and getting informed, which was illustrated on the example of the persecution of Jews. He then presented the Vrba–Wetzler memorial project (http://www.vrbawetzler.eu/), which aims to pass on the personal experience into the media.

The debate continued to evolve in the direction of distinguishing between a real life experience and experience gained from interactive media. The debate ended with a brief summarization and future prospects of the topic by the moderator.