(Re-)Thinking the Past:
“Zwischen Nostalgie, Amnesie und Allergie: Die Erinnerung and den Kommunismus in Südosteuropa,”
An International Conference held at the Free University of Berlin, December 1 - 3, 2005

Lee Kuhnle

The Free University of Berlin was not an innocent location for a conference dedicated to the memory of communism. As the guests, participants and I learned in the introductory remarks to the conference, the Free University was built in reaction to the Soviet occupation of East Germany. After Germany’s defeat in the Second World War, the Friedrich Wilhelm University (renamed the Humboldt University of Berlin in 1949) lay well within Soviet territories and was therefore under Soviet control. The founding of the Free University on April 16, 1948, deep in the heart of the Western zone, was one of the first signs of the new cold-war era politics in which Berlin was to play a central role. Soon after its establishment the campus of the Free University became both a place of resistance to the communist regime and a clandestine East German recruitment site for young West German communist sympathizers.

It was in this historically significant setting that I, along with twenty-four presenters and approximately twenty-five other guests, gathered to theorize the role of the memory, mostly visual, of southeast European communism. The conference was put on by the Free University’s East European Institute (Osteuropa-Institute, F.U. Berlin) and the University of Leipzig’s Humanities’ Centre for History and Culture of Middle Eastern Europe (Geisteswissenchaftliches Zentrum Geschichte und Kultur Ostmitteleuropas an der Universität Leipzig). The organizers were Dr. Ulf Brunnbauer (F.U.) and Prof. Stefan Troebst (Leipzig) with a keynote address by Dr. Monika Flacke, curator of the Deutsches Museum in Berlin. Since southeast Europe was the conference’s geographical focal point, it was appropriate that more than half the presenters had made the trip from the former Soviet Bloc, including Budapest, Sofia, Belgrade, Ljubljana and Bucharest. Most of the remaining speakers were from Germany, specifically, Berlin, Leipzig, Braunschweig and Cologne with one presenter from Athens and one from London.

The objective of the conference was not only to provide an overview of the role of memory in and of communism in southeast Europe but also, through an interdisciplinary analysis, to spur new areas of research. Papers were invited from the fields of Anthropology, Sociology, Comparative Literature, Psychology and Cultural Studies (Kulturwissenschaft), although most presenters took a traditional historical approach.

Soviet Socialism left its mark on both the landscape and the people in the countries in which it took root. Soviet socialist-realist architecture and art in the form of monuments honouring Lenin and the “heroes of labour,” for example, still inhabit both the physical and mental topography of southeast Europe. How have the individual and collective memories of those who experienced the communist regimes been interpreted, reinterpreted and integrated after nearly two decades since the collapse of the Soviet Bloc? This question was taken up at the beginning of the conference by Dr. Flacke, in her talk entitled “Pictorial Memory and the Nation” (Bildgedächnis und Nation) and was a leitmotif for the subsequent lectures. Flacke examined how film and other forms of visual media such as children’s picture books, posters and postage stamps, have become vessels for the collective memory of communism. A collective memory that is – as Flacke and other presenters demonstrated, and as the conference title suggests – (re)formulated in terms of longing (nostalgia), anger (allergy) and strategic forgetting (amnesia).

A wonderfully absurd example of the re-writing and re-remembering of a communist past and the unpredictable manifestations this process can take was put forth in Nikolaj Vukov’s (Sofia) paper “Refigured Memories, Unchained Representations: Post-socialist Monumental Discourse in Bulgaria [sic]”. After 1989, we learned, there was a wave of destruction that descended upon the symbols of socialism. This post-communist trend especially affected public monuments erected during the socialist period. The socialist monuments that remained, however, became the centre of a curious turf war between skinhead and Satanist youth gangs. Each group claimed the monuments as part of their symbolic territory. The arguments of the Satanists followed the logic of spiritual inheritance. The monuments, they argued, were the locus of evil energies and thus gave the Satanists a legitimate claim to their use in satanic rituals. The Skinheads countered that the monuments were theirs to deface, since their pursuit of Fascist politics was explicitly anti-communist.

Vukov’s talk, although centered on an eccentric instance, exemplified a common strategy, touched on by many other speakers, for dealing with the remains of a failed socialist legacy. As the Bulgarian example demonstrated, many icons of socialism were simply destroyed. The East European communist symbols that weathered the demolition fury have not generally been understood or used collectively as reminders of “what could happen again,” in contrast to the extant part of the Berlin Wall, which represents the German institutional memory of its socialist history. Rather, art, architecture, monuments and other communist tributes no longer orient towards the equality of all workers or to the strength of the socialist regime, but are now put to work for a West European-oriented market capitalist semiotic system. The Romanian “Palace of the Workers” has, for example, without much debate, become the “Palace of Democracy” and as Dietmar Müller (Berlin) described, “the dictator who commissioned it is hardly ever mentioned.” Forgetting, as many of the speakers agreed, is certainly an important element in the remembrance of a communist past.

While all the talks were well suited to the conference and generally tended to reinforce each other, there was a certain lack of theoretical mortar with which to bind the overwhelming amount of historical facts and dates that were presented. Although the role of remembering and forgetting was discussed and the relationship between institutional and personal memory was occasionally touched upon, the symbolic organization of space, à la Walter Benjamin or Michel de Certeau, for example, was almost completely lacking from the panels and discussions I witnessed. Also, a detailed exploration of the mechanisms of remembering and forgetting, the tensions still inherent in the fluctuating symbolic systems of southeast Europe (and their malleability) and the contribution (or discussion) of subaltern experiences would have helped to contextualize the meta-narratives of institutional history.

If the conference organizers are correct, then what we witnessed at the Free University was one of the first academic forums to discuss the memory of southeastern European communism. As a new field of study, the conference did, in fact, show a great deal of potential for future research and discussion. One can only hope that the tentative foundation laid on December 1-3, 2005 will be built upon in subsequent talks. A great deal certainly remains to be said.