7th European History Forum at Heinrich Böll Foundation

Conference Report

The 7th European History Forum took place from the 14th to 15th of May 2018 in Berlin at the Heinrich Böll Foundation. The forum dealt with the events of 1968 in Eastern Europe, as well as their reception and representation today in the respective countries. The conference focused on the question how the national narrative of 1968 is formed. 

7. Europäisches GeschichtsforumЕвропейский исторический форум

Prague spring

The European History Forum in Berlin in 2018 focused on the public response to the events of 1968 in Eastern Europe – both on the way these events were viewed in different countries and on the way these events are described nowadays. In other words, on the differences between national narratives relating to 1968. 

On the first day, on May 14, the conference began with the introductory speech of the representative of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, Walter Kaufmann. According to him, the 20th century was doubtless a century of great European tragedy. It is worth remembering, however, that this century also included the year 1968, which marked a significant attempt to reform society. In his opinion, the events of 1968 have been well researched in Western Europe. Much less is known, however, about what was taking place in the countries of the Eastern Bloc and even less about what exactly people remember about the Soviet intervention in Prague and the reactions to it, about the protests in Yugoslavia and East Germany, - and why historical memory was formed that way. It would be worthwhile to reflect on the year 1968 in the international context, independent of the isolated national narratives (in spite of the obvious complexity of such a dialogue at present).

Walter Kaufmann expressed his hope that the meeting here at the Heinrich Böll Foundation of researchers and activists from Germany and many countries of Eastern Europe - Czech Republic, Serbia, Hungary, Ukraine, Belarus, Russia and others - would help settle some of these questions. He also stated that the European History Forum this year was dedicated to the memory of the first head of the “International Memorial” society, Arseniy Borisovich Roginskyi.

The Epoch of 1968

The introductory paper was by Irina Lazarevna Sherbakova (“International Memorial”). Her suggestion is that we speak of the “Epoch of 1968”, not just of one calendar year. Many people in the Soviet Union at that time were afraid that the authorities might stop de-Stalinization and that the barely emergent freedom might be suppressed again.

Many young Soviet citizens followed the liberalization in Czechoslovakia and the Prague spring and place their hopes in “socialism with a human face”. They believed that these reforms had a good chance of success because the Czechoslovakian political elite was ready for change. Irina Sherbakova provided an example from her own memories: in 1967 she visited Prague where she experienced the atmosphere of freedom there. On August 21 1968, when the beginning of the “brotherly help” to the people of Czechoslovakia and the “international duty” of the Soviet military was reported on TV, all hopes were dashed. Irina and her circle got to know immediately about the demonstration on August 25 on Red Square in Moscow, and it was an important piece of news for them because it meant that a protest was generally possible. They also knew that student protests were taking place in Western Europe – due to transistor radios that were widely used in the USSR. Although the student struggle against the authorities evoked sympathy, the many features of the struggle were scary and reminded people of the negative Soviet experience of the October revolution.

Irina Sherbakova said that in 1969 she met students from West Germany and argued with them, explaining that it was necessary to prevent a real revolution. Today she believes that the protests of 1968 in the countries of Western Europe resulted in gradual transformation, whereas there was no sign of any transformation in the USSR until the late 1980s. Nowadays, Russian society is facing the same problems as in 1968.

1968 in the countries of Eastern Europe

Discussion 1 (moderated by Nina Happe) focused on developments in the countries of Eastern Europe in 1968. According to Nina Happe it is important to discuss the principal events, because very little is known in the West. Researchers including Milan Ristović (Serbia), Zofia Wóycicka (Poland, Germany), Ivan Kurilla (Russia), Jakub Jareš (Czech Republic) contributed to the discussion.

The Prague spring

Jakub Jareš spoke about the political canvas of the events of the Prague spring. In his opinion, the Prague spring was a phenomenon completely distinct from the student protests in Western Europe. Although the Czech people knew that people in Western Europe sympathized with the ideas of communism (as an example Jareš named Rudi Dutschke and his radical Marxism and revolutionary battle cries), the westerners were more interested in their own political agenda and the situation in their own countries.

Today Czechs remember the phenomenon of the Prague spring and its cruel suppression, whereas the speculation of “socialism with a human face” is outdated.

The protests of 68 in Yugoslavia and Poland were unreckond

In his contribution Milan Ristović also provided an outline of the political situation: the student protests took place at the universities of Belgrade, Zagreb and others; it became clear that the Yugoslavian system was in a deep crisis; afterwards Tito appropriated the protest agenda and suppressed the real independent protest.

It is an interesting fact that the Yugoslavian politicians were surprised that people had participated in the protests because they believed that the students of 1968 were the first apolitical generation in Yugoslavia. There were also discussions over whether there was a connection between the student protests in Yugoslavia and the nationalist movement, and opinions differed on this.

Zofia Wóycicka spoke about the events of 1968 in Poland, where two parallel and unrelated processes were taking place: student protests and the anti-Semitic campaign. Similar to Yugoslavia, the ruling authorities believed that a time of stability had come to Poland, so they were not ready for the protests. Zofia said that the protests had been a reaction to the prohibition of a play entitled “Memorial Service”, which was interpreted by the authorities as anti-Soviet. At the same time the national communists started the anti-Semitic campaign, using the Six Day War in Israel as justification. Anti-Semitic rhetoric was also used in attempts to quash the student protests.

A new type of opposition in the USSR

Ivan Kurilla described the reception of the events of 1968 in the USSR:  in his opinion, only a small part of Soviet society listened to the alternative information sources (on transistor radio receivers which enabled listeners to pick up Radio “Freedom”, the BBC etc.). The main part of the Soviet audience knew only the official version of events. There were two images of the events (illegal occupation or “brotherly help to the people of Czechoslovakia”) that had to be conceptualized in the period of Glasnost and Perestroika.

According to Ivan Kurilla, the demonstration of 1968 and the letter of Anatoly Yakobson dedicated to it, are important because they represented a new type of opposition in the USSR. Both sent a message not to the authorities but to the “international community”. They aimed at integration of the USSR into the international context and were a demand for openness.

Why 1968 and not earlier oder later?

After the contributions the participants discussed whether it was possible to understand why all this happened in 1968. Zofia Wóycicka assumed that the changes had been possible due to the emergence of the first post-Stalin generation. Milan Ristović believes that this was the first non-agrarian generation that could formulate their political demands. 

From class to mass society

Discussion 2 (moderated by Alexandra Polivanova, Natalija Dimić) focused on the conversation with the witnesses and participants of the events of 1968: Ágnes Heller (Budapest), Milan Horáček (Prague) and Burkhard Kleinert (Berlin).

Ágnes Heller believes that two important and unrelated processes were taking place in 1968 – the Prague spring which provided definitive proof of the impossibility of a dialogue with the USSR, and a “new left movement” which determined the history of Western Europe, the USA, Japan, Australia and other countries at least until 1973. Ágnes remembers that there was stagnation and depression in Hungary after 1956, whereas 1968 brought hope – certainly due to the Prague spring. In August, after the invasion, this hope was lost.

The hope of the Hungarian populists of a “third way” between capitalism and socialism was lost, too. Ágnes was a left-wing-oriented philosopher but did not support the Soviet version of communism. At that moment of disappointment, when it seemed that nothing new was possible besides capitalism and liberal democracy, the “new left” movement gave her and her circle new hope. In her opinion, the main result of the events of 1968 was the transformation of class society into the “mass” society in which we all now live and in which no revolution is possible (although modifications are possible).

Burkhard Kleinert spoke about the protests in East Berlin. Many young people reacted sharply to the invasion in Czechoslovakia in August: Kleinert himself participated in the printing of home-made leaflets (in December 1969 he and his friends were arrested by the Stasi). They also founded an illegal library and were in contact with student protest groups from West Berlin. In Kleinert’s opinion, all this signalized the decline of the socialist system.

Milan Horáček expressed doubts about the possibility of separating the real memories of 1968 from their later interpretation and about the significance of the events of this period in general: in his opinion, they did not result in any essential victories or changes. Alexandra Polivanova asked the participants of the discussion whether they had heard of the protests in the USSR (particularly the demonstration of the eight on Red Square) at that time, in 1968. The majority responded that they had learnt of it much later and had not thought it essential anyway, because they had been sure that eight protesters had not been able to change the Soviet totalitarian system.

René and Heinrich Böll in Prague

After the dinner break there was a conversation with René Böll, who was in Prague in August 1968 with his father Heinrich Böll and witnessed the Soviet invasion. Heinrich Böll wrote in his journals that the unarmed resistance of the Czech people impressed him most of all. René, a young man at that time, did not fully realize the danger and took photos of the Soviet soldiers wherever he could and managed to preserve these photos. 

Forming a historical narrative

On the second day of the conference, on May 15, workshops and excursions were conducted for the invited participants of the forum – historians, activists, museum officers. Walter Kaufmann stressed in his introductory words before the beginning of the conference that the purpose of the European History Forum, organized in cooperation with the “International Memorial”, has always been to form a historical narrative to compete with the official narrative, enforced by the state, which is always closely connected with the present and aims to justify current policy.

This year we speak of evoking the interest of the young generation in the events of 1968 and encouraging critical reflection on these events. The second day of the conference is focused on the latter point – the interpretation of these events today. Some excursions will be conducted. Although all excursions will take place in Berlin, the organizers suggest that they serve as an opportunity to ponder on how it might be possible to present the history of 1968 in East European cities. 

The participants divided into groups: every participant could participate in one of three practical workshops or one of four excursions. In the evening the results of the forum were discussed. 

Workshop 1 focused on the events of 1968 in Yugoslavia and their significance today. Participants discussed such issues as a conflict of generations (everyone was of the opinion that there was no such conflict in Yugoslavia), the active development of cities and the transformation of an agrarian society, and the nationalist movement and its relation to the protests. It was also stressed that the issue of 1968 in Yugoslavia had not been researched enough from the viewpoint of gender history and the history of everyday life. 

Workshop 2 focused on the way the history of 1968 was being presented in East European countries today. Participants discussed the historical narrative in contemporary Russia. The official historical narrative addresses the past; in our attempt to create an alternative history – the history of the dissident and human rights movement – we also turn to the past, but it is important to understand which methods are being used and to what purposes. We should not mythologize those who took part in the demonstration of August 25 1968 on Red Square and dissidents in general (according to Walter Kaufmann, participants in left-wing protest are mythologized in Western Europe as well, where they are celebrated as pop-culture heroes). It is better to write the history of the emergence of the human rights movement and the culture of the peaceful public protest, which must be seen from different perspectives by means of historical methods.  It is necessary to understand that in different countries of the former Soviet Union and in various parts of Russia people can have different memories of the protests of 1968, whereas the canonic history of “eight demonstrators” is not a key issue for everyone. 

Workshop 3 focused on the memory of 1968 in the Warsaw Pact member states – what was particularly remembered now, what happened to the memories of the prospect of “socialism with a human face”. The ongoing lives of the protesters was reviewed.  According to the participants of this workshop, news of the protest in Moscow on Red Square was of no particular significance to the people living in Central and Eastern European countries (in spite of the fact that the USSR was a totalitarian state that menaced the future of neighboring countries, there was no hope of change as a result of separate protests, so no one sensed the symbolism of the demonstration on August 25 in plain view in the capital of the USSR). Many participants of the workshop are of the opinion that 1968 changed almost nothing in the politics of Eastern Europe because the protest was supported only by a very small group of intellectuals. However, it is impossible to negate the cultural changes that were its distant consequence. 

All workshops were platforms at which every participant could express his or her opinion and contribute to the discussion. 

Parallel to this, four excursions were organized. There was a bike excursion in Charlottenburg, which included conversations with a witness of the events of 1968. The second excursion took in the History Museum and viewed the exhibition devoted to 1960, in which East and West Germany are presented separately at first; later one can see both parts of the exhibition together from a higher level and in this way see the whole picture. The exhibition demonstrates the everyday lives of people, making it easy to imagine oneself as a participant of the events. The walking excursion in Kreuzberg focused on the development of this district of Berlin. As restauration of the district began, due to the fact that the buildings were in bad condition after World War Two, the inhabitants were not immediately ready to agree to the modernization – the protest culture was still there. The bus tour of the protest sites in the former East and West Berlin was conducted by the historian of the University of Potsdam, Ingo Juchler, who wrote a book on 1968 in East Germany.

The forum concluded with a buffet reception, at which canapés, cheese hedgehogs and fruit were served. ‘60s and ‘70s music accompanied the dancing party, organized in the atmosphere of 1968.