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Past in the Making

Michal Kopecek


Michal Kopecek

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Some of us might have noticed we had stopped going in a straigh
line and were turning in a circle. It also struck me several times
that time was fading in the pale light, turning more translucent
losing its color and taste again, and I was horrified by that.”
Jáchym Topol, City Sister Silver (1994)

1The year 1989 is usually considered a watershed in the history of Central and Eastern Europe, and rightly so. It not only marks a basic change in the organization of political, economic, and social life, but also serves as an elementary signpost in the making or remaking of individuals’ life stories— a basic orientation point in the chaos of the running waters of time. Just as there are multiple stages and periods in an individual’s life, the different time-lines overlap in the social space and collective consciousness, resulting in a multiplicity of time experience and significance—captured so imaginatively in the novel, City Sister Silver, a brilliant story of dislocation and bewilderment following the demise of the state-socialist monolith by the Czech writer Jáchym Topol. This temporal fuzziness and diversification successfully discredits the naïve linear model of history and challenges the simplified politico-economic story of the fall of an authoritarian, collectivist regime and the (re)turn to free liberal democracy.

2The new era in Central and Eastern Europe, which started in late 1989, is characterized by multiple “posts” (denoted by, in particular, the coincidence of the period of post-Communism with the high point of globalizing postmodernism), with all the possible consequences that this overlapping has for the ways in which the history of the last 60 years or so has been reflected on, commented on, and elaborated in the countries concerned. For it is not merely political expediencies in combination with the allegedly neutral curiosity of historical scholarship that shape the general outline of the historical image of the authoritarian and totalitarian past. In fact there are many more players from civil society in the game now, free to express themselves and to propose projects at will (if they manage to collect the necessary funding). It is a state of affairs that has altogether changed the not-so-old situation in this part of the world : the basically transparent (if often misleading) contraposition of the official state-funded machine producing historical legitimacy against the smaller, rather than larger, circle of dissidents, émigré writers and independent-minded activists. It is the unprecedented pace of technological progress, along with the overall social and cultural decentralization that, under the banner of the “cultural memory,” shatters the old hierarchies of academic historical knowledge and breeds an unequalled democratization, which goes hand in hand with a loss of balance—whether real or merely perceived—in historical representation. The critical appraisal of the collective memories within national historical cultures that started in France some three decades ago—a process that Krzysztof Pomian captures in one of his essays as the way “from history as a part of memory, to memory as an object of history”—has found fertile soil all over Europe and, in the last decade, is gaining remarkable currency in Eastern Europe.

3This collection of papers goes back to a small but lively international workshop, “Historical Revisionism in East Central Europe after 1989,” held in Prague in October 2006. Shortly before the workshop started, the French National Assembly, despite opposition from the EU Commission and from within the government itself, passed a controversial bill criminalizing the denial of the genocide of the Armenians committed by the Ottoman state in 1915. Ironically that happened the same day the great Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk (known for his critical views on the Turkish state’s handling of the “Armenian question,” which led to his prosecution in his own country) was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. In December, not long after the Prague workshop, the notorious Teheran Holocaust Conference sponsored by the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran was held, with a clear anti-Israeli political agenda cloaked in an archetypal revisionist challenge to the undeniable historicity of the Nazi Final Solution. A month later, on January 19, Armenian Turkish journalist Hrant Dink, another prominent Istanbul critic of the Turkish official politics of history, was assassinated in front of his newspaper offices by a fanatical defender of the allegedly insulted Turkish national identity. These highly politicized events, which received dense media coverage, framed our workshop in time, as it were, and underlined the topicality and complexity of our subject, which clearly reaches beyond academic debates and historiographical interpretations. It also reminded us that despite the epistemological and ontological relativism of our age, which in its most radical forms tends to relegate history to the rhetorical realm of mere story-telling, in the political and social reality virtually all over the world historical representation remains a very material and contested, nay, bloody business.

4In Central and Eastern Europe the concept of “revisionism” itself has a variety of meanings and historical layers, with a long and convoluted intellectual and political genesis. It was the anti-Versailles and anti-Trianon territorial revisionism of Germany, Hungary, and ultimately also the Soviet Union—quite rightly a nightmare for the neighboring states established after 1918—which was to underpin the whole of interwar European diplomacy, which in the end proved too feeble to contain its powerful energies. While many of these energies were dissipated during the war, the bogey of revisionism, now qualified with predicates such as imperialist or militarist, was incorporated into communist anti-Western propaganda from the outset of the Cold War. Besides, the ambitious communist ideological project, along with various political expediencies, led to an appropriation of the symbolic force of the notion of “revisionism” for internal diversification. Using terminology drawn from older disputes and clashes within the socialist movement, first the Soviet ideologues and then their local counterparts started to fight so-called “Marxist revisionism” in its own sphere of influence, beginning with the 1947 Soviet–Yugoslav split, through the suppression of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, up to the consolidation after the 1968 Prague Spring. To be sure, none of these historical forms of “revisionism” in Central Europe was directly addressed in the Prague workshop presentations. Nevertheless, aware of the fact that the “memory of language” is far from innocent, we were not surprised to be asked by our colleagues or by dispassionate observers what kind of “revisionism” we were actually speaking about this time.

5The tricky notion of historical revisionism served as a catchword and organizational key of the workshop, which aimed both to explore the scale, depth, and meaning of it in the national and regional histories of Central Europe, and to reconsider the value of the term itself. Far from being restricted to small groups of “deniers,” historical revisionism seems to feature strongly in the public historical discourses of many countries and regions nowadays. With spectacular trials and heated debates around Holocaustdeniers, the term has become stigmatized, and is used to describe suspect historical works dealing with the Holocaust and the Third Reich. In a broader sense, however, historical revisionism in the realms of modern and recent history has galvanized political and historical debates, both within national communities and at the international level, on virtually all continents, e.g., Holocaust worldwide, the US role in the Cold War, the “positive value” of French colonialism, and Japanese or Russian history textbooks, to give only few prominent examples. In the eyes of some observers the specter of historical revisionism is haunting the old continent and indeed the whole world.

6Central Europe with its Nazi, fascist and communist past not only fails to stay aloof, but in many ways lies at the center of the debate, if only from the historical point of view. No doubt the Holocaust is, and will remain, the principal indicator of the accountability of any historical portrayal of the 20th century, as well as the nemesis, to use Frank Ankersmit’s metaphor, of a radical epistemological critique of historical knowledge, which claims that the historicity of the past is a mere pragmatic convention or rhetorical figure. Beyond that, however, in the local context of individual national cultures, revisions of the recent past and the very notion of historical revisionism acquire connotations and peculiar meanings, which draw on respective national histories or their specific parts rather than on a general European historical narrative.

7Where is the line between legitimate reexamination of historical interpretations, and attempts to rewrite history in a politically motivated way that downgrades or denies essential historical facts ? What are the layers and instruments of the contemporary debates about historical revisionism involving not only academia and the mass media, but also decentralized grassroot initiatives empowered by the Internet, cheap digital storage, and recording facilities ? How does the international debate about ethnic cleansing and the expulsion of the German population during and after Second World War, and the thesis that “expulsion equals genocide,” resonate in different Central European countries ? What tensions arise from the juxtaposition of politically motivated moral condemnations of totalitarian regimes with a value-restrained academic discourse of social and cultural approaches in recent historiography ? How do the more or less traditional “national historical narratives” react to the spill-over of international and political controversies into their sphere of influence and intellectual orbit ?

8It is not the purpose of this volume to give a systematic, well-knit set of answers to these questions, which were raised in the first announcement of the workshop. The contributions range from general accounts of the epistemological background of recent historical revisionism, and articles concentrating on the relationship between historical scholarship, politics, and popular historical consciousness, to focused analyses of particular debates or social-cultural phenomena in individual countries. Both its thematic scope and its geographical range are far from being complete in any sense, even though considerations of both played a certain role in the composition of the workshop program and the subsequent volume. It is hoped by the authors that their essays will lead to a lively exchange of ideas and encourage further inquiry, and thus prolong in some way what they experienced during a sunny October weekend in Prague back in 2006.

9Prague, March 2007


Michal Kopeček is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Contemporary History, Prague. He has specialized in modern intellectual history and nationalism in East Central Europe, Communism and transition studies, and the history and theory of historiography. Apart from publishing various articles he is one of the editors of the series of volumes Bolševismus, komunismus a radikální socialismus v Československu [Bolshevism, Communism and Radical Socialism in Czechoslovakia] (Prague: ÚSDDokořán, 2003–2005) and of the Discourses of Collective Identity in Central and Southeast Europe (1770–1945): Text and Commentaries (Budapest, New York: CEU Press, 2006ff)

© Central European University Press, 2008

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