Volume 6 Issue 3 CONTENTS



Croatian Political Refugees Living in Emigration in the Interwar Period: The Case of the Croatian Political Refugees in Hungary

Petra Hamerli

PhD student, University of Pécs – “Sapienza” University of Rome

After the disintegraton of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, the successor states also had to face the old problem of the “nationality question”. The Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (which in 1929 became the first incarnation of Yugoslavia) was the most multi-ethnic or multinational state in the region, and this led to conflicts, in particular between Serbs and Croats. When Alexander I introduced the dictatorship (January 6, 1929), many Croats decided to leave Yugoslavia. Most of them emigrated to Latin America, but Albania, Austria, Bulgaria, Germany, Hungary, and Italy, as neighboring states, were also popular directions.

Many of the refugees left Yugoslavia for political reasons. Most of them emigrated to states that were interested in or actively sought the disintegration or at least weakening of Yugoslavia, such as Hungary and Italy, but many of them chose Austria, Belgium, and Germany.

In this essay I focus primarily on the Croatian political refugees living in Hungary. The most important sources on these refugees are found in the Sate Archives of Italy (Archivio Centrale di Stato di Roma, ACS) in the material entitled “Carte Conti,” which includes the list of Croats for whom warrants had been issued and who were followed continuously by the Zagreb police and the Yugoslav authorities for political reasons. I also use primary sources to assess the role that the Croatian camp Jankapuszta, and the house in Nagykanizsa bought by the Ustaše leader Gustav Perčec played in the lives of migrants and in diplomatic calamities. In addition to the sources in the Sate Archives, I also draw on the documents of the Archives of the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Archivio Storico Diplomatico del Ministero degli Affari Esteri, ASMAE) and the National Archives of Hungary (Magyar Nemzeti Levéltár Országos Levéltára, MNL OL).

Keywords: Croatian refugees in Hungary, Jankapuszta, Ustaše

Although migration is often considered a problem more prominent in recent times, it has been existing for many centuries. In the late 1800s, political migration became more and more frequent, and this trend continued after World War I, as certain political parties were prohibited in their homeland and members of certain minority groups tried to organize themselves in abroad.

In this essay, I present an example of this special type of migration, sketching the activity of the Croatian separatists who emigrated in the interwar period. After presenting briefly the main characteristics of Croatian separatism and the main directions of migration among Croats in the period, I focus on the Croatian political refugees living in Hungary, both in the refugee camp Jankapuszta and in the house bought in Nagykanizsa, which was maintained thanks to Hungarian–Italian collaboration in support of the Ustaše Movement.

The Organization of Croatian Separatism – Aims and Principles

After World War I, the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy collapsed and the successor states were born. One of them was the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, which was founded to unify the South-Slavic population of Europe. The new kingdom counted more than a dozen different nations among its inhabitants, and tensions between them emerged from the beginning, as these nations considered themselves different not simply because of their ethnicities, but also their confessions, cultures, and histories. Since the dominant Serbian nation formed only 40 percent of the total population and Croats comprised 24 percent, the conflicts between the Serbian and Croatian national agendas were by far the most prominent and the most influential in political life.1

The tensions became graver after the parliamentary session of 20 June 1928, when a member of the Serbian People’s Radical Party, Puniša Račić, shot at deputies of the Croatian Peasant Party (Hrvatska Republikanska Seljačka Stranka). Some Croatian politicians were killed immediately, while the leader, Stjepan Radić, was mortally wounded (he died on 8 August in Zagreb).2

The Croatian separatists searched for support abroad, and they found it in Hungary, Italy, Germany, Austria, and South America. Hungary and Italy collaborated in providing support for Croatian aspirations, as both sought the disintegration of the Yugoslav state.3 In the late 1920s, the two states campaigned for an independent Croatia in the press in an effort to win sympathy for the Croatian cause in global public opinion.4

Why Hungary and Italy? In order to understand this, one must know a little bit about Hungarian and Italian foreign policy aspirations concerning Yugoslavia in the interwar period.5 Italy had two reasons to be anxious about Yugoslavia’s existence. On the one hand, Italy was persuaded to enter the First World War as an Entente ally because of the territorial promises made in the secret Treaty of London, which was signed on April 26, 1915. After the war, however, these promises could not be kept. The territories promised to Italy in the treaty included the middle part of Dalmatia and the Eastern part of Istria, and this, in particular, led to conflicts between Italy and Yugoslavia,6 since these territories were given to the South-Slavic kingdom. On the other hand, Italy wanted to get more influence in the Balkans and the Carpathian Basin, and it aimed to establish hegemony in the Adriatic as well. Yugoslavia was an obstacle to this merely because of its geographical position,7 so Italy aimed to encircle and ultimately dissolve Yugoslavia by intensifying its inner ethnic and national conflicts. The Italian plan, which took the name of General Pietro Badoglio, depended on the assistance of Hungary, and also Albania, Bulgaria and Romania,8 because these states also had territorial conflicts with Yugoslavia.

The Hungarian aims were less complicated than the Italian ones: after World War I, Hungary lost two thirds of its territory in accordance with the terms of the Peace Treaty of Trianon, which was signed on June 4, 1920. These territorial losses meant the loss of important economic, industrial and cultural centers, and one-third of the population of pre-war Hungary found itself living outside the new frontiers. Yugoslavia was given the region of Vojvodina from Hungary, which meant the loss of the most significant agricultural territory of the country. It is hardly a surprise that treaty revision became Hungary’s main political aim.9 As treaty revision was blocked primarily by the Little Entente, formed in 1920/21 by Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Yugoslavia with the goal of maintaining the status quo established after the war, Hungary wanted to weaken the stability of this organization. Thus, Hungary constituted an excellent partner for Italy in its efforts to support Croatian separatism: Hungarian politicians thought that the collapse or breakup of one of the Little Entente states could weaken the alliance against Hungarian revisionism.10

These common political interests led to the signing of the Italian–Hungarian Treaty of Friendship on April 5, 1927, in a secret clause of which the signatories agreed that they would give political and diplomatic support to each other to further the solution of the questions in which they were interested.11 In other words, Italy would provide support for Hungarian treaty revision and Hungary would make efforts to weaken Yugoslavia.

The Hungarian–Italian support of Croatian Separatism became significant after the introduction of the dictatorship in the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes on 6 January 1929. When King Alexander I made this decision to resolve the inner ethnic conflicts which had plagued the state, in October 1929 the name of the state was changed to Yugoslavia in order to express the unity of its nations.12 As a response, Ante Pavelić emigrated to Italy, where he founded the Ustaše movement (Ustaša Hrvatska Revolucionarna Organizacija, Ustaše Revolutionary Movement of Croatia), which aimed to create an independent Croatia at whatever cost, including armed conflict.13 On June 1, 1933, Pavelić summarized the Ustaše principles in 17 points, according to which the Croatian nation looked back on 1400 years of history, which was why it could not be a second factor in a foreign state. According to the document, the Independent State of Croatia would unify all of the territories inhabited by Croats. To be a good Croat, citizens of the independent Croatia imagined by Pavelić had to follow some principles in their everyday life, such as having a balanced family life, following the Catholic religion, having military virtues, and paying attention to the cultural development of the Croatian nation. Pavelić thought that Croats with these qualities could establish an independent state, and he thought the peasantry would be able to maintain control of this territory by working on it. This according to his vision, the lands (along with other elements of the material and cultural heritage of the country) were the property of the state, and the Croats, whose individual will was ideally subordinated to national interests, could only use them for the benefit of the Independent Croatian State.14

These ideas were welcomed warmly both by Hungary and Italy, since they were an expression of the aspiration for the secession of Croatia from Yugoslavia and, thus, the disintegration of Yugoslavia. Italian Prime Minister Benito Mussolini not only welcomed warmly the Croatian politicians who had emigrated to Italy and the foundation of their movement, but also promised war materials to support its development.15 After the Ustaše was founded in 1929, or, according to some sources, in 1931, it carried out approximately one hundred assassinations and bombings until its most famous act, the regicide in Marseille (October 9, 1934). Nearly the half of these attacks were launched from Italy, Hungary, or Austria.16

On April 20, 1929, Pavelić and Gustav Perčec, one of his most faithful peers, traveled to Sofia, where they met the leader of the radical wing of the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (IMRO, Vatrešna Makedonska Revolucionerna Organizacija – VMRO), Ivan Mihailov. The three politicians agreed on the collaboration of Croatian and Macedonian separatists to gain their independence.17 That summer, Pavelić met with the Hungarian diplomat Gábor Apor in Vienna, who also promised moral and financial support for the Ustaše.18

On September 19, 1932, the Ustaše attempted to organize an uprising, which failed. That autumn, Mussolini and Gyula Gömbös, who became Prime Minister of Hungary in October 1932, met in Rome and decided to devote more attention to and provide more support for the movement to increase the chances Yugoslavia disintegrating. The two prime ministers agreed to create Croatian refugee camps for political refugees in the territory of their states. In Italy, these camps were coordinated by the inspector of Pisa, Ercole Conti,19 and the most important ones were in Lipari, Bovigno, and Brescia.20 In Hungary, there was only one Croatian camp, near the Hungarian–Croatian frontier, in Somogy County. The land where the camp was located was called Jankapuszta, and it was bought in 1931 by Perčec, who lived in Hungary under the name Emil Horvát. Perčec also bought a house in Nagykanizsa, a nearby city, for the Ustaše functionaries. As Perčec succeeded in establishing good relations with some of the authorities in Nagykanizsa, he was able to buy other possessions for the Croatian separatists, too.21

Henceforward, I will focus on the Croatian (Ustaše) migrants living in Hungary in the interwar period. I will give an overview of the circumstances they had to face. First, I offer a brief analysis of the social situation of the Croatian political refugees, based on the catalogue in the National Archives of Italy on Croats for whom warrants had been issued for political reasons by the Yugoslav authorities. I also attempt to reconstruct what really happened in Jankapuszta, where the only Hungarian-based Ustaše camp was found.

Croatian Political Refugees Living in Hungary

After King Alexander I introduced a dictatorship in his empire, many Croatian citizens decided to emigrate. A list of migrants in the National Archives of Zagreb includes the names of all of the Croats who chose the emigration after the dictatorship in 1929. According to this list, the favored destinations were South America (especially Argentina and Uruguay) and, within Europe, Austria, Hungary, Germany, and Italy.22 The migrants had a diverse array of social backgrounds; students, intellectuals, land owners, ex-soldiers, and workers decided in equally significant proportions to leave the new proclaimed kingdom of Yugoslavia. Generally, whole families emigrated together, so along with the men who left, women and children also began new lives in another country.23 This list shows a general picture of the prevailing pattern of migration, which can be considered a typical case of people leaving their homeland primarily in the hopes of finding better living conditions.

The Statistic Yearbook of Yugoslavia shows the exact number of people who emigrated from the country. I examined the period between 1927 and 1934, when Hungarian (and the Italian) collaboration with the Croatian separatists was the most intense. These data show a large number of emigrants (187,550 people), who chose European and non-European countries in roughly the same proportions (European: 53.13 percent; non-European: 46.87 percent). The most popular European destination was France, where 18.89 percent of the total number of emigrants decided to live. Turkey was in second place. Regarding the non-European countries, most of the emigrants departed for Argentina (14.88 percent), 13.2 percent went to the USA, and 10.41 percent to Canada. The data suggest that these destinations were popular because of economic reasons, as most of the emigrants who arrived in these countries settled down in 1929/30, just as the Great Depression was beginning (Table 1). Unfortunately, the Statistical Yearbook does not provide exact data on how many of the emigrants were Croats, but it has data from the ten provinces (banovina) created by Alexander I in 1929. The Croats constituted a majority in Banovina Dravska, Moravska and Savska, and, according to the statistics, most of the emigrants came from these regions and from Banovina Vardarska, where Macedonians formed a majority.24













Political emigrants from total





















































































































367 (or more than half of the political emigrants)
















































































Other European Countries



























































































Latin America













New Zealand


























South Africa







































Other Non-European Countries













Europe altogether













Other continents altogether













No data


























Table 1. Croatian Emigration between 1927 and 1934


The number of political refugees can be reconstructed according to another catalogue found in the National Archives of Rome. On April 14, 1934, Inspector Ercole Conti got a long list from the police of Zagreb. It contained information concerning people for whom warrants had been issued by the Yugoslav authorities for political reasons.25 According to this catalogue, of the 706 people on whom warrants had been issued for political reasons, 367 were living in Hungary by then, and 60 of them had collaborated with Gustav Perčec in Jankapuszta, Nagykanizsa, or Zákány.26 This catalogue contains very interesting information on the Croatian political refugees in Hungary.

Comparing the data in the Statistic Yearbook and the catalogue, the number of the political refugees was insignificant as a proportion of the total number of emigrants. They constituted only 0.38 percent of the emigrants. It is surprising and significant, however, that more than a half of them chose Hungary as their destination (367 of 706), while Italy came in second place with 92 people (Table 1).

The Main Characteristics of the Activity of Croatian Political Refugees Living in Hungary

The catalogue sent by the Yugoslav authorities to Ercole Conti contains information concerning 706 people altogether on whom warrants had been issued. It contained all of the information that was known about them.27 The information in the catalogue includes:


Father’s and Mother’s Names

Place of Birth

Date of Birth

Date of Issue of the Arrest Warrant

In Case of ex-Soldiers: Function in the Austro-Hungarian Army


Direction of Emigration

Membership in Separatist Organizations

Reason for Issue of Arrest Warrant

Function in the Foreign State

Naturally, not all of this information was known for every person. Unfortunately, as the place and date of birth was not known in the majority of cases, one cannot venture generalizations concerning the average age of the refugees, but the date of the issue of the arrest warrant is a valuable piece of information. Fortunately, the destinations that were chosen by the emigrants can be identified, as can the reasons for which the arrest warrants were issued, and there is also information concerning the causal membership of the emigrants in separatist organizations. The catalogue also reveals whether or not the people mentioned were ex-soldiers of the Austro-Hungarian Army. As arrest warrants were issued against many of the registered people simply because they were considered members of the Ustaše or deserters, very little information is available concerning their social backgrounds, analysis nonetheless reveals interesting interconnections.

In order to arrive at a better understanding for the nature of Croatian emigration to Hungary, it is useful to compare the data on the political refugees living in Hungary with the data concerning the other people registered on the list.

Regarding destination (Table 2), more than half (51.98 percent) of the political refugees chose Hungary, while Italy was in second place (1303 percent). These choices were influenced probably not simply by the fact that Italy and Hungary were neighboring states, but also by the fact that they welcomed Croatian political refugees warmly. Furthermore, Hungary and Italy supported the Ustaše Movement, and, although the living place of the Ustaše members in 1934 was unknown, the statistics based on the catalogue clearly show that members of this organization often emigrated for Italy and Hungary. Political refugees from Yugoslavia moved to Austria and Belgium as well. While Austria was, together with Hungary and Italy, a popular destination for Ustaše members, Belgium was chosen by people who wanted to establish an independent Croatia with a campaign in the press. Some of the emigrants, such as Svetozar Pribičević, decided to emigrate to France, and some Croats moved to Albania, Argentina, and Czechoslovakia. An insignificant number of emigrants chose Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Germany, Poland, Switzerland, Turkey, or Uruguay as their destinations.28

With regards to the 367 Croatian political refugees living in Hungary, they were dispersed in the country. They lived in Budapest, Hódmezővásárhely, Szeged, Gyékényes, Kaposvár, Pécs, and Zalaegerszeg, i.e. in cities not far from the Yugoslav–Hungarian frontier, and, of course, in the three aforementioned places where Gustav Perčec resided: Jankapuszta, Nagykanizsa, and Zákány. In these three latter settlements, records indicate that there were altogether 60 people29 who organized the political activity of the Ustaše Movement and its members with the intention of fostering separatism. As the catalogue says, they did not remain continuously at the same place, as the political activity necessitated a lot of traveling. For this reason, there were no more than 50 political refugees in the Jankapuszta refugee camp at the same time.30


Reason for the Issue of an Arrest Warrant





Jankapuszta, Nagykanizsa, Zákány (number)





Jankapuszta, Nagykanizsa, Zákány (percent)















Collaboration with radical separatists







Member of Ustaše Movement







Organizing assassinations







Political activity




























Trafficking weapons














No data














Table 3. Reason for the Issue of Arrest Warrant


Separatist Organizations





Jankapuszta, Nagykanizsa, Zákány (number)





Jankapuszta, Nagykanizsa, Zákány (percent)

Croatian Legion





















Hrvatski Domobran/Obrana







Milizia Croata





















No data














Table 4. Members of Separatist Organizations

The catalogue clearly indicates why the individual arrest warrants were issued by the Yugoslav authorities (Tables 3 and 4).

As Table 3 shows, most of the people who were followed by the Yugoslav authorities because of political reasons were deserters,31 members of the Ustaše, suspected of being spies, or suspected of engaging in continued political activity. Some people were followed by the Yugoslav police simply because they were dissidents and the Yugoslav state had little knowledge of their activity in emigration. Naturally, there were refugees who were not members of any of the separatist organizations, but who collaborated with them. Some of the political refugees spread propaganda in support of Croatian independence in the press. They usually lived in a country in South America or in Belgium. 4-5 percent of the politically suspicious people registered in the catalogue were followed by the Yugoslav authorities because they were suspected of having been complicit in the organization of assassinations or terror acts, and an insignificant number of them attempted to traffic weapons or were followed because they had committed other serious acts, such as murder or an attempt to escape from prison.32

In many of the cases, being a member of the Ustaše Movement was considered a crime. Naturally, there were Ustaše members who had committee other crimes, in addition to this, such as spying, engaging in political activity, organizing assassinations, organizing or committing acts of terrorism, or being deserters. In this case, the catalogue identifies the second crime as the reason for the issue of the arrest warrant. As a consequence, there were more Ustaše members (169) according to the number indicating membership in a separatist organization than based on the reason for the issue of an arrest warrant (119).

Other Croatian separatist organizations were founded, in addition to the Ustaše. About 44 percent (310 persons) of the registered refugees belonged to one of them. The majority of these 310 refugees (169) belonged to the Ustaše, and the Croatian Legion, which, according to the catalogue given to Ercole Conti, was formed in Zalaegerszeg after World War I, counted 84 members. The people who were pursued by the Yugoslav police for being members of the Croatian Legion were usually considered deserters, as 29 of them had been soldiers (28 of them had been officers) in the Austro-Hungarian Army before. The Hrvatski Domobran (sometimes written Obrana), which literally means Croatian Defense Force, was not a military corps, but a political organization that was originally formed in 1928 by the Croats within Yugoslavia and later had strong connections with the Ustaše. According to the catalogue, this organization counted 31 members. In addition to these larger organizations, other Croatian groups were founded in the countries of South America. Some of the Croatian political refugees were registered by the Yugoslav police because they joined the armies of other states (Hungary, Italy).

Based on the catalogue, the deserters and the spies were over-represented in Hungary. Of the 110 deserters, 102 emigrated to Hungary, and most of them (84) joined the Croatian Legion, which was a Croatian organization found only in Hungary. Some Croats decided to enter Ébredő Magyarok Egyesülete (ÉME, Association of Awaking Hungarians), which was an extreme right-wing paramilitarily corps which, though it was prohibited in 1922, remained an influential movement in Hungary in the 1920s. Some of the Croatian émigrés joined the Hungarian army.33 The data show that the majority of the Croatian political refugees living in Hungary emigrated earlier than 1929, probably after the creation of Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes.

There were also some Croatian intellectuals who emigrated to Hungary because of their political activity, such as Ivo Frank, the ex-deputy of the Croatian Party of Rights. He was living in Budapest as of 1918, where he began a campaign for Croatian independence with the approval of the Hungarian Government.34 Frank, who wanted to attract the attention of the world to the efforts to find supporters for Croatian independence,35 wrote a memorandum with Pavelić in which they summarized the claims of Croats and promised Hungary and Italy particularly good relations and made offers to collaborate.36 They promised that an independent Croatia will respect Italy’s priority in the Adriatic.37 The individuals who are noted in the catalogue as members of the Hrvatski Domobran/Obrana usually had connections with Ivo Frank.38 This probably verifies that the Hungarian office of this separatist organization was led by Frank.

The other Croatian emigrants, who had no ties to (para)military organizations, often worked for Hungary as spies, secret agents, or interpreters. Spies were also over-represented among the refugees in Hungary, as 102 of 116 registered spies registered worked for the Hungarian intelligence service. Probably, the most prominent among them was Josip Metzger, who emigrated to Budapest in 1919, where he got in touch with Ivo Frank. Metzger served in the intelligence section of the Hungarian Defense Ministry, and, according to the catalogue, he spied in the service of Hungary.39 Later, he moved to Jankapuszta and took part in the political activity organized in the camp.40

Regarding the 169 registered Ustaše members, in most cases their destinations remained unknown. Those whose place of residency was identified by the Yugoslav authorities lived in Italy, Hungary, Austria, and Belgium (though only in smaller numbers in the case of the last two). According to the catalogue, 26 Ustaše members were active in Hungary, and 21 of them lived in Jankapuszta/Nagykanizsa/Zákány, where about 60 Croatian émigrés were active at some point between 1932 and 1934.


In 1932, when Mussolini and Gömbös agreed to establish camps for Croatian migrants in their countries, Gustav Perčec, who earlier had served in the Austro-Hungarian Army as a military officer and had connections with some Hungarians, thought that land near to the Yugoslav–Hungarian frontier would be optimal for organizing acts of terrorism against Yugoslavia.41 Originally, he searched for property near Sopron, but in the end he found farmland that was inconspicuous enough to hide the Ustaše members and their associates in the neighborhood of Nagykanizsa. The farmland was the property of Gyula Szájbély, and Perčec rented it under the name Emil Horváth.42 As the first refugees arrived in 1931, from that moment the Hungarian inhabitants near the land were prohibited from trespassing on it,43 which suggests that the refugees did not come into contact with the “simple” Hungarian people. Rather, they only had connections with certain Hungarian individuals, who had the approval of the government.

According to the catalogue of the Yugoslav authorities on the Croatian political refugees, 60 people were active at some point in Jankapuszta or on the other pieces of real estate purchased by Perčec,44 and the largest number of people living in Jankapuszta at the same time was approximately 50.45 When the decision was made on April 26, 1934 to liquidate the camp, there were roughly 30 people living in it.46

Following Perčec’s orders, the members of the group living in Jankapuszta carried out several bombing attacks using arms hidden on the trains that departed from Hungary for Yugoslavia. The Hungarian authorities found this activity very embarrassing, since they had allowed for the creation of a refugee-camp, but not a terrorist training ground, and the situation became more awkward in November 1933, when Jelka Pogorelec, Perčec’s former lover, confessed to the existence of the camp.47 The inspector of the Secret police of Yugoslavia, Vladeta Miličević, helped Pogorelec publish her booklet in a Yugoslav daily paper entitled Novosti.48

After it was published in Novosti, the booklet, entitled Tanje emigrantskih zločinaca [“The Secret of the Wicked Emigrés”], was translated into many languages.49 Pogorelec’s aim, as she herself wrote, was to make the activity of the Ustaše evident to the public, as she found herself unable simply to watch in silence the cruelty and the terror that she had to experience when she had been in relationship with Perčec.50

According to Pogorelec, life in Jankapuszta was very hard for the refugees living there. Perčec ordered them to maintain the camp and take responsibility for its operations, and migrants were collected to work on it. Those who would have preferred to choose their family instead of the fight for an independent Croatia were terrorized by the commanders. According to the booklet, these people had to live under continuous threat, and they were forced to do hard agricultural work in the morning, while in the afternoon they were taught how to use the weapons sent from Italy. Pogorelec was desperate not only because of the terror to which she bore witness, but also because of the attempts made by some of the emigrants to escape and the suicides which, according to her, were not infrequent.51

Colonel Tattay, one of the soldiers who was in contact with the Croats in Jankapuszta, submitted a report to the Hungarian Government on his impressions of Pogorelec’s confession.52 According to his account, it was true that she had been Perčec’s lover, but she had not lived in Jankapuszta, but in Budapest. Sometimes Perčec had taken her with him to the camp, but she had never handled his correspondence. According to Tattay, the woman had visited the camp simply as Perčec’s lover, but this had been little more than a mistake on Perčec’s part, as it had given her a chance to gather information about the camp,53 which functioned in secret.

Perčec, however, was not the only person who made a serious mistake. While trying to give an explanation that contradicted important parts of Pogorelec’s account, Tattay actually revealed the truth about Jankapuszta. He explained that guns were not manufactured in the camp, but it was true that the refugees living there were taught how to use pistols, and they were obliged to take part in military exercises in addition to doing their daily work in the field.54 Tattay’s report confirms that there was a military training camp in Jankapuszta. This is confirmed by the catalogue, as well, since according to the data it contains, 21 of the 60 people living on Perčec’s real estate possessions were members of the Ustaše. Regarding the reasons for the issue of arrest warrants, 18 people were pursued simply because of this fact (i.e. that they were members of the Ustaše), and at least 8 other people collaborated with them. 7 of the 60 people were considered terrorists, and according to the catalogue, 8 had organized assassination attempts. 10 of the 60 people were wanted because of their political activity, and 4 of them were pursued by the Yugoslav authorities because they were accused of spying. Two ex-military officers also lived at Jankapuszta: Gustav Perčec and Vjekoslav Servatzy.55

Naturally, after Pogorelec’s booklet was published, the Yugoslav Government expressed its disapproval of the existence of Jankapuszta, and the Hungarian Government, which originally supposed that a refugee camp had been established, ordered its liquidation on April 26, 1934, i.e. before the assassination of King Alexander I in Marseille on October 9, 1934. The Hungarian government also promised Belgrade that Hungary would expel Croatian emigrants who had done anything which, according to Hungarian penal law, could be considered a crime.56 After these events, Pavelić immediately ordered Perčec to leave Hungary, and he sent Vjekoslav Servatzy to replace him. Servatzy was put in charge of the Croats who could remain in Hungary as real refugees.57

The Most Significant People at Jankapuszta

In 1931, when the Ustaše got the approval of the Hungarian Government to establish a refugee camp in Hungary, Pavelić appointed Gustav Perčec to be its leader. Perčec was born in Valpovo, and he had a residence in Zagreb. He served in the Austro-Hungarian army, and he had several false names (Emil Horvát, Lajos Horvát, etc.), which suggests that he was in the intelligence service as well. The Yugoslav authorities (the Zagreb Police Directorate) began paying attention to him in 1921, as he was suspected of having connections to the Croatian migrants who had been exiled for political reasons and were living in Hungary. He got in touch with Pavelić in 1928, and one year later he traveled to Sofia as a member of the Croatian committee to negotiate with the representatives of IMRO. Because of his participation in the organization of terrorist acts, he was sentenced to death by the Belgrade court in 1929, so he fled to Vienna, where he lived for several years until he moved to Jankapuszta. There, he held military training exercises for other Croatian refugees with the help of some Hungarian military officers.58 After the existence of Jankapuszta was revealed, Pavelić ordered Perčec to leave Hungary, and later (probably in 1935), Pavelić ordered his execution.59

Among the people who were later implicated in the assassination of Marseille, Mijo Bžik, Mijo Kralj, Ivan Rajić, and Zvonimir Pospišil all had lived in Jankapuszta at some time.60 Mijo Bžik was born in 1907 in Koprivnica. He was sentenced to 18 months in prison for having taken part in the commission of terrorist acts, so he fled to Hungary. He arrived in Jankapuszta in February 1933, together with Mijo Kralj.61 Pospišil escaped to Hungary in 1929, having been sentenced to death by the tribunal of Belgrade, as he was implicated in attempts to commit political assassinations. In April 1934, he lived in Budapest, and he had good relations both with the Ustaše group of Perčec and with some Hungarian authorities who were involved in the existence of Jankapuszta.62 No information is available on Ivan Rajić, who was supposed to be the fourth person among the participants in the Marseille assassination who had lived in Hungary for a while.

As of 1929, a well-known Ustaše member, Mijo Babić, was also living in Hungary. When the camp in Jankapuszta was opened, he moved there, and he had close connections with Pošpisil and Perčec. Babić had to flee to Hungary because he had been sentenced to death by the tribunal of Belgrade for having organized terrorist acts and assassination attempt. Originally, he had been a chauffeur.63 As he managed to escape in 1941, after the proclamation of the Independent State of Croatia, he became an officer in Pavelić’s army.

According to the Croatian secondary literature, for a brief period, Dr. Mile Budak also visited the camp.64 If this was the case, than his visit must have been before 1933, as according to the police catalogue in 1933 he traveled to Czechoslovakia and became an active member of the Croatian émigré community there.65

Emil Lahovsky was another significant person among the Croats living in Hungary. He was pursued by the Yugoslav authorities for spying. He also worked for the Ministry of Agriculture in Hungary. After the liquidation of Jankapuszta, he was invited to Italy to be one of the leaders of the Ustaše’s military corps.66 He was born in 1896 in Donji Miholjac (which at the time had been in Hungary; its name in Hungarian is Alsómiholjác). He came to Hungary in 1921. In April 1934, according to the catalogue in the National Archives of Italy, he lived in Budapest, but he often traveled to different destinations, and he worked for the intelligence service.67

The Consequences

The existence of Jankapuszta became very awkward for Hungary not while the camp was actually in operation, but after its liquidation, as it became the foundation for accusations against Hungary for having participated in the organization of the assassination in Marseille, in which King Alexander I was assassinated and Louis Barthou, the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, was killed, along with their chauffeur and two bystanders. The regicide was executed by a terrorist group consisting of seven people.68 The supposed murderer of the king was Vlado Černozemski, born Velichko Dimitrov Kerin, named also Kelemen. He was an expert assassin, but there is no information concerning him after 1932, so in the Hungarian historical writing it is supposed that he was already dead by 1934 so he may could not have been the murderer.69

The assassination was not unexpected, since in December 1933 there had already been an attempt to murder the king during his visit to Zagreb. The would-be assassin was a young man named Petar Oreb who lived in Italy but held a Hungarian passport.70 Oreb and his two accomplices confessed that they had started training in an Italian Ustaše camp where the Croatian inhabitants had been given arms to start revolutions and assassinate prominent figures in Yugoslavia.71 Bogoljub Jevtić, the Yugoslav Minister of Foreign Affairs, confronted Carlo Galli, the Italian ambassador in Belgrade, with these confessions, so Galli warned Mussolini that the Yugoslav political elite knew about the Italian support given to Pavelić and Perčec.72

When the assassination took place in Marseille, photography was already in widespread use, so witnesses were able to take photos of the assassin. The photos revealed that the murderer was a Bulgarian Macedonian who had lived in Jankapuszta with the Croatian refugees before the fateful events.73 The contention that King Alexander’s murderer came from Jankapuszta appeared on the day after the assassination in the French press.74 It was probably based in no small part on the confession made by Pogorelec, according to which assassinations were organized and guns were manufactured in the Jankapuszta Camp.75 The French press, which used Pogorelec’s booklet as a basis for accusations against Hungary, probably utilized this point to underpin the French theory concerning the manufacture of guns in Jankapuszta. Hungary tried to defend itself before the delegates of the Great Powers. Zoltán Baranyai, the permanent Hungarian delegate in the Council of the League of Nations, contended that the accusations against Hungary had to be treated carefully since they were being made in the French and Yugoslav press. In reality, he claimed, Hungary could only be blamed for having failed to keep a closer eye on the meetings which took place in coffee houses and articles printed in the press of the Croatian refugees. Baranyai denied that Hungarians had trained refugees living in Jankapuszta or had given them guns.76 Naturally, he was simply making the remarks that he had been ordered to make by the Hungarian Government, since the assassination of the king made the approval Hungary has early given the Ustaše to establish a camp in Hungarian territory embarrassing for Hungarian politicians.

Within a few days, Mussolini and Gömbös had had a conversation on the Marseille assassination and its consequences. Gömbös tried to argue that Hungary had only given shelter to the refugees, but had not been involved in the assassination. He contended that the support that had been provided for the refugees and the murder of the king were two completely different things which had to be treated separately.77 Kánya Kálmán, the Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs, also met with Mussolini to discuss the embarrassing case. Kánya informed Mussolini that Hungary and Yugoslavia had reached an agreement concerning the liquidation of the Croatian camps in Hungary’s territory a few months before the assassination, and Jankapuszta had been liquidated, though it seemed that some Croats may have remained in the country.78 As we have seen, this was true, since after April 1934 Jankapuszta closed its doors, and the Croatian emigrants who had taken part in or were organizing terrorist acts were supposed to have left Hungary, where only genuine refugees who had come to Hungary because their lives were in danger in Yugoslavia were entitled to remain.


In this essay, I have given a brief overview of the main characteristics of Croatian political refugees on whom records were kept by the Yugoslav authorities. The catalogue found in the National Archives of Italy provides information concerning the destinations chosen by the emigrants, the reasons for which arrest warrants were issued against them, and their membership in separatist organizations, thus offering an interesting picture of the Croatian political refugees living in Hungary.

60 of the 367 Croatian political refugees in Hungary lived at one of the properties owned by Gustav Perčec, the leader of the Ustaše group in Hungary. Most of these 60 refugees were members or supporters of the Ustaše, and many of them organized terrorist acts and assassinations. However, most of the Croatian political refugees living in Hungary were not terrorists or Ustaše members, but deserters or spies, who pursued a less radical form of political activity in support of Croatian independence.


Archival Sources

Archivio Centrale dello Stato di Roma (ACS)

Archivio Diplomatico del Ministero degli Affari Esteri (ASMAE)

Hrvatski Državni Arhiv (HDA)

Magyar Nemzeti Levéltár Országos Levéltára (MNL OL)

Document Collections

I Documenti Diplomatici Italiani. Quinta serie, Volume 3. A cura di Rodolfo Mosca. Rome: Libreria dello Stato, 1953.

I Documenti Diplomatici Italiani. Settima serie, Volumi 7, 8, 14 and 16. A cura di Rodolfo Mosca. Rome: Libreria dello Stato, 1953.

Statistički godišnjak Kraljovine Jugoslavije 1934–1935. Belgrade: Stamparija Radenković 1937.






Secondary Literature


Carocci, Giampiero. La politica estera dell’Italia fascista. Bari: Laterza 1969.

Gobetti, Eric. Dittatore per caso: un piccolo duce protetto dall’Italia fascista. Naples: L’ancora del Mediterraneo, 2001.

Hamerli, Petra. “The Hungarian-Italian Support of the Croatian Separatism between 1928 and 1934.” West Bohemian Historical Review 5, no 1 (2015): 51–70.

Hornyák, Árpád. “A kettősbirtokosság intézménye a magyar–jugoszláv határon a két világháború között” [The institution of dual ownership on the Hungarian–Yugoslav border between the two world wars]. In Találkozások-ütközések: Fejezetek a 20. századi magyar–szerb kapcsolatok történetéből [Meetings and collisions: Chapters in the history of Hungarian–Serbian relations in the twentieth century], edited by idem, 61–74. Pécs: Bocz, 2010.

Hornyák, Árpád. Magyar–jugoszláv diplomáciai kapcsolatok, 1918–1927 [Hungarian–Yugoslav diplomatic Relations, 1918–1927]. Novi Sad: Forum, 2004.

Iuso, Pasquale. Il fascismo e gli ustascia, 1929–1941: il separatismo croato in Italia. Rome: Gangemi, 1998.

Jelić-Butić, Fikreta. Ustaše i Nezavisna Država Hrvatska 1941–1945. Zagreb: Sveučilišna Naklada Liber/Školska Knjiga, 1977.

Krizman, Bogdan. Pavelić i ustaše. Zagreb: Globus, 1978.

L. Nagy, Zsuzsa. “Itália és Magyarország a párizsi békekonferencia idején, 1919” [Italy and Hungary at the time of the Paris Peace Conference, 1919]. In: Magyarország és a nagyhatalmak a 20. században [Hungary and the Great Powers in the twentieth century], edited by Ignác Romsics, n.p. Budapest: Teleki László Alapítvány, 1995.

Ormos, Mária. “Bethlen koncepciója az olasz–magyar szövetségről (1927–1931)” [Bethlen’s concept of an Italian–Hungarian Alliance (1927–1931)]. Történelmi Szemle 14, no.1–2 (1971): 133–56.

Ormos, Mária. Merénylet Marseille-ben [Assassination in Marseille]. Budapest: Kossuth, 1984.

Pino, Adriano and Giorgio Cingolani. La via dei conventi. Ante Pavelić e il terrorismo ustascia dal Fascismo alla Guerra Fredda. Milan: Mursia, 2011.

Šadek, Vladimir. Ustaše i Janka-puszta. Prilozi o djelovanju logora Janka-puszta i razvoju ustaško-domobarnskog pokreta u Podravini za vrijeme monarhističke Jugoslavije. Molve: Društvo za Povijest i Starine–Molve, 2012.

Sokcsevits, Dénes. Horvátország a 7. századtól napjainkig [Croatia from the seventh century to the present day]. Budapest: Mundus Novus, 2011.

1 Ormos, Merénylet Marseille-ben, 16.

2 Hrvatski Državni Arhiv (HDA). 1451 – Hrvatska Seljačka Stranka. Kutina 4. Without number. Nepoznati – Stjepanu Radiću. fol. 4.

3 Archivio Storico Diplomatico del Ministero degli Affari Esteri (ASMAE). Affari Politici, AA. PP. 1919–1930. Jugoslavia. Busta 1341. Fasc. Rapporti politici. Telegramma n. 5801. Galli to Mussolini, September 24, 1928.

4 I Documenti Diplomatici Italiani. Settima serie, vol. 7. A cura di Rodolfo Mosca. Rome: Libreria dello Stato, 1953. Document 41. De Astis to Mussolini, October 16, 1928.

5 On the reasons for Italy and Hungary to collaborate in the support of Croatian separatism see my earlier paper: Hamerli, “The Hungarian–Italian Support,” 51–70.

6 I Documenti Diplomatici Italiani. (DDI.) Quinta serie, vol. 3, Document 470. The text of the secret Treaty of London, April 26, 1915.

7 Carocci, La politica estera dell’Italia fascista, 13–14, and L. Nagy, “Itália és Magyarország a párizsi békekonferencia idején, 1919,” 83.

8 Hornyák, Magyar–jugoszláv diplomáciai kapcsolatok, 27.

9 Ormos, “Bethlen koncepciója,” 133–56.

10 Hornyák, Magyar–jugoszláv diplomáciai kapcsolatok, 213.

11 Magyar Nemzeti Levéltár Országos Levéltára (MNL OL), Külpolitikai Osztály Reservált Iratai (K 64), 24. csomó, 23. tétel, 1927. 73 res. pol. 1927. Note on the conversation of Barcza and Durini, February 19, 1927. Transl. from French by Bálint Gergely Kiss.

12 Sokcsevits, Horvátország a 7. századtól napjainkig, 492.

13 Ibid., 494.

14 Krizman, Pavelić i ustaše, 117–19.

15 DDI, Settima serie, vol. 8, Document 129, Grandi to Mussolini, (n.d.), October 1929.

16 Ormos, Merénylet Marseille-ben, 70.

17 ASMAE, AA, PP, 1919–1930, Bulgaria, B. 927, Fasc. Questione macedone, Telegramma n. 2010/94. Piacentini to Mussolini, April 24, 1929.

18 Ormos, Merénylet Marseille-ben, 67.

19 Gobetti, Dittatore per caso, 47.

20 Jelić-Butić, Ustaše i Nezavisna Država Hrvatska, 21.

21 Ormos, Merénylet Marseille-ben, 79.

22 HDA, 1355, VIII, Emigracija, Kutina 1, Očevidnik. (This is a list of people who emigrated from Yugoslavia in 1929.)

23 Ibid.

24 Statistički godišnjak Kraljovine Jugoslavije 1934–1935.

25 Archivio Centrale dello Stato di Roma (ACS). Ispettore Generale di Pubblica Sicurezza. Carte Conti. Busta 3. Fasc. 19. Elenco dei sudditi jugoslavi fuorusciti croati schedati presso la R. Direzione del Banato della Sava a Zagrabia come emigranti e come membri dell’Organizzazione bandita terrorista “Ustasa”.

26 Ispettore Generale di Pubblica Sicurezza. Carte Conti. Busta 3. Fasc. 19. Elenco…

The catalogue mentions both the camp of Jankapuszta as the center of the Ustaše members living in Hungary and their house in Nagykanizsa, as well as real estate owned in Zákány. The people who were living in these three places are mentioned in the catalogue as associates of Gustav Perčec.

27 Ispettore Generale di Pubblica Sicurezza. Carte Conti. Busta 3. Fasc. 19. Elenco…

Actually, the catalogue lists 726 names, but on the basis of the number of the registration, which is always mentioned among the information, some of the people are actually listed twice. There are 706 different people on the list.

28 Ispettore Generale di Pubblica Sicurezza. Carte Conti. Busta 3. Fasc. 19. Elenco…

I made the tables on the basis of the catalogue in ACS.

29 Ispettore Generale di Pubblica Sicurezza. Carte Conti. Busta 3. Fasc. 19. Elenco…

30 Ormos, Merénylet Marseille-ben. 79.

31 I use the term “deserters” to refer not only to people who left the Yugoslav Army, but also to people who left Yugoslavia and joined paramilitary organizations in Hungary (the Croatian Legion, ÉME) or in Italy (Milizia Volontaria). Naturally, I also refer to people who joined the Hungarian army after World War I as deserters.

32 ACS. Ispettore Generale di Pubblica Sicurezza. Carte Conti. Busta 3. Fasc. 19. Elenco...

33 ACS. Ispettore Generale di Pubblica Sicurezza. Carte Conti. Busta 3. Fasc. 19. Elenco...

34 DDI. Settima serie, vol. 7. Document 41. De Astis to Mussolini, October 16, 1928.

35 ASMAE. AA. PP. 1919–1930. Jugoslavia. Busta 1341. Fasc. Rapporti politici. Telegramma in arrivo 6257. 16 October 1928.

36 Pino–Cingolani, La via dei conventi, 48–49.

37 Gobetti, Dittatore per caso. 23.

38 ACS. Ispettore Generale di Pubblica Sicurezza. Carte Conti. Busta 3. Fasc. 19. Elenco...

39 Ibid., 111–12.

40 Šadek, Ustaše i Janka-puszta, 46.

41 Ibid., 23.

42 Ormos, Merénylet Marseille-ben, 79.

43 Ibid.

44 ACS. Ispettore Generale di Pubblica Sicurezza. Carte Conti. Busta 3. Fasc. 19. Elenco...

45 Ormos, Merénylet Marseille-ben, 79.

46 Gobetti, Dittatore per caso, 53.

47 Sokcsevits, Horvátország a 7. századtól napjainkig, 496.

48 Pino–Cingolani, La via dei conventi, 108.

49 Ormos, Merénylet Marseille-ben, 79.

50 MNL OL. K 63. 130. cs. 16-7. t. 6267 pol/1933. The booklet of Jelka Pogorelec.

51 Ibid.

52 MNL OL. K 63. 130. cs. 16-7. t. 170 pol/934. The report of Tattay.

53 Ibid.

54 Ibid.

55 ACS. Ispettore Generale di Pubblica Sicurezza. Carte Conti. Busta 3. Fasc. 19. Elenco...

56 Hornyák, “A kettősbirtokosság intézménye,” 71.

57 Sokcsevits, Horvátország a 7. századtól napjainkig, 496.

58 ACS. Ispettore Generale di Pubblica Sicurezza. Carte Conti. Busta 3. Fasc. 19. Elenco…, 137–41.

59 Ormos, Merénylet Marseille-ben, 83.

60 Šadek, Ustaše i Janka-puszta, 48.

61 ACS. Ispettore Generale di Pubblica Sicurezza. Carte Conti. Busta 3. Fasc. 19. Elenco…

Mijo Bzik, 22; Mijo Kralj, 87.

62 Ibid., 152–53.

63 ACS. Ispettore Generale di Pubblica Sicurezza. Carte Conti. Busta 3. Fasc. 19. Elenco…

64 Šadek, Ustaše i Janka-puszta, 46.

65 ACS. Ispettore Generale di Pubblica Sicurezza. Carte Conti. Busta 3. Fasc. 19. Elenco…p. 20.

66 Gobetti, Dittatore per caso, 53.

67 Ibid., 98.

68 Iuso, Il fascismo e gli ustascia, 67.

69 Ormos, Merénylet Marseille-ben, 125–26.

70 Ibid. 53.

71 DDI. Settima serie, vol. 14. Document 551. Galli to Mussolini, January 12, 1934.

72 Ibid.

73 DDI. Settima serie, vol. 16. Document 60. Galli to Mussolini, October 15, 1934.

74 ASMAE. AA. PP. 1930–1945. Jugoslavia, Busta 55. Telegramma. 3976. Without author or publication data.

75 MNL OL. K 63. 130. cs. 16-7. t. 6267 pol/1933. The booklet of Jelka Pogorelec.

76 ASMAE. AA. PP. 1930–1945. Jugoslavia, Busta 55. T. 1261/1114. November 2, 1934.

77 DDI. Settima serie, vol. 16. Document 112. Note on the meeting of Gömbös and Mussolini. November 6, 1934.

78 Pino–Cingolani, La via dei conventi, 109.



Number of emigrants for whom arrest warrants had been issued for political reasons

Percent of the total number of emigrants for whom arrest warrants had been issued for political reasons

















































United States of America



Yugoslavia (stayed at home)



No data





100 .00

Table 2. Direction of Political Emigration

Volume 6 Issue 3 CONTENTS



Return Migration to Austria-Hungary from the United States in Homeland Economic and Ethnic Politics and International Diplomacy

Kristina E. Poznan

College of William & Mary in Virginia

While Austro-Hungarian officials initially opposed emigration and considered it disloyal to leave the homeland, the massive growth of transatlantic labor migration, its economic benefits, and its potentially temporary duration prompted a change in governmental attitudes and policy at the turn of the twentieth century. Even as it continued to discourage and police the exit of emigrants, the Hungarian government, in particular, also became an active promoter of return migration. Using files from the Hungarian Prime Minister’s Office, the Hungarian Ministry of Agriculture, and the joint Austro-Hungarian Foreign Ministry, this article examines the Hungarian government’s attempts to encourage return migration to further its economic and nationalist goals. These initiatives emphasized the homecoming of desirable “patriotic” subjects, of Hungarian-speakers, and of farmers and skilled industrial workers to address the state’s perceived labor needs. Officials debated the risks of welcoming back migrants with undesirable social and political orientations and speakers of minority languages, as well as the risks of potential conflicts with the United States government.

Keywords: Austria-Hungary, emigration, loyalty, nationalism, pan-Slavism, return migration

Austria-Hungary, a continental European empire, was a state functioning in increasingly transatlantic networks by the turn of the twentieth century. Migration to the United States, the most common destination for imperial subjects, was often a temporary affair for many Central and Eastern European migrants.1 Austro-Hungarian officials scrambled to determine what mass migration meant for the stability and security of their empire and how to manage the millions of individuals crossing the Atlantic Ocean in both directions. Estimates suggest that in the early decades of mass transatlantic migration, before 1909, 17 to 27 percent of the Monarchy’s migrants returned to the Monarchy.2 U.S. Labor Department counts of migrants who returned between 1908 and 1923, broken down by “race or nationality,” recorded that 66 percent of Hungarian migrants, 57 percent of Slovak, 19 percent of Czech, and 17 percent of Rusin returned,3 putting the most recent scholarly estimate at 40 percent return migration.4 While Austro-Hungarian officials initially opposed emigration and considered it disloyal to leave the homeland, their attitudes changed in the late 1890s and the 1900s.5 The 3.7 million recorded instances of migration from Austria-Hungary to the United States between 1861 and 19136 caused tremendous domestic challenges, but the economic benefits of emigration for the sending country, officials’ inability to stop emigration, and its potentially temporary duration brought about this change. Governmental concern about emigration was widespread at the state and local levels in the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, but the Hungarian Prime Minister’s Office and Hungarian Ministry of Agricultural warrant particular examination as the most active agents in attempts to draw migrants home. Even as Hungarian governmental officials continued to discourage and police the exit of emigrants, they began actively to promote return migration, particularly, I argue, of desirable “patriotic” subjects. This essay will examine the Hungarian government’s efforts to promote return migration through governmental programs in the decade and a half before World War I and analyze how return migration initiatives intersected with broader governmental concerns about Hungary’s property distribution and economic development, homeland nationality politics, and diplomatic relations with the United States.

As Hungarian officials reconciled themselves to the thought of emigrants who might return, they began to try to mitigate emigration’s economic consequences and influence nationality politics by encouraging particular categories of migrants to return. The rationale behind the Prime Minister’s Office’s “American Action” initiative to maintain loyalty among migrants to the U.S. was “to keep alive among emigrants national feeling and, on that path, the intention to return.”7 Furthermore, Hungarian governmental tactics to encourage return migration emphasized maintaining migrants’ loyalty to their home country, a path that appeared to justify, at least to them, governmental surveillance and intervention abroad, particularly surveillance of Slavic national activity in the United States. “Patriotism” became the primary criterion in assessing which migrants were most desirable to attempt to lure back.

Several Austro-Hungarian governmental divisions entertained a number of plans in the two decades before World War I to bring migrants home, many of which fell under the auspices of Hungary’s established “American Action” program. “Unlike its Austrian counterpart,” diplomat and scholar Rudolf Agstner wrote, “the Hungarian government actually bore the cost of repatriating its co-nationals.” One Hungarian official justified the expense by arguing that it was necessary to “prevent the depopulation of the Holy Crown of St. Stephen.”8 The easiest proposal was simply to subsidize return journeys for migrants. Several small cohorts of travelers made use of these direct subsidies, most notably “families left destitute by the incapacitation or death of their principal breadwinner” in industrial or mining accidents.9 These were only the most modest of much more extensive return migration campaigns, which attempted to address a much wider array of governmental priorities related to land ownership and the development of Hungarian industry.

Although return migrants could help mitigate some of Austria-Hungary’s population decline from transatlantic emigration, they also posed threats to the imperial order. Some return migrants were inevitably at odds politically with the government. This was especially true of Slavic-language-speaking migrants who had developed a stronger sense of nationalism and opposed the Monarchy’s privileging of German-language and Hungarian-language institutions, and, more broadly, migrants who had begun to espouse more democratic beliefs in their attitudes toward government. The proliferation of separatist nationalism, democratism, and socialism were all threats that the Austro-Hungarian government considered carefully in crafting return migration campaigns.

Return migrants could help or hurt the government both economically and politically: emigration could drain labor and population, but it was also a source of remittances; a return migrant might be someone who had failed in America, or someone who brought back skills and capital to invest in the homeland economy. This spectrum of economic outcomes made it sometimes difficult for governmental officials to decide how to act with regard to emigration and how to spin the economic arguments for return migration. According to one ambassadorial report written in the late summer of 1908, return migrants were “handsomely equipped with money,” while other reports indicated that most of the migrants returning to Fiume (today Rijeka, Croatia) brought back far less money than they had left with and that the return of a few well-off individuals heavily inflated the average. Migrants who had been in the United States for three, four, or even twelve years were returning with just 6,000 crowns. In one batch of return migrants, 298 brought money back, while 129 did not, raising the real concern that they might require public assistance. Lean financial times in the U.S. after the Panic of 1907 prompted fears of a “panicky return migration.”10

Hungarian governmental officials were eager to circulate tales of migrants’ poor fortunes in the United States to discourage further emigration. The Kivándorlási Ellenőr (Emigration Monitor) and Kivándorlási Értesitő (Emigration Bulletin) newspapers were brimming with stories of migrants’ failures, from the penury of return migrants to unfortunate cases of migrants who suffered or even perished on the ship crossing the Atlantic. An article entitled “Things to Know” warned, “everyone is mistaken who hopes that as soon as they arrive in America, they will find work and that employers will be grasping for them.” It further cautioned that steam and electricity had already made many manual workers superfluous and that employers were responding to bad economic conditions in 1903 by “strongly reducing their business and releasing workers.” The ranks of the “desperate” and “unemployed” were expanding at a “frightening rate.”11 Other issues of the Kivándorlási Értesitő shared statistics concerning mass unemployment in American cities.12 Reports of migrants’ successes, like Ambassador László Hengelmüller von Hengervár’s 1908 report emphasizing their accumulated wealth, threatened to arouse “suspicion” about the governments’ gloomy reports on migrants’ misfortunes. In much the same way that the government subsidized migrant papers friendly to the Monarchy in the United States, so too could they subsidize papers devoted to migration news that aligned with their interests.

The politics of emigration and return migration intersected powerfully with nationality politics. Hungarian governmental efforts to encourage return migration explicitly strove to maintain the narrow majority of Hungarian-speakers in the kingdom. Fifty-four percent of the population was primarily Hungarian-speaking according the 1910 census, though this figure was as low forty-eight percent according to some other estimates (if Croatia was included), and this worried officials in Budapest.13 In the quest to nurture Hungarian-speaking communities, the promotion of patriotism and “Hungarianness” largely overlapped and were easily intertwined (at least to a point). However, Hungary’s efforts to manage migrant patriotism and return migration were not completely limited to people whom they considered ethnically Hungarian. Some officials sometimes promoted the return of Hungary’s Slavic, German, and other migrants to the countryside, as long as they were “patriotic.” But other officials contended that simply excluding national minorities from return migration campaigns was more expedient. In the end, Hungarian governmental programs that prioritized the return migration of Hungarian speakers prevailed because they both addressed the goals of repatriation and gave the authorities a stronger position in homeland population engineering. Debates within the government show the discrepancies between theory and practice, as transnational contests for identity lost out to the easier task of attaining national goals through exclusion.

Interested parties in the United States recognized that for many immigrants migration was temporary and that a sizeable minority would return home. As in Austria-Hungary, officials, employers, and shapers of public opinion in the United States disagreed on whether to accept the status quo of cyclical migration, prevent more immigrants from arriving in the first place, or make stronger efforts to mold arrivals into new Americans. Although economic conditions in the United States and migrants’ own work and family factors played a much more decisive role than Hungarian governmental initiatives, debates about return migration and its relationship to economic, political, and diplomatic questions offer examples of the ways in which the Hungarian government attempted to adapt to the era of mass transatlantic migration.

Labor, Land, and Money

Issues of loyalty and nationality mattered in discussions of return migration, but issues of livelihood, labor, and land were also crucial, and they involved a host of Austro-Hungarian governmental agencies in the return migration campaign. Austria-Hungary’s joint Foreign Ministry coordinated with officials at Ellis Island and worked with local institutions in New York City to house migrants traveling in both directions. Hungary’s Ministry of Religion and Public Instruction worked actively in the United States to maintain migrants’ loyalty in America. The governmental monopoly awarded to the Central Ticket Office (CTO) for steamship passage sales attempted to keep the profits earned in the business of emigration in Hungary, enriching some members of the Hungarian parliament who invested in the CTO.14 When it came to return migration, other governmental agencies also became part of the effort. Hungary’s Ministry of Agriculture looked to return migrants as prospective buyers for the surplus land owned by aristocrats whose fortunes were declining, and the national postal service sought to get a share of the profits of migrant remittances.

Many Eastern European individuals’ earning potential at home was limited by the availability of land, the paucity of local jobs outside of agriculture, and high taxes on small landholdings. These factors pushed them abroad in search of work and wages to pay the taxes on their land at home. These interrelated issues of work, land ownership, and taxes in Hungary emerged whenever governmental officials examined the choices made by individual migrants. Migrants complained to Dr. János Baross of the National Hungarian Economic Association that the taxes on their small farms, just 3 to 10 “hold” of land, were higher than the value of their estates. “Those among us who do not have land are much happier than those who do,” explained migrant András Vojtoka of Csicser (in Ung County, today Cičarovce in Slovakia) “The day laborer earns what he needs to live, unburdened by taxes or debt, but we,” Vojtoka continued, “could no longer bear the expenses.” Baross confirmed to his colleagues that day laborers probably had it easier than smallholders with “dwarf” estates; the “over-fragmentation and pulverization of peasant estates” was among the main causes of migration, not just in Vojtoka’s home county but across the whole uplands region and, indeed, the whole country.15 When the Prime Minister’s Office surveyed sheriffs in counties with high rates of emigration about what could be done to curtail it, many responded, not surprisingly, that villagers frequently returned of their own accord once they could afford to purchase land holdings large enough both to sustain them and enable them to meet their tax burdens.16

Questions about return migration featured a complicated interplay between agricultural and industrial work. As much as government officials bemoaned the emigration of workers, many workers were leaving precisely because there were too many of them for the available positions; that very fact made it difficult to prevail on them to return. The Trade Minister reported to Prime Minister István Tisza in 1905 that vocational workers had left Hungary mainly from the steel and machine sectors because of a surplus of workers; were the government to succeed in bringing them home, as the Prime Minister sought to do, it would be impossible for them to find work in steel and machinery jobs because there was a surplus of available labor in these industries.17 It was pointless for the government to target industrial workers for return migration unless it wanted to invest first in expanding the steel and machine industries to employ them. A subsequent note in the Prime Minister’s office files referred to the reality of the Trade Minister’s conclusions as “unpleasant,” and his report was archived.18 Seemingly intent on having a reason to entice skilled industrial workers home anyway, the government instructed the Hungarian Industrialists’ National Association to survey factories and identify those in need of “trustworthy and hard-working” return migrant employees.19 The political will to encourage return migration, in this case, was clearly far more important than any real economic need.

Until 1906, the government’s efforts had “endeavored only to keep the desire to return migrate alive,” but it had not yet implemented return initiatives.20 As the government’s efforts shifted from theoretical to practical, their priorities also shifted more from migrants’ national sentiments to their pocketbooks. In laying out the return migration operation to the Foreign Ministry, officials consistently emphasized concentrating return migration programs on migrants who had accumulated wealth in the United States. Hungary’s return migration campaigns did feature some elements to rescue unfortunate migrants from penury abroad, but they far more actively sought to entice economically successful migrants to return home and enrich the country.

The return migration proposal of the Ministry of Agriculture from 1907/08 is particularly worthy of note as an example of the government’s concrete effort to promote return migration. The central question was this: “How could we most practicably, avoiding state intervention, sell land to Hungarians in America ... and thus, through resettlement, somewhat offset emigration?”21 The greatest enticement to make this “come true” rather than be an “empty desire,” according to the Ministry, was to “plant opportunities for return.” This meant concerted programs to provide not simply lands but estates.22 One Ministry of Agriculture official proposed having the state unofficially buy available properties and sell them to Hungarian Americans, factoring in some of the management costs incurred by the state. The favored alternative plan, which eliminated some of the potential corruption of the government essentially engaging in land trafficking, was for the Ministry to create a compendium of parcels for sale, with information on how much was required in down payment or how much could be taken out in loans.23 In the end they decided to contract out the Ministry of Agriculture’s program to a non-governmental entity,24 either the Magyar Gazdaszövetség (Hungarian Farmers’ Association), an organization of medium-sized gentry and peasant landholders, or the Julian Society, which had done resettlement work among Hungarian-speakers to Hungary from Slavonia and Bosnia.

The Hungarian Farmers’ Association did indeed take up the task of “easing the acquisition of estates” for return migrants from the United States.25 Familiarity with their “patriotic activities” helped them secure the right to run the program.26 The program was initially contracted for a few years, with a 30,000 crown yearly allowance.27 Potential return migrants would be assessed for their suitability for the Ministry of Agriculture’s resettlement program according to their “financial situation” (the ability to put down a 50 percent down payment) and also their “psychological morale/mood,” essentially their potential for re-assimilation and their patriotism.28 The benefits of formulating a return migration program thus served nationalist, social, and economic goals. Selling estates or even somewhat parceled estates to return migrants for cash, rather than to local peasants, would be significantly less disruptive to local class hierarchies, avoiding the unpleasantness of estate-holders having to sell their lands piecemeal to locals who might have worked on the lands themselves. It also furthered Hungary’s intended trajectory of increasingly mechanized agriculture.

The implementation of the government’s return migration program required sending trustworthy agents to larger Hungarian settlements in the United States to find individuals open to relocating back to Hungary and wealthy enough to purchase land. Utmost care would have to be taken to find agents capable of practicing great discretion so that they would not spark controversy over return migration propaganda.29 Governmental officials initially planned to use U.S.-resident ministers and priests already receiving stipends from the Austro-Hungarian government to preach return migration from the pulpit. Officials proposed either a commission system based on the value of the land they sold (a proposal that was later rejected), raises for ministers for each of their congregants who repatriated, or some other form of financial incentive.30 But some recognized that this would not actually be in the ministers’ best interests, since the size of their congregations directly affected the financial health of the church and their personal salaries. Indeed, Member of Parliament Silvestri reported from Cleveland, Ohio that summer that the ministers in the area, even those receiving a government stipend, “would not gladly recruit” candidates for return migration, since doing so would, “in the long run, undermine the very position of their parishes.”31

Instead, the Hungarian Farmers’ Association used its own agent in North America, a certain János Skotthy, to run the program, with very modest success. The Kivándorlási Ellenőr reported in 1908 that 200 Hungarian migrants in the United States had applied to buy land under the Hungarian Farmers’ Association’s program, and that they planned to extend the program to more Hungarians in the U.S., along with Hungarians living in Romania, Bulgaria, and Bukovina.32 The paper further reported that sixty-two properties/estates were for sale at the time.33 Government-assisted return migration had become a reality, but one extremely limited in scope. Skotthy spent a month traveling around the United States trying to recruit migrants to buy land and return home, but with disappointing results. While many applied for the program, as the Ellenőr had reported, few were willing actually to commit to return migration. Hungarian Farmers’ Association director and Member of Parliament István Bernát pessimistically reported that “few proceed[ed] past the application stage,” either because the applicants did not actually desire to go home and buy land or were holding out for the state to “truly, caressingly, bait them home,” essentially with better economic terms.34

The lack of immediate success with Skotthy’s first round of recruitment encouraged the Ministry of Agriculture and the Hungarian Farmers’ Association to ponder difficult questions about the relationship between migration, love of country, land, and security. What was the relationship between encouraging return migration and the land hunger among peasants back in Hungary? Why was it that some migrants were willing to buy farms on the other side of the world in the United States, but if and when they returned to Hungary they only wanted to live in the place where they were born? Did American farms produce better incomes and offer a more stable living than estates at home?35

The relative lack of interest in governmental return migration programs among migrants in the United States encouraged the Hungarian government to explore expanding the program to Canada. There, one official concluded that success seemed much more promising on account of Hungarians’ reported inability to get used to the “inclement” weather and the much greater gender imbalance than among Hungarian-speaking migrants to the United States. Encouraging return migration from Canada had the added benefit, for the Ministry of Agriculture’s program, that in Canada a far higher proportion of migrants were working in agriculture than in industry, and they were “weathered in body and soul to hard field labor.” They were now skilled specifically in “machine-driven intensive husbandry” and they could become “master” models for the surrounding area’s population at home.36 Implied, but unstated, in the report is that migrant farmers in Canada could more readily imagine a future as farmers in Hungary than industrial workers in the United States, who had much more varied goals beyond a future in agriculture.

Most migrants, in the end, based their decisions to return on family, economic, and work-related factors, not governmental enticement. Rather than being discouraged by their time in the United States, the majority of those who returned, even if they ideally would have stayed, were of “pretty good morale.” In a governmental study on the “psychological mood” of return migrants, many blamed the poor work opportunities specifically on the presidential election in the United States in 1908. They were optimistic and of the opinion that in a short time jobs would be plentiful again. Other migrants, however, were quite disappointed by their migration experiences or continuing poor fortunes; they were referred to as “Die Amerikamüden,” the “weary Americans.” The report indicated that “sloth” and “an aversion to work” had probably contributed to their lack of success in the United States and continued troubles upon arriving home, contributing to their psychological inability to “enhappy” themselves. The most important finding of the study was that return migrants would migrate again if they believed that conditions in the United States to find work improved.37 Thus, even as the government worked to encourage migrants to return to their homeland, even this small survey indicated that the cycle of movement would simply begin again. Psychological factors had little salience compared to opportunities for work.

Bringing Home the “Patriotic” Migrant: Return Migrants and Homeland Politics

The primary characteristic of desirable return migrants, like good citizens, in the first decade of the twentieth century was that they were hazafias (patriotic), i.e. a good son of the homeland. Hungarian officials sending correspondence across the Atlantic in both directions frequently signed their letters, “with patriotic affection.” Every priest or minister that the Hungarian government sent to shepherd flocks of the religious faithful in the United States was assessed, first and foremost, on the basis of their patriotism, their faithfulness not only to church doctrines but to the principles of the home government. It is no surprise, then, that this concept of patriotism, so ubiquitous in other realms of governmental rhetoric, would be prominent in return migration campaigns as well. Officials sought to restore the country in population and in spirit. It is no surprise, also, that migrants who did not fit governmental definitions of patriotism would be excluded to whatever degree possible from return migration campaigns.

Expectations for migrant patriotism were not completely consistent between the Austrian and Hungarian halves of the Habsburg Monarchy. Officials in Austria formulated their assessments of migrant loyalty primarily on the basis of being friendly toward the Monarchy, Monarchiefreundlich, as opposed to Hungary’s hazafias. Both concepts avoided ethnic criteria as their foundation, as was befitting of a multinational state, but the Hungarian concept of patriotism suggested a more active love of and identification with the country. Austria’s articulation of friendliness toward the monarchy allowed for a greater perception of ethnic difference and rested on an acceptance of the status quo in imperial power. (Though seeing eye-to-eye with the government became an aspect of crucial importance in the Hungarian definition of patriotism, too.)

Among return migrants, the most studied and most vulnerable to harassment by homeland officials were men who emigrated without having completed their compulsory military service in the Austrian or Hungarian army. The literature on return migrants imprisoned for draft evasion is extensive.38 But in terms of governmental efforts to expand return migration, the government’s enemies were not wayward would-be soldiers, but migrants who held nationalist views that challenged Austrian and Hungarian control in the Monarchy. Rising Slavic nationalisms in the United States, which had strained relationships with the Hungarian government, and more established contacts among Hungarian-speakers made Hungarian-speakers the overwhelmingly prioritized targets of the major return migration initiatives. On the practical side, Hungarian governmental agencies had the most ties in places that already had Hungarian-speaking Reformed and Greek Catholic institutions in the United States, many of which they supported with stipends, initially involving Roman Catholics only incidentally in some plans;39 in 1908, officials sought to include Hungarian Roman Catholic priests in the effort as well.40 Utilizing existing channels for a somewhat controversial program made the expenses more palatable.

But the targeting of Hungarian-speakers for return migration was about more than just practicality; despite initial intentions for ethnic inclusivity in return migration recruiting, the efforts quickly displayed overt elements of anti-Slavic prejudice, making plain the goal of population engineering. By advertising governmental return migration initiatives to certain segments of the Monarchy’s migrants and not others, the government could recoup some of the losses of emigration in ways that protected the majorities of Hungarian-speakers or added to their numbers in communities where they constituted a minority. This was true on the national level and in more localized calculations. The Interior Ministry identified Transylvania, for example, as an important region to encourage the return migration of Hungarian-speakers, to increase their proportion compared to Romanian-speakers.41

Even in the Ministry of Agriculture’s plans, in which strengthening the country’s agricultural sector would supposedly be the paramount goal, concerns about Slavic nationalism were front and center. Minister of Agriculture Ignácz Darányi explained to István Bernát of the Hungarian Farmers’ Association that migrants from the linguistic minorities of northern Hungary should be excluded from purchasing land through the return migration programs explicitly because of their alleged pan-Slavic views. “Since the return of emigrated Slovaks is estimated at 19 percent, these people with Pan-Slavic ideas slowly infest Felvidék (Hungary’s northern counties, today mostly in Slovakia) in this territory, which is already exposed from a nationality standpoint—with the return of Ruthenians with Great Russian ambitions,” he explained.42 “Strict adherence” to this stipulation was critically important, he noted, because

our emigrants’ repatriation could easily produce the sad outcome that, with the Hungarian state’s help, elements that stand in opposition to the Hungarian state idea would return, and these elements would close out from land acquisition those ...who represent the most acceptable material for settlement.43

It was essential for “the protection of our moral world” to exclude Slavic-language emigrants who had been touched by “Pan-Slavic agitation” abroad.

In a letter to Prime Minister Sándor Wekerle in 1908, Darányi excluded Hungary’s Slavic-language and German-speakers alike. “Among our Slav-speaking emigrants …, such exceptionally strong Pan-Slavic agitation is taking place that the assisted return of these people … is not bearable from the standpoint of the Monarchy’s nationality situation or the Hungarian state’s nationality/minority domestic peace.” While German-speaking Swabians in Hungary were, from a nationality standpoint, of “good feeling,” “the emigrated Swabians in the United States naturally melted into the existing populous/large colony, where ... alldeutsch [pan-German] operations are taking place.” Thus, German-speakers would also be excluded from this first repatriation effort.44 While the Ministry of Agriculture’s return migration program had begun overwhelmingly concerned with issues of land and the liquid capital of American return migrants, by 1908, the program had taken on a powerful nationalist purpose under Darányi.

Hungarian officials were concerned not only about the return of physical individuals promoting pan-Slavism or Slavic nationalism, but also about writings by Slavic nationalists being sent home. The Hungarian government had several tools at its disposal to try to mitigate the effects of the return of undesirable people and materials. Local officials were asked to report on the reappearance of specific individuals, as well as people who received mailings of known Slavic-American publications that agitated against the Monarchy. Alongside the presses in Prague and Túrócszentmárton (today Martin in Slovakia), officials identified presses in the United States as the sources of newspapers, journals, and pamphlets distributed by the “American Pan-Slavic anti-national movement.” One policy adviser insisted to the Minister of Commerce that “preventative measures” be taken, because by the time these materials fell into readers’ hands it was too late to do anything about them. The postal service, he advised, should track the return addresses of Czech-language materials coming to Slovak-speaking areas of Hungary from America and Austria and, if possible, obtain a list of subscribers to censor them more surgically.45

In addition to separatist nationalism, return migrants returned home with other political ideologies that homeland officials considered undesirable or threatening, regardless of the migrants’ professed nationality. Many of the changes that migrants generally underwent in the United States were shared by Hungarian-speakers and Slavic-language-speakers: changes in economic condition, heightened political consciousness and a growing desire for a more democratic Hungary, and heightened modern class consciousness from having worked in an industrial setting. Too radical a position in any of these areas was thought to make migrants less amenable to life back home and potentially a threat, and thus subject to surveillance and harassment by local authorities upon their return.46 “Patriotism” thus signaled a non-threatening stance in nationality politics, i.e. a record clean of activism in anything that could be labeled pan-Slav, as well as a non-threatening stance with regards to the political and social status quo more broadly.

In Austria-Hungary, a host of political orientations was deemed threatening to the status quo, from democracy to socialism. “You could see ...that [migrants] returned with new social ideas rather tinged with socialism,” one councilor reported to the prime minister in 1909. The examples he gave of this, however, were merely demanding “humane treatment” and their elation at being referred to by honorific titles like “Mr.” even by authorities in the United States.47 The social leveling that Austro-Hungarian officials feared from return migrants was less of an immediate threat but more of a long-term one. On the whole, before World War I, migrants did not actively seek to revolutionize Hungary’s class structure and political system on their visits home, but they did support more democratically inclined candidates, like Count Mihály Károlyi, and they started to envision a more democratic future for Austria-Hungary. The consequences of return migration for separatist nationalism were apparent much more quickly, especially with the outbreak of World War I.

Return Migration and International Politics

Prevailing on migrants to return was a priority in Hungarian foreign affairs, but it was not without diplomatic dangers. The Ministry of Agriculture’s proposals from 1905 to 1910 were extensively debated in governmental circles, taking “great care and forethought” to avoid anything that would create “conflict with the American government.”48 Nevertheless, the status of return migrants was among the greatest points of contention between the Austro-Hungarian and U.S. governments, and it constituted a significant portion of the activity of U.S. consuls based in Austria-Hungary. Interstate conversations about the mobility and citizenship of return migrants were complicated by questions of whether return migrants were back in Europe for the time being or for good. As Nicole Phelps, a scholar of U.S.–Habsburg foreign relations, has found, massive transatlantic migration prompted an international debate over the degree to which a home government’s sovereignty expanded to its citizens abroad. To resolve these tricky issues, officials in both countries thus attempted to align migrants’ physical location with their land of citizenship.49 All in all, American and Austro-Hungarian officials had nearly identical goals with regard to migrants (to make them loyal members of their country), which thus put them in competition for return migrants throughout the course of migrants’ back-and-forth travels. The fact remained that, in Hungary’s attempts to lure migrants back from the United States, some degree of conflict with the American government over the proper jurisdiction of specific individuals was inevitable.

Austria-Hungary’s compulsory military service was central to the controversies about the return migration and citizenship of military-aged men. Austro-Hungarian and American agreements on naturalization were laid out in an 1870 treaty, which exempted migrants who acquired American citizenship from outstanding military commitments at home, but thousands of migrants who made return visits were not yet full citizens and thus not covered by this treaty. And while migrants who had become American citizens were legally exempt from Austro-Hungarian military duty on their return to Europe, some officials nevertheless harassed them, especially at the local level. Migrants returning to Austria-Hungary with a U.S. passport or other documentary proof of citizenship were fairly easy to free if they were detained by European officials for evasion of military service. Those who had only filed “first papers” for citizenship, however, were not yet full citizens and often not granted assistance from American officials. Migrants who had worked in the United States and become citizens, but who had returned to Europe for over two years and had no proof of intention to travel back, were considered permanent return migrants and could rarely receive the American consular assistance they desired. If a migrant’s return to Europe was permanent, according to two new acts of the U.S. Congress in 1906 and 1907, their American citizenship could be withdrawn.50 With no international standard on dual citizenship, citizenship’s expiration, or expatriation, American and European officials were often left to negotiate cases on an individual basis. “Many naturalized citizens of Polish, Croatian, Hungarian or other origin, return to their counties of their nationality for the purpose of taking up their permanent abode therein and when the question of their military service is involved endeavor to obtain protection under the cloak of forfeited American citizenship,” U.S. consul to Vienna Ulysses Grant-Smith complained.51

American consular officials were rather dismissive of return migrants who had failed to meet the expectations of American citizenship and embroiled themselves in politics at home. American nativists and proponents of immigration restriction might well have been glad to see migrants return to Europe once injured or too old to work in the United States, and thus not become a public burden, but the preference was overwhelmingly that migrants, while they could retain cultural affection for their homeland, reassign their political allegiance to the United States. These ideas put Austro-Hungarian return migration campaigns directly at odds with Americanization efforts in the United States.

American efforts to keep Austro-Hungarian migrants in the United States ebbed and flowed with changes in industrial labor demands and with the contest between nativists and their opponents, including progressives and socialists. While American nativists applauded the return of every emigrant to their place of birth, the views of Americans sympathetic to migration was more varied. U.S. Special Immigration Inspector Marcus Braun, born in Hungary and a migrant to the U.S. himself, lambasted the Hungarian government’s interventionism in the United States in his 1906 pamphlet Immigration Abuses: Glimpses of Hungary, specifically critiquing Hungary’s efforts to lure migrants home. He suggested that Hungarian officials believed the following about migrants: “Let us prevent them from remaining there for good and let us insist that their stay out there be but temporary; let us insist that they, instead of becoming Hungarian-Americans, remain American-Hungarians,” Braun mocked. “And when they have earned enough to pay off the mortgages on their farms [in Austria-Hungary] and their debts to the usurers, and have saved up enough to begin life anew,” he continued, “let us receive them with open arms and kill the biblical fatted calf in honor of their return.”52


While the Hungarian government’s interest in migrant loyalty and patriotism remained consistent, its direct influence on return migration was limited. Count Miklós Bánffy, an ardent proponent of return migration, was so disappointed by the lack of success by 1910 that he dejectedly suggested either making a final push for the return migration campaign or abandoning it altogether, despite it having been one of his favored initiatives for several years.53 Bánffy wrote the Prime Minister, Count Károly Khuen-Héderváry, that the administration had two choices: “Either to give up the action’s resettlement branch once and for all and, in this vein, gradually decrease and completely end the action,” or, “with a strong hand, to compensate for the previous years’ shortcomings, initiate broad-ranging socio-political, population, and homeland action, into which the Americans’ resettlement could be inserted.” Bánffy considered the latter the “only proper road open to the government.”54 Chastising the prime minister for having failed to support the endeavor properly, Bánffy closed his letter “with anxious patriotic feeling,” urging Khuen-Héderváry to recognize the matter’s “undelayable importance” and to act “without further delinquent omission.”55

The American Action program continued to promote loyalty to Hungary through World War I and even beyond into the early 1920s, hoping to bring migrants home. This effort largely failed. In the Hungarian Parliament at the outset of 1916, members of Parliament, already looking ahead to the end of the war, believed that there were “large numbers of Hungarians” who would “return to their mother country after the war.”56 Member of Parliament and economics professor at University of Budapest Béla Földes asserted that “Hungarians now in America did not feel at home there,” presumably due to discrimination against Hungarians as aggressors in the war, and that they should be “the first to be repatriated” and given opportunities to succeed upon their return.57

While many migrants who had intended their stay in the United States to be temporary were essentially trapped in America for the duration of the war, such a movement for mass return migration was wishful thinking in early 1916 and far from accurate by the end of the war almost three years later. The outbreak of war completely transformed the circumstances surrounding return migration. The extended period of time migrants spent in the United States during the war itself and the benefits of Americanization during the conflict ensured that thousands of Eastern European migrants who had intended their stay in America to be temporary would become permanent residents. Furthermore, the war itself destroyed huge swaths of territory and the Paris settlement at the end of the war dissolved the Austro-Hungarian Empire into a series of distinct nation-states, putting many migrants’ home villages outside of the states with which they identified with ethnically, discouraging many of them from returning. The introduction of restrictive immigration legislation in the United States likewise affected migrants’ decisions, as what had once been a revolving door became a gate, however porous, in the interwar era. With restrictions in place, many so-called “birds of passage” migrated back and forth far less than they had earlier in the century, fearing that the gates might close more tightly behind them. As mass emigration from Austria-Hungary to the United States declined, so, too, did mass return migration.


Primary Sources

Archive of the Immigration History Research Center, University of Minnesota

Haus-, Hof- und Staatsarchiv, Vienna, Politisches Archiv

Magyar Nemzeti Levéltár Országos Levéltára

U.S. National Archives and Records Administration


Magyar Nemzet, 1908

Kivándorlási Ellenőr, 1908

Kivándorlási Értesítő, 1903


Secondary Sources

A Felvidéki kivándorlási kongresszus tárgyalásai, megtartatott Miskolczon... [Discussions of the Emigration Congress of the Upper Lands, held in Miskolc…]. Országos Magyar Gazdasági Egyesület. Budapest: Pátria, 1902.

A magyar szentkorona országainak 1910. évi népszámlálása. Első rész... [The 1910 census of the lands of the Hungarian Holy Crown. Part I…]. Budapest: Magyar Királyi Központi Statisztikai Hivatal, 1912.

Agstner, Rudolf. “From Apalachicola to Wilkes-Barre: Austria(-Hungary) and its Consulates in the United States of America, 1820–1917.” Austrian History Yearbook 37 (2006): 163–80. 

Benkart, Paula K. “The Hungarian Government, the American Magyar Churches, and Immigrant Ties to the Homeland, 1903–1917.” Church History 52, no. 1 (1983): 312–21.

Braun, Marcus. Immigration Abuses: Glimpses of Hungary and Hungarians: A Narrative of the Experiences of an American Immigrant Inspector while on Duty in Hungary, Together with a Brief Review of that Country’s History and Present Troubles. New York: Pearson Advertising Co., 1906.

Brunnbauer, Ulf. Globalizing Southeastern Europe: Emigrants, America, and the State since the Late Nineteenth Century. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2016.

Kramár, Zoltán. From the Danube to the Hudson: U.S. Ministerial and Consular Dispatches on Immigration from the Habsburg Monarchy, 1800–1950. Atlanta: Hungarian Cultural Foundation, 1978. 

Phelps, Nicole M. U.S.–Habsburg Relations from 1815 to the Paris Peace Conference: Sovereignty Transformed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Puskás, Julianna. Ties that Bind, Ties that Divide: 100 Years of the Hungarian Experience in the United States. New York: Holmes & Meir, 2000.

Puskás, Julianna. Overseas Migration from East-Central and South-Eastern Europe, 1880–1940. Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 1990.

Puskás, Julianna. From Hungary to the United States (1880–1914). Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 1983.

Puskás, Julianna. Kivándorló Magyarok az Egyesült Államokban [Emigrant Hungarians in the United States]. Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 1982.

Steidl, Annemarie, Wladimir Fischer-Nebmaier, and James W. Oberly. From a Multiethnic Empire to a Nation of Nations: Austro-Hungarian Migrants in the US, 1870–1940. Innsbruck: StudienVerlag, 2017.

U.S. Secretary of Labor, Eleventh Annual Report.... Washington: Government Printing Office, 1923.

Wyman, Mark. Round-Trip to America: The Immigrants Return to Europe, 1880–1930. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1996.

Zahra, Tara. The Great Departure: Mass Migration from Eastern Europe and the Making of the Free World. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2017.

1 Scholarship on Hungarian migration to the United States was long dominated by Julianna Puskás, most notably her Kivándorló Magyarok az Egyesült Államokban (published in abridged form in English as From Hungary to the United States), Overseas Migration from East-Central and South-Eastern Europe, and Ties That Bind, Ties That Divide. Recently, the field has been revived with the publication of new studies, including Phelps, U.S.–Habsburg Relations, Zahra, The Great Departure, and Steidl, Fischer-Nebmaier, and Oberly, From a Multiethnic Empire. McCook, Borders of Integration, and Brunnbauer, Globalizing Southeastern Europe focus on geographically adjacent areas and include parts of the former empire. On return migration specifically, see Wyman, Round-Trip to America.

2 Quoted in Wyman, Round-Trip to America, 11.

3 U.S. Secretary of Labor, Eleventh Annual Report… 1923, 133.

4 Steidl, Fischer-Nebmaier, and Oberly, From a Multiethnic Empire, 66–74.

5 For a fuller discussion, see Zahra, The Great Departure, 11–17 and Chap. 1.

6 Puskás, Ties that Bind, 21.

7 Letter from Wekerle to Darányi, July 6, 1907, Haus- Hof- und Staatsarchiv, Vienna, Politisches Archiv (HHStA, PA), XXXIII, 100, 3269. For an earlier scholarly discussion of the American Action, see Benkhart, “The Hungarian Government, the American Magyar Churches, and Immigrant Ties to the Homeland.”

8 Franz Pidoll, “Oesterreichische und Ungarische Einwanderung nach Nord-Amerika,” May 3, 1911; quoted in Agstner, “From Apalachicola Wilkes-Barre,” 171.

9 Agstner, “From Apalachicola Wilkes-Barre,” 171.

10 Letter from Hadik to Aerenthal, August 12, 1908, HHStA, PA XXXII 100, 38931.

11 Kivándorlási Értesitő, November 22, 1903.

12 Kivándorlási Ellenőr, February 15, 1908.

13 A magyar szentkorona országainak 1910. évi népszámlálása.

14 See, for example, G.Z., “Emigration Miseries…,” printed in Braun, Immigration Abuses, 78–101. While the Hungarian government’s 1903 and 1908 emigration laws failed to reroute emigration via the Hungarian port of Fiume substantially, the effort was nonetheless indicative of governmental priorities, and Braun and G.Z.’s writings openly criticized officials’ personal financial motives in crafting the laws. On the failures of the emigration laws, see Brunnbauer, Globalizing Southeastern Europe, 151–60.

15 A Felvidéki Kivándorlási Kongresszus tárgyalásai, 156, 153. Baross’s recommendation was hardly progressive. It constituted a modified primogeniture under which there would be a minimum size to landholdings for offspring to inherit; other siblings could continue to farm by paying rent to the inheriting sibling (157).

16 Various county reports in Magyar Nemzeti Levéltár Országos Levéltára (MNL OL) K26, 630 cs., 16 t.

17 Letter from the Minister of Trade’s Office to Tisza, February 11, 1905, IHRC 979, Reel 25. A selection of files from the Hungarian Prime Minister’s Office (MNL OL K26) related to migration to the United States is available in microfilm at the University of Minnesota’s Immigration History Research Center Archive (IHRC) as collection #979. This piece cites whichever version the author used. The microfilm and archival versions can be relatively easily matched up using dates and filing numbers on the documents. Reel 25 corresponds to the boxes for 1910, 14–15 t., even though it includes documents dated earlier, while Reel 13 duplicates files from the boxes for 1908.

18 Report of 3 March 1905, IHRC 979, Reel 25.

19 Magyar Nemzet, March 24, 1908.

20 Letter to Aehrenthal, stamped July 22, 1907, HHStA, PA XXXIII, 100, 3269.

21 Report of July 17, 1906, IHRC 979, Reel 13.

22 Letter from Wekerle to Darányi, July 6, 1907, HHStA, PA XXXIII, 100, 3269.

23 Various documents in Alapszám 2658, IHRC 979, Reel 13, and Letter to Aehrenthal, stamped July 22, 1907, HHStA, PA XXXIII 100, 3269.

24 Letter from Wekerle to Darányi, July 6, 1907, HHStA, PA XXXIII 100, 3269.

25 Letter to Ambrózy from Bernát, April 19, 1909, IHRC 979, Reel 25. Phelps suggested that the plan was never implemented, but Hungarian governmental records and the newspaper coverage of the program suggest that some limited work did indeed take place; see U.S.–Habsburg Relations, 186–89.

26 Letter to Bernát from Ambrózy, May 7, 1909, IHRC 979, Reel 25.

27 Report of May 21, 1908, IHRC 979, Reel 25.

28 Report of February 29, 1908, IHRC 979, Reel 13, and Letter to Aehrenthal, stamped July 22, 1907, HHStA, PA XXXIII 100, 3269.

29 Report of July 17, 1906, IHRC 979, Reel 13.

30 Letter from Wekerle to Darányi, July 6, 1907, HHStA, PA XXXIII, 100, 3269. Letter to Wekerle, May 21, 1908, IHRC 979, Reel 25.

31 Letter from Silvestri to Hengemüller, June 16, 1908, IHRC 979, Reel 25.

32 Kivándorlási Ellenőr, February 15, 1908.

33 Ibid.

34 István Bernát to Ambrózy, August 10, 1909, IHRC 979, Reel 25.

35 Ibid.

36 Letter from Bánffy to Khuen-Héderváry, June 7, 1910, IHRC 979, Reel 25.

37 Letter to Khuen-Héderváry, July 1, 1909, IHRC 979, Reel 25. Der Amerika-Müde was the title of an 1855 novel by Austrian author Ferdinand Kürnberger. The governmental report seems to use the phrase as a cultural reference to it.

38 See, for example, Kramár, From the Danube to the Hudson, 50–51.

39 Letter from Wekerle to Darányi, July 6, 1907, HHStA, PA XXXIII, 100, 3269. Hungarian governmental programs were most easily established in Reformed churches because there was no Calvinist equivalent to the global bureaucratic oversight of the Vatican; the Reformed Church of Hungary could directly welcome congregations in the United States into their own church structure, or simply support congregations abroad without arranging for the equivalent of Vatican or diocesan permission in the United States.

40 Letter from Bánffy to Aehrenthal, February 24, 1908, HHStA, PA XXXIII, 100, 3855.

41 Report of May 27, 1905, IHRC 979, Reel 25.

42 Report #4108, MNL OL K26, 575 cs., 20 t.

43 Report of May 21, 1908, IHRC 979, Reel 25.

44 Letter from Wekerle to Darányi, July 6, 1907, HHStA, PA XXXIII, 100, 3269.

45 Report of László Szabó, March 3, 1907, IHRC 979, Reel 25.

46 See, for example, Kramár, From the Danube to the Hudson, 95–96, and Phelps, U.S.–Habsburg Relations, Chap. 3.

47 Letter to Khuen-Héderváry, July 1, 1909, IHRC 979, Reel 25. It is difficult to know whether homeland officials’ reservations about migrants’ political views had any concrete effect on return migration in the aggregate, but the available evidence on specific return migrants being harassed for their politics is nonetheless valuable.

48 Letter to Aehrenthal, stamped July 22, 1907, HHStA, PA XXXIII, 100, 3269.

49 Phelps, U.S.–Habsburg Relations, 107.

50 Phelps’s survey of the U.S.–Habsburg consular records concluded that military service cases were the second largest issue American consuls in Austria-Hungary dealt with. Ibid., 128–36.

51 Quoted in Phelps, U.S.–Habsburg Relations, 138. Although Grant-Smith made the remark in 1916, when war-time stakes were high, he was describing a longstanding phenomenon present throughout the records of the American consulate in Budapest.

52 Braun, Immigration Abuses, 77–78.

53 Letter from Bánffy to Khuen-Héderváry, August 9, 1910, IHRC 979, Reel 25.

54 Letter from Bánffy to Khuen-Héderváry, August 3, 1910, IHRC 979, Reel 25.

55 Ibid.

56 Letter from William Coffin to Robert Lansing, January 14, 1916, U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, M708, Reel 33.

57 Ibid.

Volume 6 Issue 4 CONTENTS


Present Times Concerning Things Past: On Recent Conceptions of Memory

Zoltán Hidas

Pázmány Péter Catholic University, Institute of Sociology


„Wer nicht von dreitausend Jahren
Sich weiß Rechenschaft zu geben,
Bleib im Dunkeln unerfahren,
Mag von Tag zu Tage leben.”

J. W. v. Goethe

After sketching modern experiences and visions of historicity, the present study outlines two fundamental modes of our relationship to present time and memory. In an ideal typical way, two theoretical conceptions are contrasted for this purpose. A radical system theory of time presumes that there has been a rupture in the human temperament, which has opened our understanding of time functionally by focusing in an accelerating manner on the future. The cultural memory paradigm asserts the existence of the individual as a genuine part of remembering communities, who draws orientations from the past. In the terms of the Hegelian philosophy of history, we have here the pragmatic representation of the past for the sake of efficiency on the one hand and the search for an internal order of the most heterogeneous events for the sake of discovering continuity in human activity on the other.

Keywords: philosophy of history, system theory, cultural memory, relation to the past, presentism

In this essay, I pose questions concerning time and, more narrowly, the ways in which, recently, we have come, essentially, to relate to our memories. I begin with a presentation of the modern shift in historical conciousness (1) and then, based on a theoretical design outlined by G.W.F. Hegel in his philosophy of history (2), offer a discussion of two fundamentally different concepts of time and memory which strive to grasp in a consistent ideal-typical way the potentials of the modern era for assessing perspectives of time. Both take the present as their point of departure, but they assign different roles to the past. One presumes that there has been a rupture in the human temperament (3), while the other firmly asserts the existence of the individual as a genuine part of communities (4). Among the ways in which we relate to past, a third possibility also recurringly appears, but it seeks a radical withdrawal from the world of events.

Modern Experiences and Visions of Historicity

In an era marked by a seemingly infinite proliferation of differences which, according to diagnoses based on the most varied approaches, break the inner and outer human world into spheres that seem increasingly independent of one another, a longing for continuity and interconnection among the pieces emerges with renewed strength. In a life-world of “contingency” and “fragmentation”, which on a temporal horizon that has been brought into motion both sensually and spiritually strike an era named (without any classification of events based on content) modernity, the search for orientation falters between the present and the past in order to gain perspective for the future, which is regarded as open. But neither the present, which is permanently in motion, nor the past, which is seen as inexhaustible, offers any certainties that seem beyond doubt.1

Of course, these empiric and semantic changes of historicity only cause problems of immediate urgency for a manner of relating to the world that seeks to situate itself in time, as it were. Greek antiquity significantly aspired to attain solid models (“ideas” and “forms”) considered eternal and therefore worthy of imitation, so that it could realize them in evanescent time. The Judeo-Christian notion of divine “providence” sacralized some of the events of the world into a story of redemption, but it could only give them religious significance with the appeal to faith in the idea that “nothing happens except by the will of God.” For the early Christian, the existence of the Roman empire was for the most part an uninteresting contingency: the “heavenly city” was an inner issue.2 The man of the time did not have a developed sense of the theological significance of the prevailing order of the imperial milieu, much as there was no real recognition of the thought of the broad historical horizon and the fertile social soil as a potential sociological precondition of the spread of the new religion. Anticipations aligned with the presence of the “end of times,” which seemed to be prefigured and were indeed institutionally represented. The primary reference points of memory, however, were given by the correlation of the history of the Jewry, which was led by God, to the events of the last days in the life of Jesus as promises fulfilled.

As the Western world becomes increasingly open to purely secular approaches (on the basis in part of its own—political, scientifical etc.—efforts and in part of the gradual consent of religion),3 for a long time people thought to find valid handholds in time, seeing themselves on the heights of development as they progressed along a path from a rudimentary but clearly identifiable past to a valuable near-future, designated from the outset. The philosophy of history projects of the modern era unfold the large-scale whole that continues to hold together the spheres of the world that function according to independent principles: global economic growth, global political unification attains in the universal world history the consummation of the principles of humanity that are claimed and hoped to be general. History understood in the singular, as the notion of a unity that goes beyond the multitude of separate histories, can develop as the horizon of humanity, rich with meaning.4

From a rather formal perspective (in other words beyond geographical, historical, economic, and ideal elements), the birth of “modernity” seems just to begin with the discovery of temporality, understood in the strict sense: the future can be filled with acts that are seen as not bound to the past, in terms of the experience and anticipation of a kind of “never has been before.”5 The logical foundation of this idea and also its philosophical-historical cornerstone is an understanding of the original temporality of human existence. All this attains its fully developed form in the existentialist projects of the “moments” that require life-shaping decisions and personal “life plans,” as the task of the person “thrown into the world.”

Of course, the rise of a genuine historical consciousness always sees the phenomena of culture either as in an incipient form or in decline and ruin. The search for that what is generally valid is thrown into suspicion afresh by the always possible critique that can on its own terrain attack reason and rationality as the supposedly highest authority. Herder’s caution was made at a time when the most ambitious world history projects were forming: “in a certain respect, every human perfection is national, secular, and, if most closely considered, individual.”6 Thus, the questions concerning “essence” are replaced by the question concerning “formation” and “development”: metaphysics loses its priority of place to geneaology. The longing for the unified and the unconditional have ever since been washed away again and again by the unpredictable whirlpool of history, from which religious faith, which is increasinly considered irrational compared to the rationalities of the world, continues to seek a way out, stepping from the familiar relevances of the world of everyday life into other worlds of meaning.7 Reflection taken to the power of infinity has captured the generalness of principled thinking, and in its cunningness and refinement it is capable of finding—i.e. “reflecting”—everything in everything. The strength of and hope in unity is shattered by plurality, both in the inner and the outer worlds. What was once held to be the unity of reason unravels into a diversity of rationalities, which remain a worthy object of renewed attempts to make rational insights.8

The formula offered a century ago by Jacob Burckhardt, who pondered the nature of world history, today is only occasionally overwritten by visions of history garbed in scholarly guise: “history, that is coordination, is not-philosophy, and philosophy, that is subordination, is not-history.”9 Every exit from this circle of thought is “transcedence” in the most original sense of the word. Intellectual efforts to join the various worlds are given new momentum again and again by the human will for comprehensive unity and meaning.

The impossibility of an inner-worldly desertion from time, in other words the impossibility of a perspective that allows for total overview, makes reality accessible only through mediations and furthermore makes knowledge of that what happened a process that can never come to conclusion. Giving up on post-metaphysical aspirations that are bound to theories of knowledge or to the clarifying of the capabilities of human reason, the craft of interpretation, which comes near to the status of an art, gains ground under the label of “hermeneutics”. In the process of thinking on thinking, the one-time and present sights of the world appear as “concepts” or “visions” of the world. The relationship between facts and interpretations is increasingly reversed: according to the most logically consistent formula, “there is no such thing as a pure fact” and every fact is an interpretation from the outset.10 For reason, which itself is becoming a historically situated phenomenon, progressively unfolding world-understanding consistently proves to be renewed world-interpretation. Knowledge put into human molds is a world-transforming achievement. Thus, sources also do not speak for themselves, but always wait to be called on by the present to speak. Perspectives are offered by our own subjective relevances: setting out from them, the infinite plenitude of events, which in itself is structureless and unbroken, takes form. The way in which one relates to the past is always established in the present, and this makes it impossible, for reasons of principle, for consciousness today to draw a clear line between the two. If now it is not the past—the pure past, as it existed before it was discerned—that survives for the actual present, then the “enigma” of time is centered in the present, instead of the historical-philosohical future, which bore the hypothetical potential of fulfilling everything.

Saint Augustine’s famous arguments, which in his thinking still fit in the context of the development of an inner man who maintains a direct relationship with God, preshadow with a force that lasts to the present day our most modern way of relating to time: „But even now it is manifest and clear that there are neither times future nor times past. Thus it is not properly said that there are three times, past, present, and future. Perhaps it might be said rightly that there are three times: a time present concerning things past; a time present concerning things present; and a time present concerning things future. For these three do coexist somehow in the soul, for otherwise I could not see them. The time present of things past is memory; the time present of things present is sight; the time present of things future is expectation.11

According to this understanding, past, present, and future are three aspects of a present in which difference has arisen even with regards to itself. If time, as the “expansion of the soul”, is an inner matter for man, there is in principle nothing to prevent the internal rift of “time present concerning things present” from becoming deeper, and the reflective-intellectual work of centuries does indeed attain this. The transformation of the idea that everything has an ordained time and that the rhythm of events beats at a consistent tempo, into an eternal-human “form of observation” (Kant) was crowned by the notion of time as a continuously shifting pattern of human relations and our shared simultaneities and non-simultaneities as a well-articulated symbolic order.12 The present, which had once been regarded as a direct given, thus becomes the present of the “contemporary-world” (“Mitwelt”), invested with meanings, while the past that is suited to the present is a “predecessor-world” (“Vorwelt”), ever more distant in the generational chain and continuously shifting in its significance.13 The relationship to the past is humanly nurtured “culture”; the ever shifting manner of dealing with time is a question of “strategy.” According to this, the main question concerning our current manner of relating to the past—beyond the idea of mere mapping, which increasingly counts as little more than an illusion—is not the dependency of historical knowledge on point of view, but the actual weight of the present in comparison with what has taken place, or, conversely, the power of historical awareness to shape the present.

A Hegelian Typology of Grasping History

In the introduction to the most broad philosophical world history ever written, Hegel offers an overview of the possible ways of writing history. Thus, “reflexive history” goes beyond the naïve primitiveness of the great masters of history writing, who dissolved in their own present. This reflexive history extends from the simple anachronism through a pragmatic representation of the past to the search for the internal order and unity of events in a given circle of humanity. The philosophical approach, which supposes a reasonable progression of events, steps up onto the highest rung of history so that its presupposition prove necessarily true in the coherent progression of events and their presentation.

The treatment of the past, which was becoming a matter of scholarship, seeing the a-historical unfairnesses and totalistic consequences of absolute measures, devoted itself increasingly to the partial interconnections of inner-worldly events, and, in the thrall of “pure facts,” for a long time it considered the discovery of the “actual” events its primary task. Science, which was more sensitive to differences, ruptures, and ommissions, demonstrates the fictional nature of the intellectual edifices of unity. However, for self-reflective historical consciousness, a reading of the memory traces that have palpably survived increasingly proved a form of reconstructive work done on the basis of the sources. The abstractive gestures of science proceed from the primary constructions of the everyday world, constructions with which the debate community, which is skeptical of everyday evidence, is incapable of breaking entirely, its experience in practical “disinterestedness” notwithstanding.14 Because of the uninterruptible dialectic of terms and events, history writing that aspires towards universality itself remains in part in the sphere of influence of the retrospective “mastering of the past.” Any deposit of the past, whatever form it takes, cannot be definitive.

Regarding the hierarchy of cognizance established by Hegel, the paths to direct accessibility of events and the discernment of their necessity in the meantime have been obstructed. Two possible procedural perspectives remain in the potential spaces of recollection, more narrowly understood: the effectiveness of memories correlated to particular (economic, political, religious, or even artistic) partial presents in the respective environment and, on the other hand, the horizon of meaning of the commemorated past, again and again contoured from the present. Although both projects use the implements of historical criticism, the focus of the first is actuality, which ensures functionality, by excluding memories that are dispensable to this. The focus of the latter is the manifold presence of guarded and concealed pasts, and the derivation of the future from some kind of origin.15 As we will see, all this is not independent of our possible ways of relating to ourselves either.

According to an originally sociological insight, the sense of acceleration which comes from the proliferation of groups which transect one another in a single individual brings a new rhythm to the succession of events in the past and the succession of events today. The apocalyptic attitude bound the fulfillment of promises to the merciful arrival of the end times and the unexpected curtailing of history. Among the driving forces of the acceleration, which is also self-propelling, the faith in the expedient transformability of a progressive world is intertwined with the intensification of traffic and the proliferation of contacts. The increase in contents of consciousness for a single unit of time and the rapid change in patterns of behavior and associations have brought about an “intensification of sensed-life” and in general a fundamental transformation of human time.16 In any case, the shocking experience of the compression of the present, which is experienced as something in a continuous state of acceleration, assails with tremendous force the tradition of learning from continuous narratives.17 History loses its quality and role as teacher: expectations concerning the future cannot be derived on the basis of acquired experiences. The new present—according to the first project, which is becoming more and more dominant—selects the requisite accessories of functioning in the spirit of efficacy, if necessary even from the distant past. Our strategic use of time fits well into the frameworks of a manner of relating to the world based on domination—while in the servile dialectic of human and time it is increasinly difficult to find a handhold.

The Forgetful Memory of Efficacy

Let us consider for a moment the first option: systems theory sociologist Niklas Luhmann has provided the most consistent theoretical examination and at the same time self-reflective look at the pragmatic perspective. Each of the social system-worlds, which are increasingly separating from one another, is built on a particular distinction: according to a bivalent code, it selects or—more precisely—creates its own elements, events, and borders in its separation from its immeasurable environment. Science selects truth, economics selects the profitable, religion selects the transcendent in the face of falsehood, the unprofitable, and the immanent, and so on and so on in each of the various systems of the system-worlds. In the meantime, communication embraces the systems, which are closed within themselves, i.e. they are “self-referential”: the borders of the social world are denoted by the borders of communication. If continuity is thus nothing more than the bearing of the systems on themselves, then the task is the connection of the communicative acts that are just taking place to the previous ones in the interests of maintaining the own system.

The system functionings, however, are no longer structured into a unity by any central ordering project. In Luhmann’s model, the systemic place of identity is occupied ever more consistently by difference: the abstract and paradoxical fundamental principle is “the difference of identity and difference”.18 Correspondingly, the divergent motions, which since they were first discerned have been expressed with metaphors of “fragmentariness,” “fluidity,” and “mobility”, find structured theoretical form as “differentiation”. The systems, which become independent without any internal relation, live their own, separate times, so to speak, which for the personal experience of the world finds manifestation in the impossibility of harmonizing individually and communally the spheres of life. Various system times of varying pace and rhythm come into being between the cosmic world-time and the personal lifetime, which are of differing scales from the outset. The simultaneous multitide of non-simultaneous system presents compete for the inclusion of the communicating participants—i.e. even for their creation as communicational partners. For “psychical systems” (which were once called “consciousnesses”), which also count as independent (because they function within their own spheres of thought), participation in the various projects renders establishing and ordering themselves within the temporal differences of the many kinds of present an increasingly unmanageable task: hindering the dispersion of differentiation, in other words synchronizing the presents, is a challenge that puts the “psychical system” to the test. The increasingly fast-paced differentiation of the systems, which by this time are preoccuppied with themselves, place our own observational position (which distinguishes the task immediately to be performed from all tasks that must be neglected) under ever stronger pressure to select. “Not to act is lost time.”19 Complexity, which continues to build with ongoing differentiation, features the omitted selections as postponable. But while the future which belongs to the prevailing present becomes unattainable, as it were (and bears an ever larger quantity of decisions),20 it contracts and becomes increasingly short because of the increasingly uncertain expectations. The evolutionary logic of the process of variation, selection, and stabilization may imply temporality, but the necessity of maintaining the system does not tolerate delay.

In the present which has become permanent not only the “future cannot begin,”21 the continuous communicational uncertainties of the continued functioning of the systems make uncertain the status of the past. For the systems, “now”, which becomes ever shorter in the difference between “before” and “after”, borrows a kind of eternal present tense without duration: the diminuation of the duration of the elements to a point—already ephemeral in their moment of coming into being—is an elementary interest adequate to the irreversibility of time.22 If the present is now the paradoxical unity of the difference of the past and the future, the possible point of origin of novelty,23 then for the assurance of functionality the past appears less and less as the present reality of what has taken place. The past which has been chosen by the system as its own (a past which for a long time was called “tradition”) thus can reach the present, but its contents, depth, and pace contuinuously change according to the exigencies of the given present. For the time of the everyday, the ever-developing technology of data storage, which is increasingly incapable of forgetting, tends to account for historical time, while the appeal to history becomes an incidental question. For the principle of functionality, the historical-causal continuity of the past is merely a question of expedience. Because of the inexhaustibleness of causal interconnections, the selection of reasons that would be worthy of being taken into consideration in a given case falls, furthermore, to the incidental observer.24

If, however, in the compression of time the present continues to lose its expansure, how does the space for memory take form? The re-use of successful experiences—in other words the selection of what has been selected before, the repetition of tried and tested differentiations—of course is possible anytime under favorable circumstances; in this way, the self-regulating system wins time, so to speak. The intensification of complexity, however, increasingly hampers a purely redundant self-creation. Thus, according to the explanation given by the systems theory sociology of knowledge, instead of a differentiation between the tranquility of eternity and the restlessness of change, a model origin and uncertain transformations, in the historical approach of the modern era a temporalized self-description of society appears and comes to culmination. As we already know, history “comes into being if observation of socially important events is made with consideration of the difference of before and after.”25 Historical consciousness lets the present emerge out of the past, but—paradoxically—it founds the only possible identity on constantly shifting differences. Instead of spatiality, the semantics of temporality corresponds well to the functional differentiations of the social world: the sense for “formations” and the “processes” that gave rise to them (instead of the “essence” of “things”) and “originality” (instead of “origin”) become information for the present. Memory does not seek orientation simply in historical succession, but rather it makes its way towards an understanding of the past which makes the present visible as a “space for action,” in which the novelty of the future can be born of novelties past. The problems of the actual present are none other than the always peculiar differences between the past and the future. Seen from the perspective of systems theory, the demand for continuous rewriting of the past (a demand striving for originality) stems from the search for novelty hidden in the one-time evolutionary variations, i.e. ruptures.

Given all this, it is hardly coincidental that Luhmann closes his presentation of the eventually timeless evolutionary logic of systems with a discussion of memory.26 The presentism of system memory that prevails in the name of functionality makes selections from the endless material with consideration of the functioning of the given system: it forgets anything and everything that it doesn’t happen to need at the moment and remembers only the one thing that gives continued momentum to communication. Thus, the primary function of memory is, paradoxically, forgetting, even if the self-description of society continues to the present day to be wrong about this. The stakes are not the coherence of events, but rather the consistency of the systems which is open to new impulses and disturbances—a consistency, which in the social world sometimes can even be served by historical coherence. However, with the obstruction of forgetting, the culmination of earlier results into “identity” can lead to the destruction of the system. Recently, the concept of “culture” has been called on, as the horizon of comprehensive comparisons (instead of stable identity), to ensure at least similarity, in spite of every difference. Culture, as a vessel that is formless in and of itself, is supposed to receive world contents, but at most it is capable of duplicating them by their external observation. Today’s “culture” of the past is the memory of the social system, which of course is quite aware of its character as memory. This twofold reflection, the consideration of what has been bequeathed as tradition, sheds light on the double contingency of the particular past: that it could have evolved differently, and something else could have been selected. With ordered remembering (for instance the guidance of historical comparisons), culture tries to adapt to the increasingly complex social system-world. Systems thinking instead calls on us to observe “who uses what differentiations in order to offer his past for the future.”27

In society understood as communication, instead of the bearer of memory, whether personal or group, the media of memory become important.28 Writing steps past the narrow sphere of oral communication, which is bound to rites and formulas, and the potentials of repetition as means of maintenance. With its tremendous power to record, it makes the improbable probable and ensures the connection of the communicational events that are just beginning with those that preceded them. If time can no longer be organized by acts committed eye to eye, then “previous” events can be taken from the most distant past if a written trace of them has survived. Concrete time, wich comes into being in the duality of events transpiring and events completed, point-like and continuous, and is considered essentially spatial, is succeeded by the abstraction of the distance between eternity and temporality: the increasing validity of the increasingly distant texts thus creates transcendence. In the wake, however, of the process by which the revival from the archives of contents that were recorded earlier (in other words memory) becomes increasingly independent of the circumstances of their birth, not only do untouchable canons come into being, but, ever more distant from the sacral centers, the arbitrary application of the written word becomes possible. In recent times, the increasingly independent systems of the mass media have realized this potential, which was always inherent in writing, amidst circumstances of increasingly open access. Since everything that ever happened and is now happening can be present in an accessible manner for anyone in timeless simultaneity, the past counts exclusively as re-presentation. The communications that exist in a continuous present increasingly distinguish the information of “novelty” from the redundancies of that which is “old,” which is why it is increasingly difficult for the past to find any settled form.

Naturally, the logic of differences does not leave the deliberate observer (the participant in and observer of events) untouched. What was once “man” proves to be a plethora of systems: the internal life of his consciousness separates from his social participation in communicational systems on the basis of principle. Only the self-interpretations of eras that were built on less efficacious differentiations (up/down, us/them, man/world) could cling to the idea of the unified consistency and continuous content of people and groups.

The Committed Remembrance of Significance

Turning now to one of the characteristic recent versions of some internal order and unity of events, admidst the newest precepts of thinking concerning the possibilities of cognition, even the project of “cultural memory” can no longer abandon the perspective of the present. In an era of intensifying differences, however, the overview of the present can be ensured not only by the pragmatics of systemic persistence but also by passing the temporal paths that lead to us. By abandoning any unconditional cognition for its own sake, we make the past that is significant for us the object of our own perspectives. The designated objects are selected by interest that is alleged to be shared from the endless quantity of material. We mold the phenomena that surround us into some kind of unity with regard to their antecedents. In our time, with its eminent interest in history, the things that are thus uncovered also play a role in the memory of the world that lies beyond the scientific world, namely as a story built into the present. The present acts of memory in this approach evoke historical determinations or at least conditions. Jan Assmann opposes his own project of “cultural memory” with the presentism of forgetting, on the basis of the “non-simultaneity of that what is simultaneous”.29

“Tradition” is one of the antecedents of the search for historical continuity, i.e. the notion of preserving and passing on the bequeathed. The modern project of education and refinement (Bildung) as omni-sided self-development establishes as its goal both reception of the broadest register of cultural phenomena and the creative transformation of the world, seeking a balance between the two that is not defined from up close.30 For philosophical history, which in the end strives to seize the indispensable whole of past, present, and future, “self-conscious rationality” is nothing other than the setting for rational development, “the saint chain that crosses events past.” Tradition understood thusly gushes onward across shared material and intellectual/spiritual edifices.31 However, this totality, though in motion, proved impossible for humankind to carry.

For the doubts concerning the transfer of what has been entrusted to us and the questions of content concerning balance continue to proliferate if transience assails the reliability of the processes of cognition at the roots. The clarification of knowledge, which is to say the movements of the modern era that seek to lay its general foundations, throw into question first and foremost the original prestige of ancientness and the higher value of historical developments, in the midst of the external breaking of the old orders. The fundamental operation of reliable foundations and at the same time free self-determination will be an abstraction increasingly independent of contexts. However, at almost the same time, adherence to transformations characterized as “organic development” and the consciousness of crisis, which because of the uncertainties has come to rule, raises the value of the ideal of tradition. The counter-movement of historical Romanticism in the end undertakes the creation of tradition, expecting an artificial stability even from invented traditions.32 In the end, however, the consequentiality of dehistoricization can unveil every order of historical interconnection as mere construct.

With the reappraisal of the techniques of hermeneutics, a lastly philosophical project came into being that—reckoning with the inaccessibility of “the world as it is in itself”—seeks knowledge amidst the recent conditions of mediatedness. In accordance with the genuine interpretedness of our manner of relating to the world, the interconnections of meaning or “webs of significances” (C. Geertz) end up in the competencies of man analyzing the stock of historical tradition, and himself mirrored in it. The art of hermeneutics, which presupposes ambiguity, developed into a comprehensive interpretive culture. For Gadamer, the last stop of the search for a path in multiplicity, which could be reached by the bypass of “foreignness,” was the “fusion of horizons”: “even where life changes violently, as in ages of revolution, far more of the old is preserved in the supposed transformation of everything than anyone knows, and combines with the new to create a new value.”33 The culture of hermeneutics, the roots of which lie in the sacred texts of the Western world (and which became a proper way of life because of continuous and inevitable translation work), presents connection with the ever increasing rows of traditions and the bearers of tradition as unavoidable.34 The fact that even reason becomes first historical and then linguistic shows the enormous power of history over our thinking.

“Narrated” or “remembered” pasts strive ever more to compensate for the present’s loss of orientation.35 Disenchanted history in singular proliferates into histories of meaning. Identity must draw its limited substance from stories that establish a future, at the risk of untranslatability and un-interpretibility. Both anxiety and foresight motivate the manner of relating to the world (which is increasingly resigned, even in despite of any engagement), which takes on the particular having-become as its own past. Time is not a constant category of human reason, but rather a form of meaning with varying rhythm and density which, against the background of intended and unintended events, is formed by common interpretations.36

For the memory paradigm of coherence, the adequate manner of relating to the past is a continuous reconstruction of the interconnections of meaning of events bearing on us. According to the memory sociology of Maurice Halbwachs, which became something of a project paradigm itself, this task, which is indispensible from the perspective of the present, was always guided by the prevailing demands of groups. Time, born as social reality, is organized by the present, commonly lived and inhabited by the members of the group: thus everything falls out from it that, lacking meaning, does not settle within the actual referential frameworks of group life. The force of memory derives not from the past, but from the need for belonging. The place won in the community of memory, which is born as a community rooted in common sentiments and dispositions, ensures everyone who belongs to it spatial substance and temporal content.37

Jan Assmann regards the past that is embedded in face to face contact, i.e. the vistas of communication that can be seen for three generations, as the broadest possible accessible situation of “culture.”38 The present of cultural memory can relate not only to the recent past of which account is held in immediate social interaction, but also to the “groundwater-deep”39 past that is preserved (or, even on the contrary, not preserved!) in memory.40 With the passing of the participants in conversations about things lived as experiences, the process of the condensation of meaning begins, a process that never comes to a close: “there is no such thing as original memory.”41 “Objective” culture, which has been placed in formed configurations (in other words, culture that has been objectified and institutionalized, the historicized successor to the “objective spirit” of philosophical history), is not an unambiguous message, but rather an intricately manifold world of symbols. The ever changing horizon of meaning of a given life (acts and experiences) comes into new connections again and again with past events in order to nourish the present with (his)stories of origins, i.e. history made into myth by memory. Acts and experiences take place within the frameworks of the historical world of meaning, which are always in motion.

The memory of the most ancient groups, preserved in rituals and linguistic formula, connected experiences to the foundational mythical ancient time with little more than a few mediatory chain links, thus creating and maintaing their ties and engagements.42 Festive gatherings lend the significant cadence, which is significant because it always returns as common experience. Writing lends true depth to time, which thus passes less and less in the spirit of the eternal and unchangeable repetition of everything. In contrast with the bards, who are interested in memory literally repeated, the faith of the literate man insists not on the unerrability of what is recited, but rather on some kind of meaning in what is written. Instead of volatile words, re-readable writings contain the treasure chest of meaning, which for groups comprised of individuals is opening to be ever more broad: the contents that can be revived, i.e. that are hoped to be alive. The administrative tool of writing, which in all likelihood was created for everyday storage, becomes a tool for orientation in the cosmic world, which is identified with its own world. In other words, it becomes the setting for culture, understood as cultural memory. This is how writing dons the sanctity of a solemnity that goes beyond the everyday.

Regarding the new manner of relating to time, the fact that writing can be resumed, continued, or forgotten and lost of course induces change, and makes us more sensitive to change. In the emerging written culture, a veritable stream of texts begins to flow in the ceaseless rewriting, writing anew, and continued writing towards inundation. While the ever growing distance of what has been recorded makes it possible to step out of the direct bonds, it also sanctifies unmoveable and inviolable canons. In other words, it designates obligatory points of reference for every cultural practice, which then, driven in part by the fear of the passing of the community of its origins, are taken in hand by the activity centered on the cultivation of meaning, which is tailored to the exigencies of the changing present. The sharpness of the borders drawn in the world of the mentality depends mostly on the intensity of the external or internal threats to the culture perceived as one’s “own” and the experiences of rupture. Actual conflicts and sharper differentiations can be projected on each other with increasing intensity. And if history begins to become temporal, the counter-realities that are excluded with counter-concepts can be characterized as belonging exclusively to the past, which from time to time degenerates into their expulsion from the present.43

In the end, however, it is not the “spirit of writing” that decides our relationship to events. Slowing the pace of change and maintaining momentum are both cultural accomplishments. One of the functions of the Egyptian list of kings was to show that over the course of the millennia that had passed since the end of the era of the gods nothing worthwhile had happened. The need for power to rest on descent or inheritance could find a strong buttress in the notes of the initiated specialists of memory, notes which were intended either to give an impression of timelessness or to serve forgetfulness. In contrast, individualities and particularities that were considered significant gave impetus to the institutionalization of movement: this intellectual attitude, which served essentially as the foundation for historical consciousness, can be tied most adequately to expectations and hopes of oppressed situations.

The newest form of a genuine relationship between memory and identity is the attempts to draw ourselves from historical time: immersion into ourselves is also immersion into histories. Our culture has thus widely become a culture of memory, in which the self-image of the people and collectives remembering is formed by the events that have taken place involving them and the narratives of these events. Historical memory has become the primary forum for self-assertion and self-preservation, which makes historical developments (which always demand reconstruction) internal. It is not simply that “we are what we remember,” but rather, according to the consequentiality of the idea of historicity, because of the fundamentally temporal nature of our being, we strive to acquire knowledge of ourselves first and foremost by narrating histories. In the orderly system of narratives, we assure ourselves again and again of “our own roots and goals, truths and dreams.”44

Historical memory borne in communities of meaning is thus called on to mediate between “facts” and “reconstructions”: to create, through rereading, the order of common experiences. Giving up on grand narratives, it strives to look both forwards and backwards in histories that can be narrated, driven by the compulsion for ever-changing re-narration. Today, historical scholarship is also taking part in the debates concerning the work of memory, with greater sensitivity to ruptures instead of continuity and plurality instead of unity. This distinctive positive reassessment of history is tied to precursors from cultural Protesantism. Christianity understood as cultural history seeks to convince itself of its own absoluteness in the face of the relativizing force of history: we should become that which the fertile forces of the West enable us to be.45

However, according to Assmann’s exemplary case study, the more distant socio-cultural precursors of our preeminent culture of memory are to be sought in the biblical narrative: the primal model and foundational story for our historically based culture of memory is the story of the exodus from Egypt.46 For Israel, the meaningful form of time is determined by the significance-rich stories of the wanderings with God. The anthropological-cultural factor of memory here is filled with significant contents not by the closedness of a cosmic order, but rather by a process guided by the divine. The compactness of culture, in which power and salvation, truth and righteousness come together in a unity that in principle cannot be broken,47 breaks open in ancient Israel. The plethora of inscriptions recording the behavioral prescriptions in the late Egyptian temple protect the ancient Egyptian regulations of life from change, even in the midst of threats and experiences of foreignness.48 In contrast with the community that has been anchored in the cosmos and with its self-image, which in the end has become iconographically stabilized, the notion of continuity developing in created and creating time is an achievement of world-historical importance. The narrative books of the biblical redaction draw the bearings of the own essence and proper action not from some unhistorical primal time, but rather from the datable past. The commandment to remember in Deuteronomy is a paradigm of unity and belonging that is drawn from the events of this world (significant time-myths). In the soil of political vicissitudes and historical traumas, in the wake of the unraveling of the framework-precepts of the old order of meaning, they recall the memory of a covenant that was reached with a divine party but which in the meantime has been forgotten.49 God remains faithful to the people led out of the counter-world of Egypt and keeps his promise to its descendants. According to the account, which is of dubious historical credibility, the book of the covenant, which unexpectedly rises from oblivion, prompts the shaken king Josiah to return to Yahweh. The powerful stories of sinfulness and liberation become symbolic figures of memory, which originally were born by a kingdom striving to assert legitimacy and a small monotheistic religious movement. In opposition to the terror of forgetting, it becomes necessary to develop a technology of memory that chisels into the heart.50 The history is made theology by the counter-stories of figures of commemoration of liberation. The event of the covenant between God and his people demands ceaseless “chiseling into the heart, confirmation, and teaching”:51 the prophets read the twists of fate as consequences of faithlessness; the everyday order of reviving memory is canonized by the continuous editorial work of the priesthood.

At the same time, Assmann performs a backtracking of the memory traces which are often beneath the surface, unconscious, or simply suppressed, by ascribing them to the primary differentiations of our own culture. Thus, light is also cast on their unfortunate consequences, consequences which intellectual attempts were made again and again to interrupt, for instance by appealing to a counter-history. The very influential counter-memory of the cosmo-theist unity set in opposition to the monotheist unity, the figure of the “Egyptian Moses,” always reemerges from memory,52 which then seeks a broader Ecumene than the Mosaic distinction between true and false religion. The outlines of the structural intolerance lurking in monotheism’s demand for exclusiveness emerge out of the contrast of a counter-world based on a divergent principle (compactness in the absence of differentiation), the serious precondition of which is that the conquered are willing to correspond to the dominant pantheon, organized according to similar functions.

The theoretical withdrawal from a history highly significant for us (taken backwards in time) leads to a fundamentally different world, the time structure of which presents a different model. For the order of time valid for the world that preceded and surrounded the biblical world (i.e. for the traditional consciousness of time in ancient Egypt), the present was nothing more than the past, present in the present.53 In every ruler, the predecessors continued to function in that the ruler kept both the country and the world as a whole in momentum, linking tomorrow to yesterday. The individual human life takes place with its back to the future, gazing towards the past. Gratitude felt for good deeds links it to the community, while with its acts it builds its own monument. According to morality inherent to time, the real sin is not breaking the promise concerning the future, but rather forgetting the past.54 The distance from the era of mythic ancient images does not grow smaller with the passing of time. A past, strictly understood, is only supported by an unexpected break of what was, until it was ruptured, a whole. For Egypt, the foreign rule of Assyria and Persia meant the intrusion of chaos.

With regards to the aspects of time of the cultural memory of the West, in its biblical framework, the impossibility of ever bringing retrospection to a close implies a past that is always to be understood in the plural. Myth “is renewed together with every shifting present, which wins a new tinge of meaning out of it.”55 Myth wins its uninterrupted renewal from the wealth of versions of memory and counter-memory, since in this wealth old and new, disclosed and obstructed, built and buried, canonical and apocryphal, orthodox and heterodox come into tension with one another.56 Fundamental dualities run throughout the biblical text itself: the desert in contrast with the city, Israel in contrast with Judea, the state in contrast with religion, prophets in contrast with priests, the exclusiveness of Exodus in contrast with the universality of creation. If the subversive and excluded remain part of memory (which is often beneath the surface), then the articulation of contents bursting from the unconscious and the vanishing of narrative contents into the background never come to an end. “Even that which is new can only appear in the form of the reconstructed past.”57 The alternative past, which creates a contrast with the present, creates non-synchronicity, in which the primary present can be turned out of its corners with “saving” counter-stories.58

As a countermove to the overly strong demand for coherence, the work of drawing nigh and distancing is constantly underway: in the process of narrating ourselves, we present ourselves as if in a mirror in a new history again and again. Although the project of “cultural remembering” speaks about and to the person living the present together with others as it unfolds in histories, our validities are always tied to given groups and their narrations of history, which immediately throws their origins into uncertainty. Origin as some kind of “other” who can and should be addressed is always, superfluously, at our disposal, as it were. In this model, this is the legitimate place for the intrusion of novelty. In spite of the openness to the future, this future, which structures itself through memory, is not the future of the promises of progress, but rather the future of conjurings of the past. Here, the weight of presentism rests on the present concerning things past.

The paradigmatic story of Exodus, of course, is also the Western story of the shared search for freedom.59 The flight from the symbolic space of “Egypt” is the break from the bad order of servitude and the entry into the order of freedom. This revolutionary story, which is always available for retelling, is the tradition of self-liberation, the roots of which lie in tradition.

In front of finitude, commemoration pulls lines of origin towards its plans, which with regards to the handling of time is a strategy of deceleration.60 The present, which bears histories, can become overburdened at any time, of course: sometimes with the tremendous compulsion of the past, sometimes with the contingency of its handholds. As a possibility that lies outside the inner-worldly transcendence of the past, the step from the changes into a transcendent state above or beyond time remains. This is an allegedly unbounded project with an existentialist self-projection into the future, in a religious or a secular manner.

A Concluding Remark

On the basis of a still usable typology of G.W.F. Hegel concerning the writing of history in modernity, we have discussed two systematic theoretical attitudes to memory with very opposite relations to the past. The first one is centered preferably around forgetting for the sake of a functional efficacy, while the second draws on significant pasts for the sake of creative stability. Both theoretical programs are marked by a high grade of intellectual consistency and can thus serve even empirical investigations into our modern stance, as consistency, according to Max Weber, “has and always has had power over man, however limited and unstable this power is and always has been in the face of other forces of historical life”.61


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1 See e.g. Makropoulos, Modernität und Kontingenz.

2 Augustine: De Civitate Dei, Books XVII–XVIII. Important exceptions include Origen (III) and Orosius (IV–V).

3 On these processes, see Max Weber’s study on Protestant Ethic.

4 See Koselleck, “Historia magistra vitae,” 26–42.

5 Idem, “Neuzeit,” 222–54.

6 Herder, “Auch eine Philosophie der Geschichte zur Bildung der Menschheit,” 509.

7 Schütz, “On Multiple Realities,” 207–59.

8 Schnädelbach, Vernunft, 137.

9 Burckhardt, Weltgeschichtliche Betrachtungen, 17.

10 For the most extreme position, see White, The Content of the Form. According to White, the same series of events can be narrated legitimately in the most varied genres, from the satire to the tragedy, the comedy, and the romance.

11 Augustine, Confessions, Book XI/20.

12 Cf. Elias, Über die Zeit.

13 Schütz, Strukturen der Lebenswelt, 129.

14 Ibid., 245–59.

15 On the latter thought see Marquard, “Zukunft und Herkunft,” 45–58.

16 See Rosa, Beschleunigung, 243. Koselleck, “Gibt es eine Beschleunigung der Geschichte?,” and idem, “Zeitverkürzung und Beschleunigung,” 150–202. Simmel, Philosophie des Geldes, 696, and idem: “Die Großstädte und das Geistesleben,” 227.

17 See Rushkoff, The Present Shock. Nyíri, “Historical Consciousness in the Computer Age,” 75–83. 

18 See Luhmann: Soziale Systeme, 26.

19 Idem, “Temporalisierung von Komplexität,” 280.

20 Idem, Soziale Systeme, 70.

21 Idem, “The Future Cannot Begin,” 130–52.

22 See idem, “Temporalisierung von Komplexität,” 242, 296.

23 Idem, Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft, 1004.

24 Ibid., 1011.

25 Ibid., 573.

26 Ibid., 576.

27 Luhmann: “Kultur als historischer Begriff,” 41, and idem: Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft, 587, citation 593.

28 On the undermentioned, Luhmann, Die Realität der Massenmedien, and Esposito, Soziales Vergessen.

29 Assmann, “Nachwort,” 400–14.

30 See for instance Friedrich Schiller’s letters on Humanism and aesthetic education in: Schiller, On the Aesthetic Education, 53–57.

31 Hegel, Vorlesungen über die Geschichte der Philosophie 1, 21.

32 See for instance Hobsbawm, “Inventing Traditions,” and idem: “Mass-Producing Traditions: Europe, 1870–1914,” 1–14, and 263–308.

33 Gadamer, Wahrheit und Methode, 286.

34 See Reinhard, “Die hermeneutische Lebensform des Abendlandes,” 68.

35 On the notion of compensation see Ritter, “Die Aufgabe der Geisteswissenschaften in der modernen Gesellschaft,” 105–40.

36 See Rüsen: “Was heißt: Sinn der Geschichte, 17–47. Assmann touches on this: Ägypte, 11.

37 Assmann on Halbwachs for instance, “Erinnern, um dazuzugehören. Schrift“ 101–23. Halbwachs on time, La mémoire collective, Chapter 3.

38 In his last book touching on this Halbwachs also makes this step, which covers some two-thousand years: La topographie légendaire des évangiles en Terre Sainte.

39 Cf. Thomas Mann’s famous opening sentence in his Joseph-tetralogy: „Tief ist der Brunnen der Vergangenheit.”

40 Assmann devoted a separate book to Thomas Mann’s religious theory “book of time,” Joseph and his Brothers.

41 Assmann, Exodus, 101. Also Assmann, Das kulturelle Gedächtnis, 40.

42 On the following see Assmann, Das kulturelle Gedächtnis, 29–160, and idem: “Was ist das ‘kulturelle Gedächtnis’?,” 11–44.

43 On the latter idea see Koselleck, “The Historical-Political Semantics of Asymmetric Counterconcepts,” 155.

44 Assmann, Exodus, 10.

45 In one of the most determined projects of prevailing over historicism within history, theologue Ernst Troeltsch claims to find the indisputable superiority of Christianity in his comparative study of the whole of history. At this point, Christian theology becomes cultural scholarship. See Troeltsch, Die Absolutheit des Christentums und die Religionsgeschichte, and Graf–Hartmut Ruddies, “Ernst Troeltsch: Geschichtsphilosophie in praktischer Absicht,” 128.

46 Assmann, Das kulturelle Gedächtnis, 196–228, most recently in idem, Exodus.

47 Idem, Ma’at: Gerechtigkeit und Unsterblichkeit im Alten Ägypten, 177, and idem, Herrschaft und Heil.

48 Idem, Das kulturelle Gedächtnis, 177.

49 See for instance Weber, Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft, 257.

50 See Yerushalmi, Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewisch Memory.

51 Assmann, Exodus, 117, cf. Assmann, Cultural Memory and Early Civilization. 79, 196, and 272.

52 Idem, Moses der Ägypter, and idem, Die Mosaische Unterscheidung.

53 On the following see idem, Steinzeit und Sternzeit, 261.

54 Idem, Herrschaft und Heil, Chapter 7.

55 Idem, Exodus, 101.

56 See idem, “Was ist das ‘kulturelle Gedächtnis’,” 38.

57 Idem, Das kulturelle Gedächtnis, 42.

58 Ibid, 78, and 222, with reference to the concept-formation of Protestant theologue Gerd Theißen, “contra-present memory”.

59 See Walzer, Exodus and Revolution; Menke, “Die Lehre des Exodus: Der Auszug aus der Knechtschaft,” 47–54.

60 See A. Assmann, Zeit und Tradition.

61 Gert and Mills, ed., From Max Weber, 324.

Volume 6 Issue 4 CONTENTSVolume 6 Issue 4 CONTENTS


A Gaze Focused on Itself: On the Perception of Time in the Writing of the History of the Present

Zsombor Bódy

Pázmány Péter Catholic University, Institute of Sociology


“Since the past has ceased to throw its light upon the future, the mind of man wanders in obscurity.”

Alexis de Tocqueville: On Democracy in America


Following in the wake of Reinhart Koselleck’s analyses of historical time, the study examines the contemporary history’s perception of time. Comparing it with the perception of time in earlier classical periods of historiography and looking at problems of historical memory, the analysis comes to the conclusion that, in the recent development of historiography and particularly in the writing of the history of the present, a new presentist perception of time has become dominant which differs radically from the structure of the perception of time based on a horizon determined by experience and expectation, on which history as an academic discipline was established. Therefore, the writing of the history of the present is no longer a continuation of the roughly 200-year-old story of history as an academic discipline, but a new practice, whose internal characteristics and position among other disciplines which study the society of the present from different perspectives (such as sociology, political science, etc.) cannot yet be regarded as fully clarified.

Keywords: history of the present, contemporary history, perception of historical time, memory, Koselleck


Timothy Garton Ash, recalling how he witnessed an event of the Velvet Revolution in Prague, mused that no historian would ever be in a more advantageous position than he to report on the events taking place in front of him, thus enabling him to acquaint himself with them directly, in contrast with historians who would subsequently try to reconstruct the developments based on partial sources.1 Koselleck, on the other hand, demonstrates with a specific example that in the early nineteenth century, serious historians rejected a proposal to write an extensive work of history going up to the present. According to the counter-arguments, the conditions of the present were changing too quickly, and they were too rudimentary for historians to capture. Furthermore—and this is the essential point—the appropriate perspective for the study of events was lacking and could only be created through the passage of time.2 The difference between the two approaches is obvious. The example cited by Koselleck is related to the naissance of history as a field of study. The question is whether Timothy Garton Ash’s suggestion, representing a contrasting approach, signals the end of the roughly 200-year-old era of history as an academic discipline. In other words: can contemporary history be considered history at all?

The question might sound surprising at first, as one is aware that there are many historians conducting research concerning the history of the present, much as there are many studies of this area in historical periodicals.3 However, many researchers embarking on the study of the history of the present have encountered uncertainties or crisis symptoms when attempting to identify the characteristics and position of this discipline.4 The writing of the history of the present seems to be more obviously problematic in Central and Eastern Europe than elsewhere.5 The fact that the history of the present is somehow weak compared to the various forms of memory and non-academic representations of history is shown by the long list of complaints raised by professional historians against the memory market.6 There seems to be an endless supply of various forms of remembrance, and the demand for them is also inexhaustible in Central and Eastern European societies.7 Professional histories of the present often seem lost in the flood of historical memory and popular history.8 Against an abundance of amateurish historical books, historical television programs, magazines, traditionalist associations and movements, an abundance of state-initiated (or party-initiated) remembrance policy drives, festivals and other programs organized as part of historical and cultural tourism, the publications written by professional historians seem pale and ineffective. Furthermore, they reach a far narrower audience.9 Why does history—and in particular the history of the present—sound like a faint voice in the current polyphony of the study and representation of the recent past? I contend that there are two interrelated reasons for the fact that the history of the present is weak and lacks authority. One of these lies in external (cultural, market-based, and political) challenges which have a particularly strong impact on the history of the present in Central and Eastern Europe. The variety of challenges faced by professional historians raises the question of the status of memory in contemporary history and other questions, such as how testimony puts pressure on other types of historical sources, to what extent historiography as academic practice is counter-memory, and how new media have changed the power relations of memory-related and scholarly discourses.10 It would also be worthwhile to analyze methodically changes in the position of professional historiography in the academic and cultural/political sphere. I cannot embark on such an enterprise of the sociology of science here, I would note that in the twentieth century, historiography played a role outside of the academic sphere considerably larger than the role it has at the present. Both before 1945 and in the socialist era, in Hungary, people in leading positions among professional historians were in many cases influential politicians as well. Kúnó Klebelsberg in the 1920s and Erik Molnár in the 1950s actually guided the work of talented young historians as ministers, guiding them to pursue various fields of research which they considered as important. This would be inconceivable today. Professional historians were often involved in political tasks in the twentieth century, e.g. in areas of cultural policy and undertaking background work for foreign policy during World War II. They also determined or at least influenced the topics of public discourse, and in many cases they simply became politicians. One could cite numerous examples of this from period of the 1989/90 change of regime. Meanwhile, the discourses of history remained strictly academic according to their own norms, and this included the exclusion of texts that did not fulfill the criteria of the discipline from the academic register. Today, in contrast, the borders between historical and political discourses seem to be sadly permeable, primarily from the direction of the latter. Politicians play significant roles in the inner world of academic historiography, for example founding new institutions the function of which is to shape the picture of the past, while historians play hardly any role in politics or in the public sphere.11

But beyond these questions of external challenges, which a reflective history of the present has to face, the main internal reason for the weakness of the writing of the history of the present lies in the implicit premises of history of the present, primarily in its perception of historical time, and in its—actually paradoxical—academic self-definition.12 Although the problems of the history of the present may be particularly obvious in Central and Eastern Europe, where political actors have often tried to shape the field of the history of the present more directly than in other countries, these internal reasons are of a universal nature and not tied to this region.

Looking through the history of historiography, one finds several key paradoxes. In the nineteenth century and even later, for instance, historiography considered itself an objective academic discipline while at the same time it was one of the implements of the project of nation-building. These paradoxes can actually have a seminal and incentive effect.13 However, the paradox on which contemporary history is based leads to a misunderstanding which in the current cultural-political constellation makes it ineffective compared to other forms of studying and presenting the recent past. This misunderstanding is related to the foundations on which the history of the present wants to build its authority outside of the narrower circle of professional historians. In this sense, the weakness of contemporary history is not the internal weakness of scholarly production. The history of the present can undoubtedly boast a number of excellent, innovative research projects, and there are productive debates going on within the profession, for instance at conferences and in journals. However, this research and these debates have a very modest authority, persuasive power, or transmissibility to a wider audience.14 But the crucial point is quite simply that the various players studying and representing the past don’t seem to be willing to accept the claim of professional contemporary history to be the judge of the validity of knowledge of the recent past. In certain countries (for example, in Germany), professional contemporary historians seem to hold stronger positions, but elsewhere, they seem to be as weak as their Central European counterparts. In France, according to the diagnosis established by Pierre Nora, history is on the brink of collapse against the flood of the various forms of remembrance.15 Francois Hartog speaks about the impotence of history replacing the former omnipotence of history.16 We believe that the root of the problem lies in the transformation of the perception of historical time, which has removed the earlier foundations—a certain structure of historical temporality—to which contemporary history refers, while still defining itself as part of history as an academic discipline.

Perception of Time, Scholarly History, and Contemporary History

Contemporary history as a historical discipline is a relatively recent phenomenon. Nora notes that when he was studying at university, you couldn’t write a dissertation on a post-1918 topic.17 Gérard Noiriel said that in England, before World War I, no scholarly historical works were written on topics from the period after 1837, the year of the first electoral reform. Historical research on the French revolution began in roughly 1889, a century after it broke out. Although the concept and era of contemporary history—which in France still actually started with 1789 and in the United Kingdom originally with 1837—has existed since the beginning of the twentieth century, historians initially were rather reluctant to write about the present, which has been understood as an era the contemporaries of which are still alive.18 Then, beginning in the 1970s (although not without some precursory works), research on the present era spread very quickly among historians, simultaneously with the rapid expansion of the concept and practices of historical memory. Today, it is no longer surprising if someone writes a historical study about a topic from 20–25 or even only 10 years ago. Memory studies have almost grown into an independent discipline.19 To understand the reasons and nature for the emergence of contemporary history and the trend of memory, we need first to consider why historiography was earlier reluctant to approach the study of the present.

It is obvious, even on the basis of only superficial knowledge of the historiographers of earlier periods, that historians were not always reluctant to study contemporary events. On the contrary, as Koselleck, who is admirably knowledgeable about the classical authors, demonstrates, historians, from Herodotus to the historians of the eighteenth century, for the most part studied the events of their own eras. This was due primarily to methodological reasons. The present was directly accessible, as the historian himself was an eyewitness or at least could rely on eyewitnesses. If handled with the appropriate caution, eyewitness testimony was considered more reliable than fragmented old documents, which were easy to forge.20 By the end of the eighteenth century, a contrary approach had taken predominance. As shown by the example cited by Koselleck, by then, historiography had become the discipline of the study of the completed past. Of course, contemporary history continued to exist in the nineteenth century, but only as an inferior field of endeavor in the shadow of history as an academic discipline. It was practiced by journalists and publicists, who, while wanting to take a position amid the complications of the present, also ventured to make forecasts about the future, in an obviously unscientific manner.21 Historiography, which regarded itself as an academic discipline, considered it impossible to study the present.

It was in the spirit of this (now outdated) perception of history that Nora, the prestigious initiator of research on historical memory, declared in the 1970s that history of the present does not exist. For him, this is history “sans objet, sans statut et sans définition.”22 Nora’s statement cannot be ignored, as it is based on a definition of historiography that was valid for a long time. Historians moved beyond Nora’s objection without considering its real weight, i.e. without assessing the change that the emergence of contemporary history brought by disrupting the earlier order of historiography and the perception of historical time. So far, the epistemology of contemporary history has hardly been made a subject of methodical study.23

Historians who reflect on and write the history of the present tend to define their discipline as one of the branches of historiography, but they must also consider their place alongside other disciplines concerned with the study of the present, such as political studies, sociology, and ethnology. Furthermore, they must address and at the same time differentiate themselves from non-scientific representations of the recent past, often grouped under the term “memory.”24 These definitions of the history of the present implicitly continue to consider as valid the older premises of historiography, on which history as a discipline was established. The strange situation arises because, while the study of the history of historiography has long historicized these premises, i.e. it has explored their origins and analyzed their time-bound operation, whenever these premises are not the subject of study, they are still—half-explained or implicitly—considered the foundations of professional historiography. 25

There is essentially a consensus that the self-definition of academic, professional historiography in the nineteenth century was based on four interrelated premises. The most important one was the presumption of the reality of history as a linear process in time which can be scientifically examined. The second one was the presumption of a dividing line between past and present. The concept of the fundamental difference between past and present was based on the linear perception of time, in which development—or at least change—makes the earlier conditions obsolete and creates a different present, which in turn is open towards a future as yet unknown. From the perspective of the present, the past—since it has already passed—can only be understood through a methodical processing of the sources remaining from earlier times. The third was the assumption that there is a methodology which enables the historian to bridge the distance between present and past by deciphering the sources originating in the past. The fourth premise was that historiography was born as a national science, and this premise provided a fundamental frame of reference or range of interpretation for the findings of historians.26

Of these premises, the first and the second are obviously the most interesting from the point of view of the perception of the history of the present. We know from Koselleck’s analysis of the space of experience and expectation that the “temporalization” of history took place around the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This created a perception of past, present, and future that made it possible to look at historical time in a linear perspective. It also created the possibility of the idea of progress; as expectations for the future were based on the conviction that the future can be different, the future has to be different to what has been experienced in the past. However, from the point of view of this discussion, the way in which this influences historical cognition is more important.27 The idea that events appear different to historians from different perspectives has been well-known since the sixteenth century. Now, the idea of perspective has gained a temporal dimension. A theory and practice of historical cognition has been created in which temporal distance is a decisive factor, which makes cognition possible.28 This was only possible if historiography placed itself at least partly outside of history, or rather at a point beyond the past. Assuming a gap between past and present—the second premise—ensured that the past subjects of study had an existence independent from the present. Phases of history which were already completed could exist as external objects for the historian’s scrutinizing gaze in the present. The distance between the historian’s present and the fundamentally different past was required for the historian’s methodology to work.

It followed from the fundamental difference between past and present as perceived by historiography that the future was also open to change. The present, as the past future of an earlier period, was also unforeseeable once, just as it is impossible to predict the future from the present. This belief in historical change, in which the horizon of expectations for the future was put at a distance from the space of experience, was lacking from the earlier perception of time, which did not expect the ongoing events to bring qualitative changes into the world of people and things.29 Only at the end of the eighteenth century, as people started to experience the present as radically different from their earlier experiences and had expectations for a future that would be different from the present, could historiography emerge as a discipline of change, which studied the completed past, which was therefore unalterable, dividing it into periods and interpreting it from a perspective of the present that was external to the past. This historiography could not embark on a historical analysis of the present, as its gaze was only suitable for the study of the completed past.30 As Arthur C. Danto expressed, especially in response to the complaint that historians couldn’t experience the events they are studying, “the whole point of history is not to know about actions as witnesses might, but as historians do, in connection with later events and as parts of temporal wholes.”31

However, in the emergence of historiography, it was not only the relationship between past and present that mattered from the triple structure of past, present, and future. Expectations for the future made the evolution of historiography possible not simply because without them the dissimilarity between past and present would have been inconceivable. The study of the past was not independent from the horizon of expectations, because the gaze of the historian studying the past was directed by expectations concerning the future. This is not to say that expectations for the future were always fulfilled, in fact, they were rarely met, nevertheless, according to Koselleck, the horizon of the future still contributed to determining the present and thereby also to determining what event of the past seemed worthy of study to the historian in the present. However, the future was capable of orienting the historian’s work not as a general future, but as the future of something, specifically of the community to which the historian belonged and whose past he was researching. The concept of history would have been inconceivable without the subject of history, and it was most often the nation which had a history. If the historian’s gaze had a wider scope, then it was the history of the West.32

The practice of contemporary history, I contend, is not based on the four abovementioned premises of classical historiography or the triple time structure of past, present, and future. Its emergence—along with the memory boom—means precisely that this time perception and these premises have become outdated. It is therefore possible, however, that history of the present misunderstands itself when it perceives itself as a subdiscipline of history and places its own activity in the line of the history writing founded in the early eighteenth century. The emergence of contemporary history “in a sense ... meant a rehabilitation of the tradition from before 1800.” 33

From this point of view, it is questionable, whether the old historiography itself, in which history was based on the connection between the space of experience and the horizon of expectation described by Koselleck, has by now lost some of its persuasive power. Has it not become increasingly meaningless for today’s audiences because the validity of the perception of time on which it was based has become highly questionable? Even more questionable—and this is the focus of this discussion—is whether the history of the present was ever related to the earlier triple time structure which served as the foundation for historiography.

This question is important in the cultural landscape of today, because several defenders of history criticize—in the name of contemporary history, which they still perceive as part of classical historiography—the unprofessional treatment of history, and they continue to attempt to create the legitimate foundations of this criticism by citing their own methodical procedures. On the part of professional historians, the lack of appropriate methodology remains the most important criticism of unprofessional historical representations. Unprofessional museum displays, monuments which evoke the wrong context, distorting documentaries, pathetic ceremonial speeches which draw their expressive force from references to (what is alleged to be) history, and weak historical novels are all criticized for lacking the methodology to create an appropriate context for the recalled elements of the past.34 But is this an effective way of defending professional history against the challenges of non-professional uses of the past? On what is this defense based, when the foundations of the methodology (which is based on the perception of time and which once made professional historiography able to interpret the phenomena of the past) are also questionable or, rather, according to several diagnoses, have become history and belong to the past? The rise of memory and the more recent studies of historiography make this question unavoidable.

The Expansion of the Memory Market and the Reactions of Historians

It is worth dwelling on the issue of the trend of memory for a while because it is one of the phenomena which shows how the classical concept of history has become questionable. There have been numerous studies of the evolution of the concepts of historical memory—and historical heritage—and the related phenomena, which spread particularly beginning with the end of the 1970s, and they are usually considered a kind of phenomenon of crisis.35 There are also numerous analyses describing the trend of remembrance using images of disease, abuse, and natural disasters, such as flooding. These analyses definitely tend to characterize the increased demand for historical memory as a danger for professional history, or they consider it one result of the crisis of professional historiography.36 This is a very old contrast; Halbwachs, one of the founders of memory studies, contrasted history with memory, primarily based on their different relationship to time. The latter is always related to the living human community, while the former stands outside of all possible communities, and its job is not to remember, but to analyze.37 Memory maintains an experience of time through which the remembering community lived, while the historian’s task, according to Halbwachs, is to reconstruct the temporality of the past, which is independent from any experienced time and from the present as well. Halbwachs believes that if the historian strays into the territory of memory, he will cease to be a historian.38 Thus, the conflict between historiography and memory was already expressed in the first analyses between the two world wars, and the problem was rediscovered again around the turn of the millennium.

Historiography fundamentally responded in two ways to the memory boom. It either entered the memory market, widening its audience and, naturally, giving its activity a slightly new direction, or it adopted a defensive position. The negative position underlined the fact that the questions of history writing are not asked by politicians, communities expressing their own needs of remembrance, or the media. If historians settle for positions as servants of the memory market, this might well compel them to abandon their academic principles, even though they appear to gain in terms of the size of their audiences and access to research funding. These views, which are critical of memory, criticize forms of remembrance—such as expositions, rites, memorials, texts, etc.—which seem inaccurate and unreliable from the point of view of academic historiography. There are numerous negative reactions of this kind, representing different attitudes, but similarly conservative in their approach to history as an academic discipline.39 Péter Apor very clearly pointed out certain characteristics of the concept and cult of memory from the theoretical point of view. He highlighted the tendency of memory studies to lead often to a circulus vitiosus. According to the general approach borrowed primarily from anthropology, the identity of a community is determined by its collective memory, while memory in turn depends on identity itself.40 Other authors—in accordance with Nora—consider academic historiography merely a kind of remembrance,41 which, under given cultural constellations which are in the process of vanishing, enjoyed a leading role for a while in shaping the image of the past. From this point of view, the vanishing of the conceptual foundations of classical historiography is not a loss from the perspective of our understanding of the past. Apor, however, disagrees with the idea that any form of memory could represent a more authentic relationship to the past than historiography based on analysis, methodical source criticism, and rational evidence, and he emphasizes that the questions addressed in the historiography do not originate directly in the needs of social communities or contemporaries’ interpretations of past experiences. He continues to insist on the scholarly ideals of source criticism, rational verification, and the interpretation of documents in the correct context, which would not retain a secure position in historiography considered as a form of social memory.42

Placing emphasis on the latter scientific approach to history, which assigns a critical role to historiography based on the procedures of traditional methodology, proves ineffective in itself against the demands of memory. As Gábor Gyáni points out, source criticism and other scholarly procedures are not sufficient assurances of authenticity. For our knowledge of the past to be valid, the present must be able to accept it as its own knowledge, which means that it must meet demands from outside the professional community.43 The space in which the voice of professional contemporary history needs to assert itself and the knowledge generated by historiography needs to have itself accepted as authentic is constituted by representations of what is known as experiences of historical agency and the discursive practices related to the past maintained by the multiplayer memory market.44 The contemporary history of eyewitnesses and memory takes no interest in the premises and lacks the perception of time on which academic historiography is based.45 This presents a challenge to contemporary history, which cannot be surmounted simply with insistence on the academic conception of history. But it is also not clear whether contemporary history resting on scholarly foundations moves in the dynamics of past, present, and future, in which professional history once moved, or this time structure has lost its validity even in professional contemporary history. If so, the classical perception of time and the methodology on which it is based no longer provide a reliable foundation for historical knowledge, in which case one may well ask why the historical methodology would ensure a base for the defense of professional history against the memory market.

Has the Past Come to an End?

Renowned historians and thinkers such as Hannah Arendt, Reinhard Koselleck, and Francois Hartog have all diagnosed a fracture in historical time and time perception. In a study analyzing the relationship between past and present, Arendt made the following statement about the loss of the continuity of historical time: “[W]ithout tradition—which selects and names, which hands down and preserves, which indicates where the treasures are and what their worth is—there seems to be no willed continuity in time and hence, humanly speaking, neither past nor future, only sempiternal change of the world and the biological cycle of living creatures in it.”46 Her statements made an impact among historians several decades later, after Koselleck’s works drew attention to the time structures on which historiography is based. On the basis of Koselleck’s initiative, Francois Hartog embarked on an exploration of the various orders of historical temporality (regimes d’historicité). Researching the history of experience and expectation horizons—although the scope of his inquiry extended over more distant ages and geographical areas as well—he primarily explored the changes which took place in the perception of historical time in the twentieth century. Hartog concludes that as long as the relationship between the horizons of experience and expectations is maintained through the present by the subjects of history possessing an identity, and thus what could be seen from the past was what the future of the “nation”, “society”, “country”, or “the West” (or possibly the “proletariat” or the “race”) threw its light upon, there was a space for historiography. Although expectations for the future rarely shaped the future efficiently—and then mostly only as self-fulfilling prophecies—still they substantially contributed to shaping the intellectual/cultural landscape of the present and thereby to the study of the past as well. However, by the last decades of the twentieth century, the horizons of experience and expectation permanently began to diverge, eliminating the time structure which constituted the conditions for historiography. Hartog says this resulted in an expanded, eternal, and directionless present, which has nothing to do with the past and is not clearly oriented towards any future.47 We might add to this—and Hartog does not emphasize this—that at the same time the categories which earlier had functioned as the subjects of history have also disintegrated. If today we want to examine the past of the “nation” or the “West” or the “working class” or the “bourgeoisie,” we keep running into question marks: what is it we want to examine? These categories have been broken down by historical analysis, and their constructed nature has been exposed by conceptual history studies. Thus, if somebody wants to look into his or her future, all one can see on the horizon is obscurity, as the existence of these concepts has also become questionable in a constructivist approach. Historiography has often shown that they are unsuitable as a framework for analyses, and historiography has tended first to transcend the history of any nation by allegedly crafting a European history or a transnational history, and then to transcend European histories by narrating global histories.48 The often-cited disintegration of the “grand narratives” actually results from the disintegration of their subjects as the actors of history. At the very least, the “nation,” “society,” and various social groups (and more recently the frequently mentioned “West” itself) no longer function as subjects which could organize historical narratives and secure the unity of historical time through their existence, pointing from the past towards the future.49

This disintegration of the subjects of history and of historical time is partly the result of historiography itself. It has become clear partly from the works of Foucault that historical cognition has become an activity, in which research on the origins of phenomena destroys the picture of a uniform past.50 Genealogy—the method of understanding which approaches phenomena in their historical aspects, by exploring their origins—exposes as false the origin stories on which the existence of the subjects of history is based, and thereby the “grand narratives” of which they were the subjects also fall apart.51 Earlier, this genealogical approach as historical method of understanding did not necessarily involve the disintegration of uniform history. Exposing certain origin stories served precisely to allow the events of genuinely foundational importance to stand clear or to create opportunities for new foundations. However, these applications of genealogy definitely had some kind of vision and expectation horizon.52 Only after the horizon of the future became obscure in recent decades did it begin to seem—not independently of the impact of Foucault’s works, but as a consequence of probably far broader changes—that no genealogy is possible other than the kind that destroys uniform history, and only then did it begin to seem that, at the same time, the continuity and unity of historical time also cease to exist. Efforts to reinstate history into its earlier position and recreate the dynamic space of experience and expectations, in which historical time can again move from the past towards the future, are therefore seeking categories which could help transcend the postmodern state and create “grand narratives” again.53 However, it is not obvious that it is possible to recreate a teleological history or to have some kind of philosophy of history generally accepted. Teleology cannot be established intentionally, i.e. with the intention of creating teleology. The last such theories relating to the end of history—late reflections of Hegel’s philosophy of history—were spectacularly short of persuasive power. Fukuyama’s concept seems to want to rescue the West as the subject of history by stopping historical time. If history comes to an end, the West remains unchanged, and its identity is no longer questionable.54 It is not in this sense that the often-diagnosed predominance of the present means the end of history. Instead, it delegitimizes and even eliminates the idea of history so far, rather than completing the process of history. We could say that the expansion of the present puts an end not to history, but to the past. More precisely, it dissolves the past in the present.55

Consequences: Contemporary History in the Present

In light of this evolution of present-centeredness, the rise of contemporary history is an entirely logical development; in fact, it is an adequate response from historiography to the changes in historical time structures. After all, amid the fading of historical time, it is increasingly difficult to write about the history of earlier periods in a manner that allows narratives of the past to be interpreted in the light of the present or in a way that suggests that past phenomena throw light on the present. The growing interest in the contemporary is shown by the fact that H-Net, a central website for the humanities and social sciences, offers 6,811 findings for the search expression “medieval,” which was once the main territory of historical research, in contrast with the 22,365 search results for “contemporary.”56 In fact, it is the legitimacy of the history writing of earlier periods that is gradually being called into question.57 More precisely, outside of professional circles, events of earlier periods can only be interpreted as exampla for the present—not as part of a continuity—in the sense described by Koselleck as the operation of the “Historia est magistra vitae” principle, which was eliminated precisely by the emergence of academic historiography at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.58 We can see traces of the return of the exemplum whenever present phenomena are interpreted through past events without the existence of any causal relationship or more distant, but content-based connection between the two. The past is often recalled in this manner in politicians’ speeches and newspaper articles in order to throw light on current processes, from global politics to local events.

Thus, amid this present-centeredness, it is no wonder that many historians turn towards the study of the present, where the legitimacy, meaningfulness, and importance of research topics is not called into question, and which also meets with far more interest among far wider audiences. However, the present-centeredness of contemporary history means that most of the premises defining historiography in the classical way fail in this case. The necessity of the historical methodology is not self-evident, because there are other ways to access the recent past. If one still wishes to apply the historical method, this requires special explanation, because—unlike in the case of earlier periods—the historical methodology is only one of several possible alternatives. But perhaps most importantly, the classical modern concept of history, in which past, present, and future were simultaneously connected and separated by the linear flow of time, has become empty and lost its meaning. Once the notion has gained currency that the existence of a history in this sense is a question of belief, this history ceases to be a certainty.59 The place of the past as a linear process, which can be observed from the present and scientifically analyzed and understood, has been taken, as is well known, by the concepts of memory and heritage. The dominance of the concepts of memory and heritage means that rather than analyzing—based on historical methodology—the process of historical time considered as real, the past is becoming only accessible for the present as heritage or through memory. Hence, one must be faithful to heritage and preserve memory.60

Modern historiography was born in a somewhat autonomous system of academic institutions in the sociological sense, which was also the medium upholding the system of rules on the basis of which a specialist work is classified as good or bad. In the classical period of historiography, historiography was connected to non-academic spheres by the teleological approach and the national frame of reference, which also shared these ideas. Today, this is no longer the case. Nation as a frame of reference does not work consensually. Nowadays, though history exists within autonomous academic institutions which function on the basis of certain professional rules, the communication between the historical profession and the broader public sphere is hindered not only by the fact that, outside of this medium, the rules governing the sciences do not apply, but also by the absence of a commonly shared teleological approach or national thinking. This should not be misunderstood as an appeal to bring nation back in the form that in which it used to operate, nor indeed would this be possible. Furthermore, historians cannot artificially create a new teleology, which would go from the past to the future through the present. The potential subjects of such a history (not only the “nation” but also the “West” as subjects of history) were also deconstructed with the emergence of a transnational global history.61 Hence, it is no use wishing for a return of the earlier methods of cognition in the absence of the foundations and wider intellectual framework on which they were based. Thus, using an argument drawn from the sociology of knowledge, we can say in this case that what was classified as rational methodology—proposed for example by Apor62—within the earlier framework and of classical historiography has lost its foundations and, hence, its persuasive power. As can be seen, alternative approaches are highly attractive.

So, historiography is only one of several possible alternative approaches to the study of the present, and the application of its methods is no longer self-evident. But furthermore, its tools do not seem strong compared to those of its competitors. Why would there be any need for the use of historical methods in connection with a period for which the issue is not the interpretation of the remaining sources, but what eyewitnesses can remember of it? The sources are not part of a remote past, which is only accessible through the use of special methods. Rather, they have meanings which are considered self-evident for people living today. Why should professional historians—practitioners of a specific methodology—alone be competent as interpreters of the history of the present, when this present (or at least the sources to which it has given rise) is still accessible in our everyday culture?63 It is obviously impossible to understand events or processes which took place two hundred years ago without special preliminary training. This is basically accepted by everyone interested in history as non-professionals. This is the consequence of the principle of the historical perspectivity, on which historiography was based. However, in connection with periods from which there are still living eyewitnesses or which still have a living collective memory, this is not self-evident. Of course, professional history possesses an analytical force compared to everyday thinking. But anthropology, fictional literature, films, journalistic works, exhibitions, etc. can be just as competent as interpretations of various phenomena of the present as historiography. Literary works such as Péter Esterházy’s Harmonia Caelestis (Celestial Harmonies, available in English translation by Judith Sollosy) and Javított kiadás (“Revised Edition”) are arguably important works in Hungary for readers interested in the socialist era, even though by genre they are novels. One could also mention Péter Nádas’s Egy családregény vége (The End of a Family Story, available in English translation by Imre Goldstein), not to mention numerous other authors of works of fiction of lower quality but some significance.

As a consequence of the absence of the earlier dynamics of past, present, and future from the study of contemporary history, the history of the present stands in many ways closer to literary fiction or film on the one hand and, on the other, to other contemporary studies than it does to the historiography which is focused on earlier periods.64 Of the contemporary disciplines, it is currently obviously closest to anthropology, although, in theory, it could well move closer to sociology or political science, but for the moment there are no signs of this. In any event, the history of the present thus communicates more with other ways of thinking directed at the recent past than it does with the historiography of earlier periods. This is reflected, for instance, by the extent to which many historians of the present are unable or unwilling to connect the phenomena they are studying with events preceding them in time, and they hesitate to place them into context as part of a longer (for example, mid-term) continuity. This mainly happens in the culturalist versions of histories of the present. In Hungary, there are hardly any historians who research both periods before and after 1945, and it may well be true that in most Central and Eastern European countries historians are split into two distinct groups, those studying eras before 1945 and those pursuing research on the post-1945 era, without knowing much more than the educated non-professional about earlier periods.65

Of course, the history of the present is a meaningful intellectual activity, which can apply various cultural techniques, but it seems questionable how much it is indeed a continuation of historiography when the premises which once defined historiography are now lacking. At the same time, of course, the history of the present can be pursued well or badly. But the difference between a good work of history on the present or a good exhibition on the history of the present and a bad one does not necessarily lie in the fact that one applies the scientific methodology of historiography well and the other one does not. Nobody would argue with Esterházy in the name of scientific rigor about the fate of the aristocracy after 1945 or the work of the secret service of the party state as portrayed in his literary account of his father’s activity as an agent. His novel and similar fictional accounts are very good books of their own kind. A historian of the present can enter into a dialogue with these works precisely because—although they are specifically not works of historiography—they are intellectual efforts directed at the same object with which the historian is dealing. However, if the historian of the present does not criticize good writers from the point of view of science, then bad writers and poor museum exhibitions should not be criticized from a so-called scientific point of view either.

It follows from this that the criticism by good historians of the present of poor representations of memory, poor museologists, and the designers of bad monuments should not be legitimized with the academic authority of historiography. Calls for adequate source criticism or appropriate contextualization, which cite the old methodology of historiography, are ineffective in themselves. Contemporary history cannot successfully defend itself against these challenges in this manner. In spite of its internal colorfulness, the voice of contemporary history is lost in the polyphony of other contemporary studies, the memory market, and political uses of the past because it tries to base its position and authority on something which one can hardly expect to be appreciated in the present-centered present. In this sense, the history of the present may not be what it claims to be. However assiduously it applies new concepts (for instance transnationality, which has been prominent in the past two decades), it often makes no impact on other contemporary studies or the wider public, and it is often unable to connect with the demand for forms of remembrance. Thus, in the current intellectual sphere, historians of the present are not in the same privileged position as historians dealing with earlier periods which are clearly divided from the present. They argue in vain that they are more competent than others thanks to their use of a historical methodology. The historical perspective, which legitimizes the historical methodology in research on the earlier past, does not provide a solid base for research which is focused on the present, and it definitely does not provide a position of authority which would give historiography a special role among other forms of reflection directed at the present.66 Thus, in the absence of the dynamics of time, the history of the present is in fact based on the paradox of the gaze looking at itself, which makes it weak compared to other approaches to the study of the present, which do not draw their analytical power from the temporal perspective. This paradox also leaves the history of the present devoid of tools in comparison with remembrance, from which it does not effectively differ, since, through the latter, the person who remembers can also project himself into the events recalled.

Historians of the present who are doing a good job from the intellectual point of view should reflect on what their activity comprises and the foundations on which it is based. They should also consider the criteria on which any distinction between good and bad history of the present could be made, or between a good exhibition or historical monument and a bad one. They should work out the foundations on the basis of which contemporary history communicates with other academic and non-academic forms of understanding the present, and they should also reflect on and articulate the premises on which they base assertions of the validity of their own procedures. According to Nora’s proposition, the first step in this direction should be to acknowledge that contemporary history is not a temporal appendix at the end of the long process of history. In fact, it is not even history. More precisely, he believes it is a history which differs from the notion of history as it is normally understood (a means of seizing an understanding of earlier periods).67 History as a discipline established on the basis of a linear notion of time was based precisely on the exclusion of the present.68 Thus, the history of the present can only be constructed on foundations which differ from those of classical historiography, and which give rise to different rules. This construction would be necessary to provide effective protection against a flood of low-quality works and against the memory market, where according to the dominant view everyone has his or her own memory and his or her own history, which is immune to criticism, if one relies solely on the old rules of historiography. This is why it would be urgent to find a definition of a history of the present which preserves the values of historiography upheld by the professional community and still holds meaning for non-historians, i.e. is still able to communicate—on the basis of some kind of new foundations—with other social spheres. Of course, the question Nora asked forty years ago concerning the historians of the future who will write on their present remains open: “Mais faut-il encore l’appeler historien?”69


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1 Ash, „Introduction.”

2 Koselleck, Vergangene Zukunft, 335–36.

3 For an overview of contemporary history by countries see Nützenadel and Schieder, Zeitgeschichte als Problem.

4 van Laak, “Zeitgeschichte und populaere Geschichtsschreibung.” According to Nützenadel and Schieder: “[es gibt] noch keinen allgemein anerkannten Konsens über die epochale Abgrenzung, thematisches Profil und methodische Grundlagen der Zeitgeschichte.” Nützenadel and Schieder, “Einleitende Überlegungen,” 8.

5 See the studies in Apor and Sarkisova, Past for the Eyes.

6 Gérard Noiriel complains that certain institutions of contemporary history research the history of large companies on behalf of the corporations, and the companies use the results in their own internal training to create loyalty among employees. Obviously, this does not reflect the strength of the autonomy of science. Noiriel, Sur la “crise” de l’histoire.

7 While in East-Central Europe the political challenges seem to be more severe, in Western Europe the economic challenges—or temptations—seem to be dangerous. See: Kühberger and Pudlat, Vergangenheitsbewirtschaftung.

8 Korte and Paletschek, Popular History Now and Then.

9 This fact induces many historians to embark on enterprises on the new market create by the demand for history. See: Hardtwig and Schug, History sells!

10 These questions are discussed by the studies in Takács, Mémoire, Contre-mémoire, pratique historique. See “Présentation” by Takács.

11 Looking at the conditions of contemporary history specifically, János M. Rainer believes that the profession is unable to earn more room for maneuver for itself on its own unless the social and cultural/political environment changes. Rainer, “…az emlékezet is konfrontálódott a történetírás múltképével ….” General overview: Berger, “Professional and popular.”

12 Jaap den Hollander expressed the paradoxical epistemology problem of contemporary history as follows: “Can we describe our own Zeitgeist, or would that amount to a kind of bootstrapping à la von Münchhausen?” Hollander, “Contemporary History,” 52.

13 Berger, The Past as History, 140–224.

14 For a summary of the problems of historiography with respect to memory and the political utilization of the past, see Gyáni, “Történelem, vagy csupán emlékezet.” Although Gyáni considers the internal changes of historiography necessary if it is going to prove able to respond to the challenge of memory, on the whole he remains optimistic with regards to its potentials.

15 Nora: “L’histoire au péril de la politique.” In Nora’s interpretation, the political use of the past is not only associated with politicians, but includes references to the past by civil movements.

16 Hartog, Croire, 29.

17 Nora, L’histoire au péril de la politique. Jaap den Hollander also notes that in the early 1960s, he was not taught about the preceding fifty years at school. Hollander, “Contemporary History,” 55.

18 Noiriel, Sur la “crise” de l’histoire, 45–47.

19 Keszei, “Az emlékezet rétegei.”

20 See Lessing’s famous formula: “Überhaupt aber glaube ich, dass der Name eines wahren Geschichtschreibers nur demjenigen zukömmt, der die Geschichte seiner Zeiten und seines Landes beschreibt. Denn nur der kann selbst als Zeuge auftreten.” Quoted by Hollander, ibid., 55.

21 Koselleck, Vergangene Zukunft. 335–36.

22 “Tant qu’il n’est d’histoire que du passé, il n’y a pas d’histoire contemporaine. C’est une contradiction dans les termes” Nora, “Présent,” 467.

23 According to Jaap den Hollander “the theoretical status of contemporary history [is] enigmatic” and “deserves more theoretical reflection than it has received up to now.” Ibid., 51–52.

24 Metzler, “Zeitgeschichte.”

25 Iggers, Deutsche Geschichtswissenschaft. Koselleck, Vergange Zukunft.

26 On the foundations of historiography see Hölscher, Die Entdeckung der Zukunft, 9–10, and Etzemüller, “Ich sehe das, was Du nicht siehst.” On the nation as a frame of reference see Berger, The Past as History.

27 “Die Lehre von der geschichtlichen Perspektiven legitimiert den historischen Erkenntniswandel, indem sie der Zeitfolge eine erkenntisstiftende Funktion zuweist. Geschichtliche Wahrheiten wurden kraft ihrer Verzeitlichung zu überlegenen Wahrheiten.” Koselleck, Vergange Zukunft, 336.

28 In the words of Michel de Certeau, time has become object and measurement tool at the same time for historians. de Certeau, Histoire et psychanalyse, 89.

29 See for example Danto’s analyses of Thucydides’ perception of time, Analytical Philosophy, 22–23.

30 See Etzemüller op. cit. and Jung: “Das Neue der Neuzeit ist ihre Zeit.”

31 Danto, Analytical Philosophy, 183.

32 Berger, “Introduction.”

33 “[C]ontemporary History finally became an academic subdiscipline, complete with its own chairs, journals, and research institutes. In a sense, this meant a rehabilitation of the tradition from before 1800.” Hollander, “Contemporary History,” 55.

34 For example, Apor, “Hitelesség és hitetlenség.”

35 On heritage, see Sonkoly, Bolyhos tájaink, 17–33. On heritage in Central Europe, see Erdősi and Sonkoly, “Levels of National Heritage Building.”

36 Gyáni, “Történelem, vagy csupán emlékezet” ; Rainer, “…az emlékezet is konfrontálódott a történetírás múltképével…”; K. Horváth, Az emlékezet betegei; Todorov, Les abus de la mémoire ; Revel, “Le fardeau de la mémoire.”

37 According to Pierre Nora, the turnaround whereby historiography abandoned its functions of memory and assumed a critical function—basically associated with the emergence of the Annales school—took place precisely during the period when Halbwachs’s analyses concerning memory were being written. Nora, “Pour une histoire contemporaine.”

38 Halbwachs, La mémoire collective, 122–35.

39 Romsics, “Új tendenciák” ; idem, A múlt arcai; Apor, “Hitelesség és hitetlenség.”

40 Ibid., 164–66.

41 Burke, Varieties of Cultural History, 40–59.

42 Apor wants to enforce the evidence-based methodology supported by rational source criticism, on the basis of which historiography can judge the authenticity of representations of the past falling in the category of non-academic historiography. Apor, “Hitelesség és hitetlenség.” But from the point of view of the sociology of knowledge, we can state that there is no rationality or epistemology independent from space and time. The earlier scientific point of view did not come into being in a vacuum; it is not an embodiment of an abstract rationality. So, the validity of this epistemology may not be considered as self-evident in other historical situations than the one in which it was born.

43 Gyáni, “Miről szól a történelem?.”

44 Frank, Der Mauer um die Wette gedenken.

45 Wieviorka, L’ere du témoin.

46 Arendt, “The Gap Between Past and Future,” 5.

47 Hartog, Régimes d’historicité.

48 Buruma and Margalit, Occidentalism.

49 As K. Horváth points out, just as Hartog, Niklas Luhman also emphasizes, there can be no continuity or even chronology without identity. K. Horváth, “Betegségek, pszichopatológiák és időstruktúrák.” On the end of the “grand narratives,” see: Takács, “A történelem vége.”

50 Bódy, “Michel Foucault: A szexualitás története.” Burke said that in foundation myths, unintended consequences of past actions are considered conscious aims of the one-time actors. It is the duty of historiography to destroy these myths and thereby to remind us of the fragmented nature of history. Burke’s examples are Durkheim and Weber, as the founders of sociology, and Luther, as the father of Reformation. Burke, Varieties of Cultural History, 58–59. Thus, according to Burke, historiography in a critical sense will itself perform a remembrance function, although what constitutes the foundation for this remains unexplained in Burke’s works.

51 Ádám Takács pointed out that it is not history that ends with the end of the “grand narratives,” but only the more or less clearly outlined social/political alternatives. Takács, “A történelem vége.” Translating this into Kosellecki’s terminology, we could say that it was these alternatives that were earlier outlined on the horizon of expectation, and historical time was moving in their direction.

52 As Schwendtner shows, even the Nietzschean genealogy had an orientation towards the future in this sense. It analyzed what originated from the past precisely in order to open a path towards the future. It is even more true of the genealogy perception of Husserl and Heidegger that they also aimed to lay the foundations for new identities or recreate the foundations of old ones, and at the same time to exit the present and create new, future opportunities by examining past events that were of foundational importance from the perspective of the present—while thereby relativizing their own present. Foundation or connecting with foundations were definitely considered possible. Schwendtner, Eljövendő múlt.

53 Baschet, “L’histoire face au présent perpétuel.”

54 Fukuyama, The End of History.

55 One could say that from this point of view that all of the past has been dissolved in the present and thus the problem of historical distance does not exist and never existed. “The past only ever appears in our present beliefs; it is never given at a distance,” Mark Bevir confidently declares, as if he thereby transcended earlier errors related to this. Bevir, “Why historical distance is not a problem,” 25. Bevir here does not acknowledge the fact that the idea of a past independent from the present was at least as real in the beliefs of the one-time presents, as real as today’s post-foundational ideas. See Gumbrecht’s analyses of the “chronotopes” and, among them, a description of the “historicist” chronotope, which lost its validity around the 1970s to give place to our broad present. Gumbrecht, Unsere breite Gegenwart.

56 While for the search expression “middle age,” 1,671 items appear on the web-site H-Net, the search term “contemporary history” yielded 2,577 findings, and in addition, one can find another 246 items for “present time.” The French expression “moyen age” yields only 104 results, while the French world “contemporain” yields 420. (These searches were done on May 15, 2017.)

57 Hochmut stated, for example, that “Public History in den Berliner Museen ist vor allem Public Contemporary History.“ Hochmut, “HisTourismus” 177.

58 Koselleck, Vergangene Zukunft.

59 So believes Francois Hartog, who thinks that for our current thinking, only the ever-wandering present remains, and the past can only be interpreted as recollection and heritage, rather than as history. Hartog, Croire en l’histoire, 281–82.

60 Lowenthal, The Heritage Crusade, 1–30.

61 On the website H-Net, the expression “global History” yields 2,415 items and “transnational history” yields 1,449. These two numbers indicate the popularity of these research fields. (These searches were done on May 15, 2017.) However, transfers, interactions, networking, and other key concepts of transnational history are not suitable as historical subjects, or at least not as subjects with which readers can identify. Wehler, “Transnational Geschichte”; Conrad, What is Global History, 185–203.

62 Apor, “Hitelesség és hitetlenség.”

63 This is also essentially the direction in which the arguments of Timothy Garton Ash point when he questions the privilege of professional historiography in researching the history of the present and undertakes to defend his own journalistic methods and writing. Ash, “Introduction.”

64 See for example the Sándor Horváths’ work Feljelentés, which offers a detailed historical account of the life of a totally insignificant agent of the Hungarian political police, which throws more light on the history of the state socialism than any analyses of the social and political structure of the era.

65 The problem is diagnosed and the need to examine continuities across the boundary of 1945 is suggested by Bódy and Horváth, “1945 és a háború társadalma,” 7–12.

66 Nora believes that the historian’s function regarding the present time is ground down against journalism and contemporary studies such as sociology, anthropology, economics, and geography. Nora, “Présent,” 471.

67 “[L]’histoire contemporaine … n’est pas le simple appendice temporel d’une histoire sure d’elle-meme, mais un histoire autre et que l’exclusion du contemporain hors du champ de l’histoire est précisément ce qui lui donne sa spécificité.” Ibid., 467.

68 Ibid.

69 Nora, “Présent,”472.

Volume 6 Issue 4 CONTENTS

pdfSocial Demand and the Social Purpose of History: What is Missing from Alun Munslow’s Classification of Historiography?1

László Vörös

Insitute of History, Slovak Academy of Sciences2

Alun Munslow proposed a threefold classification of historians’ approaches to the writing of history. According to Munslow, every historian is either a reconstructionist, constructionist, or deconstructionist, depending on his/her fundamental epistemological/ontological beliefs concerning the possibilities of studying and representing the “past” in the form of narrative. I suggest that the category of constructionism as defined by Munslow is based on a priori presumptions about historians’ alleged beliefs in the ontic nature of the “before now” and its knowability. The actual practice of scholarly history writing allows for a more nuanced typology. I argue for a looser association of formal and methodological criteria with the basic ontological/epistemological positions of historians. I also argue that Munslow’s category of constructionism should be split into two ideal-typical categories: constructionism-proper and constructionism-improper. His deep insight into the formal aspects of history representation notwithstanding, Munslow’s theory fails to explain why there are such diverse and completely contradictory epistemologies within a single discipline. Neither does it explain the seemingly paradoxical continued domination of (in Munslow’s view) two fallacious epistemologies: the reconstructionist and the constructionist. Why has reconstructionism, the most obsolete of the three epistemological positions, not vanished after many decades of intense criticism? I suggest that we should look for answers in the extra-disciplinary domain of the social functions of history. I argue that the social purpose of the knowledge produced by historians and the interaction between historians and the public have a decisive formative influence on both the theory and the practice of the discipline. Historians who fit into the epistemological categories of reconstructionism and constructionism-improper are able to provide accounts that legitimize social institutions, political regimes, economical systems, social orders, etc. Even more importantly, the histories constructed by this kind of historian often serve to anchor narratives (of self-identification) connected to referential social groups and categories. I suggest that reconstructionist and constructionist-improper historians can serve these societal functions because their accounts are based on realist-empiricist epistemologies congruent with naïve perceptions of the “past.” Furthermore, the constructionist-proper and deconstructionist historians not only do not offer legitimizing or identification narratives, their narratives of history are based on counterintuitive epistemology informed by constructivist social scientific theory. Their analyses often deconstruct the very notions upon which legitimizing and anchoring discourses are based. I suggest that the social functions of historical knowledge are thus an aspect that must be incorporated into epistemological studies of history and historiography.

Keywords: Social functions of history, Alun Munslow, epistemology, reconstructionism, constructionism, deconstructionism, self-identification, anchoring

In his works,3 philosopher of history and historian Alun Munslow has masterfully introduced the main themes of the philosophy of history in the past half-century. Taking first and foremost the ideas of postmodernist and narrativist philosophers of history as his point of departure, he argues coherently against the tenets of traditional historiography concerning the object of historical studies, the practice of historical research, and the results of the scientific practices of historians. He proposes a threefold classification of epistemological approaches which should be applicable everywhere where the European model of history writing functions in an institutionalized form. In Munslow’s view, each and every historian follows either the reconstructionist, constructionist, or deconstructionist approach to the study of the past and the writing of history.

Like any classification or typology, Munslow’s has been subjected to various critical assessments. Munslow’s classification does indeed have weak points. However, the gravity of these weaknesses depends on the perspective from which we approach his typology of historiographical epistemologies and the purposes to which we wish to use it. Several authors, approaching it from the perspective of the philosophy of history, ontology, and epistemology, have expressed objections. I will briefly mention one of them. These objections concern definitional problems with the category of constructionism, and they in no way belittle Munslow’s work. They merely amend it.

However, Munslow aspires to do more than merely contribute to the philosophy of history. His main goal is to promote the deconstructionist approach to pursuing research on the past and the writing of history. The reconstructionist/constructionist epistemology in his view has fundamental problems. Historians falling into these categories are, according to Munslow, living in an illusion according to which they (and historiography in general) are producing truthful scholarly knowledge. Munslow (and he is far from being alone) thinks that the writers of history and history writing in general need to disabuse themselves of this delusion.4 Thus, his threefold classification is meant to be more than a mere disinterested taxonomy; it is supposed to be used as an analytical tool to help achieve this goal. From this perspective, I think his classification suffers from several deficiencies and omissions which are much weightier. Though I agree with major parts of his reasoning, I am skeptical about the analytical strength and potential of his threefold classification. The first weak point in this respect is the same as the shortcoming mentioned above: the category of constructionism is based on mistaken definitional premises. Moreover, to speak only about constructionism is an oversimplification. One can conceptualize at least two ideal-typical versions of constructionism, both on epistemological and on practical bases. The second weak point is that Munslow uses a rather narrow conception of epistemology. He makes the central reference point of his classification the question of the ontic status of the past and historians’ presumed belief in or skepticism concerning its objective form.

From philosophical point of view, this might be legitimate and unobjectionable, but if the goal is to study and understand the professional (scholarly) history writing in its complexity, some other aspects need to be taken into consideration. For instance, Munslow’s classification cannot explain why there are within one discipline such diverse and completely contradictory epistemologies—a rather unique occurrence even within the humanities, let alone the social sciences. Nor can it explain the seemingly paradoxical continued domination of (in Munslow’s view) two fallacious epistemologies: the reconstructionist and the constructionist. And particularly, it fails to explain why reconstructionism, the most obsolete of the three epistemological positions, did not vanish after many decades of intense and plausible criticism coming not only from philosophers of history, but also from historians themselves.

In the case of the humanities and particularly historiography, the social purpose of the knowledge produced by scholars and the interaction between scholars and the public have a decisive formative influence on both the theory and the practice of the discipline. The purpose and social functioning of historical knowledge is thus an aspect that must be incorporated into the epistemological studies of history and historiography. Munslow’s classification is useful because, even if with some flaws, it comprehensively identifies what we are dealing with when we speak about the fundamentals of history writing in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Munslow reveals the problems and offers remedies, but he is not paying adequate attention to the question “why?” Munslow’s classification fails to offer any explanation (nor does it attempt to offer any explanation) of why the “problematic epistemology” (i.e. reconstructionism) remains dominant, despite decades of persuasive critiques of the premises on which it rests. Thus, it remains little more than an inspiring but imaginative and exceedingly ideal-typical typology with a rather limited potential as an instrument in the analyses of historiographical practice past and present.

The most elementary question of the epistemology of history is ontological: What is the object of historical study and how does it exist? If the object of historians’ interest is the “past,” or, more specifically, “the connections between events and human intention or agency in the past,” how does this past exist in the present?5 There is a consensus that the “past” (what happened “before now”) is non-existent in any present, however, there are material remnants in the form of sources. This consensus, nevertheless, begins to show fissures when the following questions are raised: is the past in any way objectively structured? Are historians really studying the “past,” or are they “merely” studying people’s ideas about what happened? What about chronological ordering, historical fact, and historical event? Are these natural “building blocks” of the “past,” i.e. manifestations through which one can shed light on its otherwise hidden structuring? Or they are rather the constructs of historians? Are the sources repositories of truth about the past? Is there an objective, i.e. observer-independent truth which can be discovered by historians and told (narrated) to others? Is there a direct correspondence between the events of the past and the narratives (i.e. history) about them? Is the language used by historians a transparent tool for conveying information, or does it have a formative influence, whether historians are conscious of it or not? Does the way the narrative is told have any formative impact on its meaning? Does the subjectivity of historians (the social, cultural, educational, and psychological determinants) influence their narratives of the past? If so, is it possible (or necessary, or desirable) to eliminate or at least regulate these determinants and influences?

These are some of the questions that have preoccupied philosophers of history over the course of the past half-century. The answers historians have given to these questions place them into one of Munslow’s three categories (or genres) of history writing. In the following, I will offer a brief outline of Munslow’s threefold classification and some of his main points.

Reconstructionist historians presume (usually implicitly) that what happened in the past had a given form which is discoverable and can be truthfully represented through narratives. In principle, if the conditions are right (i.e. if there are sufficient sources and the researchers are skilled and adequately trained), historians should be able to uncover and reconstruct the course of events and narrate them objectively “as they actually happened.” Munslow characterizes the reconstructionists as hard-core empiricists and (naïve) realists. The former means that reconstructionist historians consider the sources remnants and specimens of the past which contain self-evident facts about the past. Historians merely use their talents and abilities to extract and process these facts, putting them into the correct order and thus arriving at a disinterested and truthful interpretation of what actually happened. The absolute primacy of the study of sources is informed by a realist vision of the past: “Realists … [are saying that] … the past must exist regardless of whether there are any historians just as mountains exist regardless of whether there are mountaineers or geographers.”6 In other words, reconstructionist historians, whether consciously or unconsciously, are objectifying/reifying the “past.” They tend to think about “historical events” as if they were objective entities, unique and fixed, observable and describable. It should come as no surprise, then, that reconstructionists endorse a concept of truth that is congruent with the correspondence theories of truth, meaning, and knowledge. Reconstructionist historians also look with suspicion on interdisciplinary imports into the workings of historiography. Social theories used in historical research are viewed as deviations which artificially try to force “structures,” “regularities,” or “laws” upon the past. The use of theories leads to violation of the past “reality,” deformations of heuristics and interpretation, and eventually the ideologization of history.7

Theory, or no theory? The answer given to this question is what differentiates the constructionist historians from reconstructionist historians the most. According to constructionists, human acts and behavior in the past are too complex to be interpreted correctly without a proper conceptual apparatus and theoretical background. The Annalistes, the Marxist/neo-Marxist schools, and the various schools inspired by theories of modernization are, according to Munslow, constructionists.8 Constructionist historians, in contrast with reconstructionists, do not endorse the correspondence theory a-critically: “Constructionists generally are aware that their narratives do not automatically mirror the reality of the past and that objectivity (at least as understood by reconstructionists) is impossible.”9 Yet, there is a crucial point on which constructionists are in agreement with their reconstructionist “cousins,” as Munslow labels them,10 and that is the belief in the objectivity of the past. In other words, even if constructionists admit that we might never know “wie es eigentlich gewesen,” they insist there is one ultimate truth about the past. According to Munslow constructionists believe in the existence of objective structures and patterns which can be studied and revealed with the help of social theories and models. This very much reminds one of the reconstructionist objectification/reification of the “historical facts” and “historical events.” Similarly, the constructionist understanding of the ontology and epistemic value of the sources resembles the reconstructionist views. In fact, Munslow often treats both categories as fundamentally one: “reconstructionist/constructionist.”11

Deconstructionists pay much more attention to the person of the historian and the factors which determine him/her. There is no inherent meaning hidden in the sources, nor is there a truth about the past. Historians do not observe and reconstruct the events of the past. On the contrary, they construct narratives about events or aspects of events which took place in the past. The writing of history is essentially a process of literary representation, not an unbiased objective description of how things actually happened. This does not mean that the deconstructionists would deny that there is information in the sources. The deconstructionist “argument is that knowing what happened does not tell you what it means.”12 And it is in the process of giving meaning, i.e. representing, that the subjective, contingent, ideological, and fictive elements enter the narrative of history. “The point of deconstructionist history is the challenge it throws down to the idea, which reaches its ultimate expression in hard-core constructionism, especially of the statistical variety, that there are essential (true) patterns ‘out there’ to be discovered in the past.”13 According to this view, the past can be best understood as an inherently meaningless unbounded heterogeneous stream of happening within which human action unfolded.

The historical facts are far from having an inherent true meaning decipherable on the basis of the sources. Nor are “historical events” the natural constituents of the past, as the reconstructionists and partly constructionists prefer to see them. Both facts and events are constructions, parts of the history discourse, not real and observer-independent entities. However, the most significant argument of deconstructionists and the one that is still provoking bitter responses from practicing historians concerns the language and the form in which history is represented. With the exception of very traditional reconstructionists, most of the actors in the discipline to some extent acknowledge the subjectivity (i.e. bias stemming from social, cultural, ideological, and other determinations) of the historian as a formative factor in the writing of history. The deconstructionists go further in their claim that, in addition to the preconceptions, prejudices, and biases as influences which can never be entirely eliminated, the language and the particular rhetorical mode predominantly used by historians to represent the past (the narrative) exerts its own influence on the meanings of these representations, an influence which is beyond the control of historians. At this point Munslow, draws heavily on the works of philosophers of history Hayden White, Frank Ankersmit, Hans Kellner, Jörn Rüsen, Keith Jenkins, Louis Mink, Paul Ricoeur, and their followers. The way in which historians arrange the facts and thus create an emplotment for the story (the historical representation) bestows the narrative with meanings at a very fundamental level. According to Hayden White there are four elementary kinds of emplotment: romantic, comic, tragic, and satiric.14 Thus, the histories written by historians are, as far as the form of the narrative is concerned, either romance, comedy, tragedy, or satire. In theory, every past event can be emploted (narrated) in each of the four ways. The question of which is used is most often not the conscious choice of the historian, but rather the outcome of other discursive determinants.15

This is one of the strongest arguments of the deconstructionists in favor of the relativist, non-objectivist, non-empiricist epistemology of history, yet it is also one of the most misunderstood and ignored by historians. The human act is in itself valueless. It is neither tragic nor comic. It can be viewed as such only from a certain perspective. Every historian speaking about past events is doing so from a particular position which is determined and influenced by many discursive and non-discursive factors.16 The truthfulness of various interpretations is relative to the “regimes of truth” within which they come into being. Thus, it is not merely correspondence with the facts in the first place that serves as the basis for deciding whether a narrative is true, but the ideological background, preconceptions, and, as I will argue, the purpose the narrative of history is intended to serve.

In his Deconstructing History (first published in 1997), Munslow did not offer any concrete examples of deconstructionist historical writings. He did so seven years later in the reader The Nature of History, which he co-edited with Keith Jenkins.17 There are excerpts from the works of ten authors. Two selections are from the writings of philosophers (Hayden White and Jacques Derrida), while the remaining eight examples (from works by Greg Dening, Walter Benjamin, Richard Price, Robert A. Rosenstone, Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, Sven Lindquist, Dipesh Chakrabarty, and Iain Chambers) differ in style and form, but they are similar in the conspicuous absence of fluent linear narrative (this does not mean, however, that they are non-narrative) and stylistic experimentation. As the editors put it, the chosen excerpts are “texts which undercut the idea of the narrator as nobody and stress the author’s creative role. Dispensing with linear narratives in favor of multi-voiced, multi-perspectival, multi-levelled, fragmented arrangements… [these authors play] …with the possibility of creating new ways of representing and figuring ‘the before now’.”18

Obviously, Munslow’s “reconstructionists,” “constructionists,” and “deconstructionists” should be perceived as ideal-typical categories. As such, they are utopias, and they can hardly be found in their pristine form in reality.19 Nevertheless, if ideal types are to be properly operable in the work of analyses, they need to be plausibly constructed. In the following, I argue that Munslow makes several assumptions which render his threefold classification problematic, especially for analytical use in the study of historiographical practice. I draw attention to some of the weak points of Munslow’s definitional approach, and I then suggest a redefinition and split of his category of constructionism into two subcategories.

Munslow places considerable emphasis on the ontic status of the past as perceived by historians, making it a sort of primary epistemological reference point of his classification. This is his most decisive criterion, through which he defines the two opposing camps: reconstructionist/constructionist vs. deconstructionist. At the same time, he downplays the importance of other factors and categorical attributes (such as research practice, methods, and approaches), reducing them to mere secondary features. For Munslow, the methods of research and the ways of acquiring knowledge serve merely as secondary “markers” with which to identify the primary epistemological feature. This is particularly noticeable in his definition of constructionism. Munslow simply assumes that historians working with theories and concepts from the social sciences believe in the objective past, much as reconstructionists do. The only easily identifiable attribute that distinguishes Munslow’s constructionists from the reconstructionists is the former’s use of social theories. At the same time, the principal feature which differentiates the constructionists from the deconstructionists is the constructionists’ alleged belief in the existence of objective (i.e. discoverable) social, economic, cultural, political, etc. patterns in the past.

For Munslow, the fact that someone conceptualizes of him or herself as a social historian who works with sociological, anthropological, psychological, and other theories to gain knowledge about various aspects of human life in the past, simply in itself serves as a decisive defining marker of the historian’s epistemological/ontological belief about the nature of the past and its knowability. The definitional tying together of these features, making one the indicator of the other, is aprioristic and exceedingly reductionist.

Another problematic aspect of Munslow’s strict classificatory approach concerns the manner in which he singles out and overemphasizes a narrowly defined criterion. Historians’ ideas regarding the ontic status of the past (past events, social phenomena etc.) often cannot be conclusively identified. Undoubtedly there are cases in which an author’s epistemological position can be safely inferred from his/her textual output. But in many cases, unless a historian makes an explicit statement about his/her standing as far as the knowability of past events is concerned, an inference will remain just a guess. Thus, it is not at all surprising that most of the authors whose writings Munslow (and Jenkins) uses as examples of reconstructionist, constructionist, and deconstructionist historical accounts made their epistemological stance explicitly clear either in the texts quoted or somewhere else.20 Only few practicing historians make an explicit statement about their epistemological points of departure, particularly concerning the very issues Munslow make a decisive definitional factor. The search for answers to such elementary ontological/epistemological questions still does not belong to the mainstream theoretical and methodological principles of the discipline. Most practicing historians do not consider raising and answering these questions a necessary prerequisite of good historical scholarship.

One might therefore have doubts about the general validity of Munslow’s three epistemological positions (genres), since their construction is based on limited and specific empirical material: the writings of historians who, by the very virtue of the fact that they have made their claims about the ontic status of the past and its knowability explicit, represent a rather rare kind. One might ask whether the validity of Munslow’s threefold classification isn’t indeed limited to the historians whose writings he analyzes. Though in the same breath I must add that my skepticism does not go that far.

Arguably it is safe to presume that most of the traditional style historical accounts which indeed are narrative (or at least largely narrative) and which deal with national histories, important figures of national history, and so on can be safely categorized as reconstructionist. The same cannot be said, however, about the histories which are informed by social theories, even if they are partly or even in large part narrative. For Munslow, such histories are constructionist and thus based on objectivist epistemological premises, very much like the histories of reconstructionists. But many historians who fit into Munslow’s category of constructionism simply because they use social theory, adopt with the theoretical body they borrow from sociologists, anthropologists, social psychologists, and colleagues from other disciplines, very strong social constructivist epistemological propositions which are in stark opposition to naïve realism and acritical empiricism of the sort that Munslow ascribes to reconstructionists and constructionists. Philosopher of history Eugen Zeleňák makes a similar point and proposes an elegant solution to the contradictions stemming from Munslow’s rigorous definitional approach.

Zeleňák21 considers Munslow’s a priori judgement about constructionism as “essentially a subspecies of reconstructionism”22 untenable, since he finds it difficult to justify such a close association of constructionists who use social scientific concepts, theories, and hypotheses with a-theoretical reconstructionism. He points out that many historians working with critical social theories and an analytical conceptual apparatus are aware that they are working with constructions which are not derived from the past but, on the contrary, are applied to (or in Munslow’s words, imposed on) the evidence.23 Following Munslow’s own argumentation and examples, Zeleňák suggests that Munslow is in fact speaking about at least two types of constructionism, one which indeed is close to reconstructionism (constructionism-I) and another which is much closer to the deconstructionist ideas about the ontic status of the past and the possibilities of knowing about the past (constructionism-II).24 Were the classification strictly based on general epistemological and ontological assumptions, Zeleňák claims, it would be more adequate to reduce the three categories to two basic epistemological types which he labels direct realism and impositionalism. Reconstructionists and constructionists-I are direct realists, since their epistemological fundaments are based on the idea that they are discovering the objective (i.e. observer independent) knowledge about past events. Deconstructionists and constructionists-II are impositionalists because they deliberately and, in accordance with the rules of scholarly conduct, impose concepts, theories and models on the information about past happenings which they are able to derive from sources, thus creating knowledge about particular aspects of past phenomena. Impositionalists do not consider this knowledge a mirror image of past events “as they actually happened.” They are aware that what they write is in many ways contingent and dependent on perspective.25

Though Zeleňák’s reduced epistemological classification might seem too general, simplicity is its advantage. If we keep the secondary “markers” of Munslow’s classification,26 strip it of its unsubstantiated assumptive aprioristic ontological/epistemological primary definitional criteria, and replace it with Zeleňák’s basic twofold categorization, we get the skeleton of a much more workable ideal-type classification.

Consequently, a readjustment of Munslow’s classification in this vein must include a reassessment of his category of constructionism/constructionist historians. If this category is to be salvaged as an analytical concept which also refers to the scholarly practices of historians, it needs to be split into at least two types, as has been already suggested. Not every historian working with social scientific concepts and theories does so in a competent way. To infer the epistemic position of a historian on the basis of a simple presence of sociological, psychological, etc. terminology or references and allusions to grand theories of social sciences in his/her writing would merely be another aprioristic mistake. In other words, some of the historians who use social scientific terminology have not adequately mastered the theory itself, let alone the episteme upon which the given theory rests. I label this category of historian constructionist-improper historians. I will return to this category later. First, let us examine the second type of constructionism, which I label constructionism-proper, in greater detail.

As already stated, constructionist-proper historians are full-fledged social constructivists. These historians usually recognize the difference between ontological and epistemological objectivity and the subjectivity of facts and observations, and they are aware of the constructed nature of social reality and the specific ontic status of social and institutional facts. They reject the Rankean “wie es eigentlich gewesen” kind of (direct realist) creed and are aware that their accounts are but contingent representations constructed from a certain perspective. At the same time, however, this kind of historian accepts the reality of cause and effect, the reality of human action and institutional agency, and the reality of social relations in the past. These things may not exist now, but they existed once. And even if it is nonsensical to think that there can be a “true reconstruction” of these events, this does not mean we cannot attain valid knowledge about social phenomena in the past by studying sources. In fact, accounts of this kind by constructionist historians are not histories in the traditional sense anymore. It is more appropriate to look at them as forms of historical sociology, historical anthropology, historical economy, historical political science, etc., as is reflected in the names of some of the historical schools and subdisciplines.

When I propose the adoption of the term constructionist-improper historians to denote a category of historians one of whose defining features is a relative inability (in no way permanent or inherent) to work properly with social constructivist theories and to grasp fully the epistemic bases of such theories, I do not mean to suggest any lack of intellectual capacity. Historians themselves never independently developed theories of social life that would become transdisciplinary because they never had to. Professional institutionalized scholarly history writing started in the nineteenth century as a discipline the primary function of which was to “discover” and “describe” the past of “nations” and the deeds of the great men, leaders, representatives of nations, etc. It was not the goal of historians to study psychological, social psychological, social, cultural, economic, political, or other general human-related phenomena. Thus, historiography did not manage to evolve into discipline that would inspire sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists, etc. in their research strategies and agenda. It was, rather, the other way around. Some historians adopted or were inspired by concepts, theories, and methods used in other disciplines of the humanities and social sciences. However, this process of drawing inspiration from and/or adopting approaches, theories, concepts, and research strategies from other disciplines never became a general feature of historians’ training. Often, a historian develops an ability to work properly with theories and concepts from other disciplines only because of his or her determination and study. In many cases, historians who accept (or have been socialized into) the constructionist idea according to which past human phenomena are too complex to be correctly interpreted without a proper conceptual apparatus and theoretical background are for various reasons not able to work properly with social theories.

Perhaps surprisingly, this phenomenon is not unique to historiography. In the early 2000s, sociologist Rogers Brubaker critically remarked that the social scientific discourse about ethnicity, race, nationalism, and identity is plagued with an “intellectual slackness” which he labels “complacent and clichéd constructivism.”27 The most characteristic feature of clichéd constructivism is intuitive and superficial use of complex concepts and theories (e.g. that of “social identity”),28 which very often leads to serious fallacies, notably essentialism and reification. In historiography, in particular the concepts of ethnicity, ethnic and national identity, ethnic group, nation and nationalism, race and racism, social group and collective action, and collective memory (to mention only a few) often fall prey to clichéd constructivism. Naturally, one can distinguish various degrees of inadequate and uninformed use of scholarly (social scientific) concepts, from the most vulgar, when historians blatantly essentialize for instance “ethnic” or “national identity” (i.e. either explicitly or implicitly they treat “identity” as an inherent feature of a historical actor or entire aggregates of the population) and/or reify social groups, categories, or classes (i.e. they endow them with ontological objectivity, speak about them as acting entities, and treat them as natural, not social, phenomena) to more sophisticated cases, when analyses which are informed by essentialist and reifying presumptions and misconceptions are concealed behind a constructivist rhetoric. I label this practice of pretended constructivism “constructionism-improper.”29

As I implied above, from an ontological/epistemological point of view each of the two categories of constructionism suggested by me is congruent with Zeleňák’s dichotomy of direct realism and impositionalism. Constructionist-improper historians will probably though certainly not exclusively be direct realists, while constructionist-proper historians will probably be impositionalists.30

So far, I have argued that if Munslow had merely typified various epistemological positions currently prevailing in historiography, his classification would count as (perhaps with some amendments, such as the one made by Zeleňák) a valuable contribution to the epistemology of history. However, since Munslow’s ambition has been to propose a general classification of the historiographical practice with special regard to elementary epistemological positions of historians, he included and aprioristically tied together features such as the use of theory in the works of historical interpretation and methods of research. I pointed to the problematic aspects of this approach, and I deconstructed the category of constructionism, splitting it into two ideal-type subcategories. Now I turn to the last question I have asked in the introduction of this paper: why did the direct realist (reconstructionist/constructionist-improper) epistemological position not vanish after many decades of intense and justified criticism, and indeed why does it arguably remain, this criticism notwithstanding, the mainstream episteme within history writing globally?

Well-known historians from renowned schools such as the Annales, Begriffsgeschichte, the Cambridge school of the history of political ideas, Marxist/neo-Marxist schools in Great Britain, France and elsewhere, Microhistory, and New cultural history, to mention only a few, are perceived as the elite of the discipline, at least within the European and transatlantic Anglophone historiographies. These historians are cited and referred to far more frequently than most.31 Nevertheless, though they have existed for decades and have undergone a process of progressive development, the schools represented by these historians (and some other schools) remain in the position of an avant-garde. The ways of thinking and working adopted by these historians, i.e. their impositionalist epistemological points of departure have not been incorporated into the discipline’s general theoretical and methodological framework, and this is also true of their methods, theories, and the themes of their research. Why have respected authors, whose scholarship and work is highly esteemed, petrified in the position of a special elite sub-genre? Why did the constructionist-proper and deconstructionist approaches to research and history writing not become (or became only to a limited extent) integral parts of the standard training of history students?

Obviously, there is no simple answer to these questions. Several closely related determinants—of a cognitive, social-psychological and social, political, cultural (ideological), economic, and institutional nature—are at play. But factors such as the outdated history education system, structural peculiarities of personal reproduction within the academic sphere, lack of resources, political/ideological influence and limitations on freedom of research etc. are secondary (not in importance, but in effect) to cognitive, social-psychological/social, and power-related (political/ideological) determinants, or to put it in other words, to the social functions and purposes of professional history writing (historiography). I contend that we should start to look for new understandings of and explanations for epistemic positions in historiography in the domain of the functionality of historical knowledge in society.

So far, following Munslow’s threefold categorization, I have been paying attention to professional historians: their ideas about the past and its knowability, their scholarly practice, and the outcomes of this practice in the form of written histories. Now, we need to turn our attention to the consumers of history, in particular the non-professional public. I believe it is relevant to ask why people need history, why it makes sense to read and remember history, why is important to teach histories in an institutionalized and controlled manner. In the following, I consider the functions of history in modern societies. I argue that it is important to consider both the epistemological/ontological positions of historians and the intuitive (pre-theoretical) epistemological/ontological assumptions of lay readers, listeners, and viewers of history when studying the practice of history writing. Both the social purpose of historiographies and to a considerable extent the practice of the discipline as such is determined by the social functioning of the socially relevant narratives about the past, which is in turn largely determined by the cognitive modalities of perception of the “before now” by human beings, at least in modern societies.

There are many conceptualizations and typologies of the functions of history in everyday social life. For instance, G. E. R. Lloyd identifies eleven aims or agendas which historians set for themselves: (1) entertainment, (2) memorializing or commemorating, (3) glorification/vilification or celebration/denigration, (4) legitimization of regimes, (5) justifying past actions and policies, (6) explaining why things happened as they did, (7) offering instruction on the basis of past experience, (8) providing records for administrative use, (9) warning, admonishing on moral or prudential grounds, (10) criticizing others’ interpretations, and (11) “just” recording the past, saying how it was.32 John Tosh or Enrique Florescano propose similar lists of the “uses” and social functions of history.33

I reduce Lloyd’s points to three general functionalities.34

The first of these is the Historia magistra vitae est function (which, I admit, is perhaps not the most fortunate label to use in this context). History, or more precisely, knowledge about some aspects of past human phenomena serves as a source of learning for present practical purposes. Niccolò Machiavelli’s Il Principe might be mentioned as one of the early prototypical examples. Machiavelli referred to particular deeds and strategies of past rulers, conquerors, commanders, and politicians to provide examples in support of his own observations regarding the nature of domination and power. Machiavelli’s approach was purely utilitarian; he analyzed past events and actors (causes and factors) in order to suggest the best course of action or a strategy for the present and future. On the other end of the spectrum are the modern scholarly works, which study past social, political, economic, etc. phenomena in order to gain critical knowledge for a better understanding of present processes and developments. Very often, these kinds of historical accounts are also intended to serve as an admonishment or warning. Not surprisingly, this tendency is most apparent in the contemporary history writings dealing with non-democratic regimes, power and domination, stereotyping and discrimination, war and genocide, crisis and collapses, etc. However, any kind of practical learning from accounts of past events and the deeds of historical actors fit under this deliberately broadly defined category, including learning about ethics and morality, social norms, etc.

The second general functionality is the legitimizing function. When speaking about legitimization through history, most informed people think first and foremost of political ideologies and the historiographies of non-democratic regimes in the first place. Marxist-Leninist, national socialist, fascist, or traditional nationalist historiographies are but the overtly explicit forms of history writing with the purpose of legitimizing. A great deal has been written about the entanglement of historiographies in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (and even in earlier periods) with ideologies, regimes, and social and political movements.35 However, legitimization is not necessarily (even if it is frequently) ideological in the traditional political sense of the word. There are much subtler forms through which historical accounts legitimize or delegitimize ideas, ways of thinking and living, political regimes, economic systems, policies, reforms, wars, borders, claims for individual or collective rights, claims for territories, and so on.36 Theological modes of narration, reification of social concepts and categories, essentialist social stereotypes and naïve theories about motivations and conditions, common sense assertions concerning necessity, inevitability, the beneficial or deleterious effects of an act, an event, or an actor or groups or entire categories and aggregates of population (to mention just a few) are semantic constituents which serve in historical narratives as vehicles of justificatory and legitimizing meanings.

The third functionality is the anchoring function. Most people, including historians, have a tendency to “anchor” themselves in (identify with) historical narratives (usually reduced to simplified stories or bits of stories) about referential groups of which they consider themselves members. Obviously, most often the historicized referential group is a “nation” or “ethnic” or “racial” group. However, this should be considered a universal cognitive phenomenon that forms an important part of the process of an individual’s practices of identification with social or categorical groups in general.37 This social function of history was heavily institutionalized in the second half of the nineteenth century and throughout the twentieth, and it became an important factor in the processes of secondary socialization. Most of the fallacies and misconceptions (which the constructionist-proper and deconstructionist historians try so hard to deconstruct) occur in writings which serve this function, whether intentionally or not.

The legitimizing and anchoring functionalities of history (knowledge about past) seem to be indispensable and permanently present in social life. Both functions are best viewed as epiphenomena of the political and social organization of modern societies. Studies on collective memory and remembrance and studies on the politics of memory deal primarily with these two social functions of history.

An important specification needs to be added concerning the three point typology of social functionality of history proposed above. Not all the writings of historians and probably not even the majority of them actually function in the sphere of social life in one or more of the above outlined ways. There are history studies and books which will probably never have a readership larger than a few dozen or perhaps a few hundred readers. And there are studies and even books that most probably will be read exclusively by fellow scholars. Several factors determine what kinds of histories and historians will reach a larger public. Formal criteria are obvious: an accessible narrative form and socially relevant or in some other way appealing topic are probably necessary attributes of a text if it is going to reach a wider readership and audience. Other factors (closely related to the aforementioned) include institutional backing and market determinants. There is, however, another indispensable precondition to the writing of a historian ever reaching a large readership: in order to reach “the masses,” a history (whether in form of written text or vocal or visual performance or artifact) must be at least on a basic level compatible with the epistemological and ontological preconceptions of (non-professional) consumers.

In the Introduction to his The New History (2003), Munslow remarks that it is widely assumed that the reconstructionist direct realist epistemology is in fact congruent with the “common sense” approach to understandings of reality: “it is seen in the popular imagination as the only way to re-animate the past and, therefore, know what it means.”38 However, Munslow is dismissive of this idea. In his view, there is nothing natural or inevitable in the realist-empiricist epistemology. He might be right; nevertheless there seems to be strong evidence suggesting that, at least in Western cultures, people’s thinking about the past is naïvely realist, acritically empiricist, and formally narrative.39 Individual memory and remembering and the processes of construction, reconstruction, and maintenance of biographical self-narratives are based on an objectifying/reifying realist perception of past: “Memories may be the result of many retranscriptions over time, but at any given time the rememberer typically experiences them as unproblematic structures or as facts, and as external to the rememberer.”40 Individuals acquire and process semantic memories (or “reported events,” of which histories are a form) through the same cognitive operations and following the same epistemological and ontological presumptions through which they acquire and process episodic memories (or “experienced events”).41

Indeed, what Munslow calls hard-core realism-empiricism (i.e. a position characteristic of reconstructionist historians) is in my understanding nothing but an intuitive commonsense approach to thinking about “before now.” Thus, put in a somewhat simplified manner, probably most future historians begin their study of history at a university as direct realists (reconstructionists). They bring to their studies an intuitive commonsense “epistemology.” Whether in their future careers they tend towards an impositionalist position and became constructionists-proper or deconstructionist historians or remain reconstructionists or constructionists-improper depends on many factors.

At this point, we need to keep in mind that cognitive fallacies and specifically cognitive fallacies typical of the reconstructionist and constructionist-improper type of history writing are indispensable features of everyday social practice. It is a well-documented phenomenon that the human mind has an intuitive capacity to reify (i.e. objectify) particular (socially important) abstractions, social relations, and institutions. Nations, races, classes, religious denominations, and other categorically defined aggregates of people are among the most reified social entities. In the realm of the scholarly (social scientific) production of knowledge, reification and other cognitive modalities of dealing with the complexities of human societies and everyday social practice, such as essentialism, stereotyping, and entitativism, are regarded as serious mistakes and methodological failures. However, as cognitive and social psychological research suggests, these cognitive biases are practically inevitable in and indispensable to everyday social practice.42

The idea of nation as a deep historical egalitarian community of shared language, territory, customs, and culture and of a common fate would be impossible without the capacity for essentialist and reifying thought. A reifying concept of nation as an objective historical entity, an essentialist concept of nationality/ethnicity/race, and what Munslow calls a hard-core empiricist-realist vision of the past and history are all necessary components of national histories which enable them to function effectively and “naturally” as referential frames of self-identification. In other words, both cognitive fallacy and the propensity to think about the past in the same way (in the same terms and categories) as the present are necessary to bring about a sense of the fundamental realness of the historically represented past.

Constructionist-proper historians design their methodological measures and adopt critical social theories to eliminate reifying and essentialist conceptions and stereotypical notions and naïve theories from their history writing. In other words, they deconstruct the cognitive fallacies that are indispensable to the legitimizing and anchoring functionality of history. This renders the writings of many impositionalist historians difficult to read and understand to the non-professional or uninformed consumer of history. Constructionist-proper and deconstructionist historiographies are (unlike reconstructionist history writing) quite counterintuitive, and they require prior familiarity with philosophical and social scientific theoretical knowledge if one seeks to understand them fully. This usually also means that the histories written by constructionist-proper and deconstructionist historians operate outside and even in opposition to the historical discourses that fulfil (or at least have the potential to fulfil) the legitimization and anchoring functions of history.43 Reconstructionist and to a varying extent inadvertently also constructionist-improper historians serve a purpose that constructionist-proper and deconstructionist historians cannot.44

In this paper, I have argued that Munslow’s threefold classification suffers from a priori presumptions about the elementary ontological/epistemological positions of historians. This is most evident in his category of constructionism. Munslow defines each of his three historical epistemologies or genres very narrowly on the basis of historians’ alleged beliefs about the ontic nature of the “before now” and its knowability. He proposes several secondary criteria (most notably the use of critical social theories by constructionist historians) that would indicate the belonging of a historical text and its author to one of the three epistemological types. I argue for a looser association of formal and methodological criteria with basic ontological/epistemological positions of historians. Furthermore, I argue for a more flexible approach to defining those positions, in which respect I find the solution proposed by Eugen Zeleňák (two rather general categories: direct realism vs. impositionalism) more workable.

It is necessary to differentiate between historians whose accounts are almost entirely narrative or partially narrative and analytic or entirely non-narrative or narrative, but in an atypical, experimental way; between historians whose interpretations are a-theoretical and historians who use social theories. However, it is also important to draw distinctions between the ways in which historians operate with theories. The depth to which historians acquaint themselves with social theories (and their epistemic background) and the degree of adequate operationalization of theoretical and conceptual apparatuses in the writing of history are, in my assessment, relatively robust epistemological definitional criteria that cannot be ignored. Following this line of reasoning, I propose split Munslow’s category of constructionism into two types. Constructionism-improper is characterized by an inadequate mastering of theories and the “contamination” of these theories through cognitive fallacies such as reification, essentialism, entitativism, stereotyping, misleading generalizing, etc. This usually goes hand in hand with a failure to adopt social constructivist epistemological points of departure that inform most of the current critical social theory. Presumably, most of the constructionist-improper historians will be direct realists. Constructionism-proper is in fact formally congruent with the category of constructionism as Munslow originally defined it, but with an important distinction as far as the elementary ontological/epistemological position of historians falling into this category is concerned. The successful adoption of critical social theory alongside social constructivist epistemological presuppositions would indicate an impositionalist epistemological position. To put it metaphorically, a constructionist-improper historian is someone who abandons the reconstructionist positions and sets out to become a constructionist-proper type of historian, but who for some reason gets stuck somewhere on the road.

I realize that this seems an arbitrary split, and perhaps several other subcategories of constructionism could be delineated. I also admit that, like Munslow’s categories, at first sight my categories might also seem too ideal-typical for analytical purposes. Their full potential reveals itself when another important factor, which Munslow omitted altogether, is considered: the social functions of history. I argue that particular functionalities of knowledge about the past (of which historians are the primary producers and, in principle, the guarantors of its truthfulness) in the social lives of modern societies are dependent on naïve realist and acritical empiricist (direct realist in Zeleňák’s terms) thinking. Moreover, I argue that national histories in the traditional sense necessarily must be narrative, since narrative is the “natural” form through which people are inclined to make sense of their being in the past, present, and future. Furthermore, to function as natural frames of self-identification, national histories need to be based on (among other things) a reifying concept of nation and an essentialist concept of nationality, ethnicity, race, and other related social categorizations. I suggest that there is a direct connection between the social functionalities of history and the continued prevalence of the direct realist, i.e. reconstructionist and constructionist-improper modes of history writing. By including in our studies of epistemology in historiography in connection with the practice of scholarly history writing the non-professional person as a consumer of history and the social functionalities of history (and the institutionalized modes of realizing these functionalities), we can potentially gain entirely new perspectives on certain intra-disciplinary phenomena, such as the continued thriving of an obsolete epistemology despite decades of intense and plausible criticism.



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1 The research and writing of this paper were supported by the Slovak Research and Development Agency under the contract No. APVV-14-0644 – Continuities and discontinuities of political and social elites in Slovakia in 19th and 20th centuries; this paper is in part a product of the project Methods of investigation of the phenomena of nationalism in historical research (Interdisciplinary inspirations), which enjoys the support of the Institute of History, Slovak Academy of Sciences, P. O. Box 198, Klemensova 19, 814 99 Bratislava, Slovakia.

2 Senior researcher, Institute of History, Slovak Academy of Sciences, P. O. Box 198, Klemensova 19, 814 99 Bratislava, Slovakia; e-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

3 Munslow, Deconstructing History; idem, The Routledge Companion; idem, The New History; Jenkins and Munslow, The Nature of History.

4 It has been half a century since Hayden White gave historians the following warning in one of his famous early studies: “[One] must be prepared to entertain the notion that history, as currently conceived, is a kind of historical accident, a product of a specific historical situation, and that, with the passing of the misunderstandings that produced that situation, history itself may lose its status as an autonomous and self-authenticating mode of thought.” White, “The Burden of History,” 29. Reader edited by Keith Jenkins offers a useful overview of similar positions: Jenkins, The Postmodern History.

5 Munslow, Deconstructing History, 4.

6 Munslow, The New History, 9.

7 Munslow, Deconstructing History, 39–60.

8 Munslow categorizes several well-known historians (sociologist-historians and anthropologist-historians) as constructionists: Norbert Elias, Robert Darnton, Marshal Sahlins, Perry Anderson, E. P. Thompson, and even Anthony Giddens. Munslow, Deconstructing History, 21. For exemplification of reconstructionist, constructionist, and deconstructionist historians see also Jenkins and Munslow, The Nature of History Reader.

9 Munslow, The New History, 15.

10 Idem, Deconstructing History, 25; idem, The New History, 6.

11 Idem, Deconstructing History, 39–60.

12 Ibid., Deconstructing History, 83.

13 Munslow, Deconstructing History, 70.

14 White, Metahistory. The narrativist argument was further developed (partially independently, partially following White) by other authors as well, most notably Paul Ricoeur, Hans Kellner, and Frank Ankersmit.

15 In White’s view, the mode of emplotment the form of the historians’ explanation (formist, organicist, mechanistic, and contextualist), and the ideological dimension of a historical account (anarchist, conservative, radical, and liberal) are predetermined by the tropological prefiguration of the text (metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony). White, Metahistory, 7–38. For an accessible introduction into White’s thinking see Paul, Hayden White.

16 Munslow, Deconstructing History, 61–81.

17 Jenkins and Munslow, The Nature of History, 115–239.

18 Ibid., 115. Despite what has been said, the narrative form is dominantly present in the cited writings of the authors listed above. The use of figurative language, the tendency to quote primary (i.e. archival, iconographical etc.) sources, and the relative lack of systematic analyses resembling analyses in the social sciences make them appear at first sight closer to the reconstructionist “style” as characterized by Munslow. On the other hand, most of the authors characterized in Jenkins and Munslow’s reader as deconstructionist are evidently well-acquainted with critical social and culture theories and accept works by social theorists and consider constructionist historians as plausible (quotable) sources of knowledge, which draws them much closer to the constructionist “camp” (e.g. compare with the articles and books by Greg Dening, Richard Price, Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, Sven Lindqvist, Dipesh Chakrabarty, and Iain Chambers cited in the reader; Jenkins and Munslow, The Nature of History, 117–34, 142–55, 171–81, 182–90, 191–97, 214–24 respectively).

19 I borrow the designation of ideal-types as utopias from the creator of the concept himself; see Weber, “‘Objectivity’ in Social Science,” 90.

20 See the reader Jenkins and Munslow, The Nature of History.

21 Zeleňák, “Modifying.”

22 Munslow, Deconstructing History, 24.

23 Zeleňák, “Modifying,” 529.

24 Ibid., 527–30. The labels constructionism I and constructionism II are mine. I introduce them here for the sake of the clarity of the later argumentation.

25 Ibid., 530–35.

26 These secondary markers are the following: (1.) the form (whether a historical writing is narrative, partially narrative, or non-narrative, descriptive, or analytical, etc.); and (2.) the research practice and methodology adopted by the authors (whether the historian’s interpretations are informed by social theory or are a-theoretical, etc.).

27 Brubaker, Ethnicity Without Groups, 3 and 38. Ian Hacking voiced similar criticism of the devaluation of the concept of social construction in his: Hacking, The Social Construction of What?.

28 Brubaker, “Beyond ‘Identity’.”

29 Obviously even this split of Munslow’s homogeneous category of constructionism might seem insufficient. Several other subcategories could be delineated. For instance, there are historians whose use of critical social theory concepts is not flawed, incompetent, or “clichéd,” but also is not consequential or thorough. To put it metaphorically, for various reasons these historians merely scratch the surface and do not fully realize the potential (at least from social scientific point of view) of their data, sources, and hypotheses in the context of the theoretical background from which they depart or to which they refer. Certainly, a handful of subcategories of this sort could be (and as a result of empirical research should be) pinned down. I propose splitting Munslow’s original concept of constructionism into “merely” two types (based not so much on Munslow’s primary epistemological/ontological criterion as on the methods of attaining knowledge) to make Munslow’s classification more concrete, yet at the same time general enough for broader analytical application.

30 Though here I would like to repeat the point I made earlier about the complexity of determining the epistemological positions of historians concerning the ontic status of the “past” and “history.” There are cases in which even Zeleňák’s general dichotomy (direct realist vs. impositionalist) needs to be applied cautiously. Presumably, every historian departs, whether intuitively or consciously, from a certain epistemological/ontological position, but this theoretical stance is not always identifiable beyond all doubt in his or her written or spoken output. In some cases, it is not possible to decide conclusively without further focused investigation (e.g. by interviewing the historian) whether the author believes in the objectivity of the “past” and the existence of an ultimate truth about past events or not.

31 At this point, I would like to emphasize that I am speaking strictly about the intra-disciplinary status of the leading historians of the schools listed. It is important to distinguish between the image of influence based on scientometric data (which might have relevance in an intra-disciplinary context) and the actual social impact (which is very difficult to quantify in objective terms and for which the data provided by scientometrics has little or no relevance).

32 Lloyd, Disciplines in the Making, 60.

33 Tosh, “The Uses of History,” 29–57; Florescano, “The Social Function of History,” 41–49; Florescano, La función social de la historia.

Also see older but still relevant studies by Hobsbawm, “The Social Function of the Past”; Mommsen, “Social Conditioning”; Schieder, “The Role of Historical Consciousness”; Faber, “The Use of History”; Finley, The Use and Abuse of History. Also see an inspiring article by A. Dirk Moses on the possible implications of Hayden White’s views on the purpose of history for the study of nationalist conflicts and the utilization of history in them. Moses, “Hayden White.”

34 I have no ambition to propose an exhausting overview of the public uses of history. I omit some of Lloyd’s points—particularly (8), (10), and (11) —that primarily do not refer to the social functions of knowledge about the past. Also, given the spatial limitations of this inquiry, I am not paying particular attention to phenomena like “public history,” “living history,” or history reenactments, which, however, can be considered via the three general categories of history’s social functionality that I am proposing.

35 Berger and Lorenz, Nationalizing the Past; Berger, Writing the Nation; Ferro, The Use and Abuse of History; Davison, The use and Abuse of Australian History; for premodern periods see an inspiring volume Hen and Innes, The Uses of the Past; and Ianziti, Writing History in Renaissance Italy. Recent social psychological research also offers crucial insights into this functionality of discourses on the past. See a very useful introductory study to the thematic issue of the journal Culture & Psychology by de Saint-Laurent et al., “Collective Memory and Social Sciences”; Obradović, “Whose Memory and Why.”

36 I am referring to Hayden White’s concept of the “ideological implication” of historical narratives White, Metahistory, 5–7, 22–29, passim. For a lucid overview introducing the wider context of White’s thinking concerning ideology and history see Paul, Hayden White, 22–24, 69–74, 116–127. Also see Stråth, “Ideology and History.”

37 Indeed, not only social groups but any social entities in the most general meaning of the word (i.e. also communities, towns and cities, institutions, and organizations, including firms and companies). Histories of towns, companies etc., are often not written by historians out of scholarly interest, but rather in response to an initiative or a call issued by the representatives of the “entity” which desires “a history” as an indispensable part of its “identity.” Linde, Working the Past; also see Zerubavel, Time Maps.

38 Munslow, The New History, 5.

39 On the narrative structure of autobiographical and narrative (i.e. collective) memory and the cognitive and cultural aspects of their construction see Brunner, “Life as Narrative”; Fentress and Wickham, Social Memory, 51–75 and 87–143; Nelson, “Narrative and Self, Myth and Memory”, 3–28; McAdams, “Identity and the Life Story”; Fleisher Feldman, “Narratives of National Identity”; also see the recent research by de Saint-Laurent, “Personal Trajectories, Collective Memories.”

40 Quote from Prager, Presenting the Past, 215; for further elaboration of this point also see King, Memory, Narrative, Identity, 2–7 and Chapters 1 and 2; and Gergen, “Mind, Text, and Society.”

41 There are differences in how well this information is remembered and operationalized in social life. Larsen, “Remembering without Experiencing”; Neisser, “What is Ordinary Memory the Memory of?”

42 For basic information about reification see Fenichel Pitkin, “Rethinking Reification”; also see the classic Berger and Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality, 88–92. On essentialism see: Gelman, The Essential Child; Gelman, Coley and Gottfried, “Essentialist Beliefs in Children”; Hirschfeld, Race in the Making.

On stereotyping and entitativity see: Lickel et al., “Varieties of Groups”; Yzerbyt, Corneille and Estrada, “The Interplay of Subjective Essentialism and Entitativity”; Crump et al. “Group Entitativity and Similarity”; Sherman and Percy, “The Psychology of Collective Responsibility.”

43 It is not hard to see the correlations between the functionalities outlined above and the epistemological positions of historians. Presumably, the legitimizing and anchoring function is dominantly fulfilled by the output of reconstructionist/constructionist-improper historians. The constructionist-proper/deconstructionist histories dominantly fit into the category of Historia magistra vitae est functionality of history.

44 For instance the monumental Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe (vols. 1–8, 1972–1997) by Otto Brunner, Werner Conze, Reinhart Koselleck and their colleagues, like Quentin Skinner’s Liberty before Liberalism (1998), Lynn Hunt’s Politics, Culture, and Class in the French Revolution (1984), or the classic by Eugene Weber, Peasants into Frenchmen (1977), not only do not offer legitimizing or identification narratives, but on the contrary analyze the contingent nature of social concepts and categories, the functionings of power, identity politics and construction of identity discourses, and legitimizing discourses.

Volume 6 Issue 4 CONTENTS


Memory and the Contemporary Relevance of the Past

András Keszei

Pázmány Péter Catholic University, Institute of Sociology

As products that can be sold and bought, elements of the recent and more distant past become more and more important from the point of view of consumption, a process which adheres to the logic of commercial culture. At the same time, academic history is becoming less relevant as a source of authentic images of the past. As a result of the arbitrary selection of sources for different purposes and needs, the past has moved into our neighborhood (i.e. it has become an omnipresent part of the jumbled image repertoire of our everyday lives), and as a consequence, we find ourselves surrounded by a rather eclectic type of history. The past has become a commodity, and it has acquired a new valence as a source of collective and personal identity. Societies relate to their own pasts through the mechanisms of memory. Collective memory, as a source of social and personal identity, is partly a kind of history appropriated by the different groups of contemporary society. The manner in which this appropriation is effected highlights the potential role of academic history as a critical observer of relevant social processes in the past (and present).

Keywords: contemporary history, appropriation of the past, collective memory, social and personal identity

The past is made into history – constructed into analysis, narrated into interpretation, fashioned into stories, made serviceable as assumptions and ideas, which are then released into public circulation – in many different ways, only some of which remain susceptible to the professional historian’s influence or control. Indeed, the legitimacy of the latter’s authority has arguably become far less secure and generally acknowledged than before. As images of the recent and more distant past teem ever more chaotically across the public sphere, emanating from all manner of sites of cultural production (for example from television, advertising, magazines, museums, cinema, exhibitions, reenactments), which only rarely include universities, then the academic historian’s particular voice easily becomes drowned out, a fate which the performative successes of a few celebrity exceptions tend only to confirm.1

In 2011, the British historian Geoff Eley published an article in The Journal of Contemporary History on the changing relationship of history, memory, and the contemporary. Summing up the essence of these changes, he arrived at the conclusion cited above. According to his rather pessimistic opinion, history as a discipline can do little to prevent the commodification of the past. Seen as products that can be sold and bought, elements of the recent and more distant past become more and more important from the point of view of consumption, a process which adheres to the logic of commercial culture. The role of academic history is becoming less relevant as a source of authentic images of the past.2 Together with the changes that are taking place in the nature and sources of public culture, the use of the past to suit particular needs is a widely observable and experienced practice in an era in which the alleged validity and authenticity of history is used to secure value for an array of products. The past, not so much in the form of professional history but rather as something resulting from the arbitrary selection of sources for different purposes and needs, has moved into our neighborhood, and as a consequence we found ourselves surrounded by a rather eclectic type of history. There were of course significant variations in the aforementioned changes depending on the history of different countries.

East-Central European communist regimes strictly controlled publicness and the production of historical knowledge. On the basis of the dominant ideology, renderings of the past primarily emphasized “progressive” elements of national history which proved adaptable to relevant political needs and self-images. Control over the past was exercised through institutions which filtered the content of the history that was offered to the public. After the change of regimes, the newly established democracy, with its economic equivalent (a market economy), opened the public sphere to reevaluations of history, and alongside the clearly positive ones (removing former ideological constraints) this had some negative consequences as well. No longer under the supervision or even influence of academic history, the past suddenly began to appear in various forms and according to various, sometimes clearly biased interpretations. From the point of view of memory studies what happened came as no surprise. It was the logical result of the liberation of the past for the purpose of identification. Free access to the public sphere created a wide range of newly rediscovered elements and narratives of history for different Hungarian social groups. Instead of being the product of scientific study, theories, and methods, the past became a commodity, and it received a new valence as the source of collective and personal identity.3 Knowing for instance Hungarian society’s general indifference to and ignorance of its own past, we could add: at least for those who cared about grounding their identities in the past. Yet, although not in an explicit way, when defining themselves as members of groups (nations, confessions, ethnicities, or other kinds of social groups, for example the middle class) people always use elements taken from their collective past, known as history.4 There are important questions yet to be answered. How do people inform themselves or learn of (or devise or refashion) parts of the past that are relevant to them? Are there any specific institutions and mechanisms that help provide historical knowledge for a wider public? What kinds of roles does memory play in this process? And finally, how can we interpret the relationship of memory, history, and the contemporary in light of the problem of identity and identification in an ever-changing present? Before I try to formulate answers, I will turn to the general conditions of history and memory.

According to literary theorist Andreas Huyssen (whose opinion is very similar to that of Pierre Nora), as a necessary consequence of modernization the dissolution of the culture of unified common memory has changed the way in which people relate to the past.5 The general speeding up of life, the flow of information, and the growing frequency of motion (vertical and horizontal mobility) has increased our distance from the past, which we could consider our own, as a dimension in which we could easily navigate. Broadening the horizon of the present paradoxically has meant tightening it at the same time.6 Modern techniques can bring different parts of the world close to one another at a very rapid pace, creating a kind of synchronicity. The ever expanding horizon of the present is changing more and more quickly in accordance with the needs of the news industry and show business.7 Modern life is changing so quickly that we can hardly realize it, and the moment is over, it has become past.8 Because of this incertitude, people turn to the harmonic unity of a past allegedly governed by traditions, which does not necessarily correspond to any historical reality, though this is not really important from the point of view of the psychological need for security. A second relevant factor here is the consequence of modern urbanization. As Paul Connerton claims in a recent book, the production of urban space produces cultural amnesia. Spaces and places in modern cities are becoming more and more homogeneous and less memorable as a consequence. It is hard to anchor memories that could preserve (or be used to fashion the illusion of) stable identities in spaces in which functional requirements of traffic and dwelling prevail. Change, speed, and the deeply human psychological need of attachment to place and the preservation of identity with the help of memories—all these factors are relevant when we try to maintain an appropriate relationship with the past. As Pierre Nora observed more than 30 years ago, there are no longer milieus, which is why we need to create lieux of memory.9

First, one must consider basic differences between history and memory, as they are of particular relevance here.

Community, Emotions, Identity

Much as individuals construct their identities in the form of autobiographical memory through narratives, communities also construct narratives of self-interpretation.10 To maintain continuity and coherence, collective identity needs effective preservers and mediators.11 Because of our innate group instinct and our constant need of reliable attachments, we can consider culture as a chance to belong somewhere and not as a burden, as has been claimed by Nietzsche and Freud.12 The emotional character of memories can be partly explained by the successes and failures of the human striving to achieve appreciation, attention, and attachment. To a considerable extent, the aims and plans of our working selves concern these goals to realize a kind of social embeddedness. At the birth of communicative memory, the emotional valence of relations among individuals plays a very important role.13 Feelings of love, the longing for attachment, hate, anger, distrust, pain, shame, and guilt are inseparable from memory—indeed they are defined by memories. The role of emotions is supported by empirical results concerning autobiographical and more particularly flashbulb memory: memories accompanied by strong emotions are likely to remain more vivid than more general and less emotional memories.14 We cannot remember everything, recollection is guided by emotional relationships concerning past events. Emotional relevance creates the structure of communicative memory in the case of images and narratives.15 The desire to belong somewhere makes the individual participate in an identity mediated by collective memory. Social values and norms are written into the minds of the members of society, producing a super ego which controls their acts, constantly confronting them with social obligations.16

Extending to three generations and approximately 80 years, communicative memory survives with the help of social relationships, mediated and provided with means of preservation by society. Socialization is both the cause and effect of memory according to Assmann. However, on the long run and for larger communities it is not enough. They need a more durable form of memory on which to base their identities, namely cultural memory, which mediates the contents of the official canon.17 In this case, society reaches back to a “reality” beyond communicational memory, a “reality” that is not necessarily a truthful one, because “truth” could make identification problematic. Compared to the relativistic view of history, taking into consideration different perspectives on the past, myths, legends, and only partly true renderings of the past in the form of memory, they have basically only one valid interpretation, namely, how emotional loading and identification can connect to each other.18 Memory has only one valid perspective on the past. It cannot bear multiple interpretations.19 Usually, we choose exemplary, patriotic ancestors with which to identify. Recalling the past as cultural heritage has the aim of promoting identification instead of the impartial study of the national past. The national past as common heritage serves present centered purposes: to convince, to strengthen and to mobilize.20 Memories of historical events may generate strong emotions, whether or not these memories are connected to personal experience. A couple of days after the assassination of president Kennedy as it could be reconstructed from the conversation between Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King, the time had come to have the Civil Rights Act (supported by Kennedy) accepted in the context of collective national mourning.21 Emotional reaction can serve as a dangerous weapon in the hands of political manipulation. The politics of identity can use history to produce an emotionally affected or manipulated community. We use our original essentialism, that is to say our innate disposition to attribute some unchangeable inner essence to individuals and groups.22 Considering the inner essence as a kind of an innate core can lead to a perspective from which other groups are easily be seen as so closed and strange that this perception precludes any kind of possible cooperation. There is no need to warn against the potential dangers of an identity politics based on essentialism after the tragic events of the 20th century. These dangers are all too familiar. Totalitarian regimes often used exclusion based on essentialist ideology in order to maintain the feeling and image of coherence. Whether the narrative trying to produce this coherence functions according to racial, ethnic, or class ideology is of secondary importance. The stranger is essentially a stranger by his/her race, ethnicity, or class. In the 1950s, exclusion from the working class meant a secondary social status.23 The events of 1956 could serve as very effective counter-memories of the victory and betrayal of truth and freedom. Myths of cultural memory function differently in closed, dictatorial systems and in open, democratic societies. The relationship between the archive and the canon can change with time, the former being the passive contents of cultural memory, the latter the actual cultural memory.24 Every system needs stability, which is partly provided by regularly held commemorative ceremonies (according to the calendar of national celebrations). The content of the canon, that is to say the actual cultural memory, depends on the prevailing ideology and character of the political system.25 Commemoration can be considered successful if it strengthens the feeling of collective belonging.26 Society too is able to remember, and practices of commemoration have important roles in maintaining continuity with the past and strengthening a sense (or illusion) of community, which is the main source of identity for the individual.

The Birth of History

Will an event become a chapter or only a footnote in future books on history? Spectacular events sometimes survive as chapters and sometimes only as footnotes. Why and how are they preserved (or rather fashioned as artefact, commodity, or political implement) by posterity?27 How can social memory influence the writing of history? The transmission of tradition once cultivated as living memory became more and more problematic due to radical social changes initiated by industrialization and urbanization. Society became separated from its own (vision of the) past, which returned in the form of national memory and history. The two were often intermingled in the service of identity politics. As Nora claims, with the proliferation of lieux de mémoire and communities of memory, the canon of a unified national past disintegrated.28 According to Ágnes Heller, it is due to its versatility and rejection of orthodoxy that modern civil society cannot have real cultural memory. Following the logic of identity politics, the state is trying to appropriate particular events from the past.29 Since it has become a national holiday in Hungary, October 23 (1956) has ceased to be a counter-memory. It has lost its oppositional value and people are much less aware of what they are celebrating. The more real communities there are in society, the more complicated it is for the official national canon to integrate the common past into a unified cultural memory. Professional historians have a choice: either they stay within their own territory and continue to render impartial, objective accounts of the past (or least accounts that are as impartial as their institutionalized positions as the proprietors of scientific discourse allow), or they serve memory.30 The historian is guided by the past, more precisely a certain memory of the past. He or she cannot get rid of his or her own past, in which socialization took place, neither can he/she remain unaffected by questions of identity. Even the most objective historical works attest these influences, as one immediately sees when one considers the questions and research topics which are accorded the status of “relevant.” As far as the choice of the professional historians is concerned, certainly we cannot speak of total independence or isolation from the context of national identity. However we can expect a historian to reflect on her/his own position, method, and narratives.31

History as preserved in memory can easily serve ideology and identity politics, which is why we should take a closer look at the selection of past events. Perhaps there are events that prove more significant for society as a whole.32 Even the historian is picking elements from the past in a selective way, keeping in mind the relevance of the past for the present and the future. In Hungary, for example, the tragic fall of the Hungarian State in the battle of Mohács against the Ottoman Empire in 1526 was reevaluated after World War I and the Treaty of Trianon, which was a comparable loss. However, the history of the multiethnic Hungarian kingdom can easily connect the two events, because the consequences of the first, which included changes in the ethnic structure of society, clearly contributed to the second.33 We cannot separate ourselves from the present or from those elements of the past that in the course of history became relevant for society as a whole. The need for identity both at the collective and the individual (which are interrelated) levels necessitates memory. Individual identity is always part of a greater group-level identity.34 Although perhaps not in the form of a unified, closed system of cultural memory (as Heller pointed out), but modern societies and historians as members of these societies can still have a “stock” of common memories that can be considered the basis of identification in some way or another. From the point of view of national history, the narrative positing a connection between the battle of Mohács and Trianon is partly the result of an actual widespread self-interpretation (Hungarians have endured great losses), which was supported and even fueled by the prevailing political power.

How can society select from among different historical events? What meanings will be attributed to September 11 a few decades from now? Will it be a main chapter in the books on the history of the 21st century or only a footnote? According to the findings of research concerning events of the past, there is a kind of social dynamics working in communities which make memories durable.35 Generally, we can better recall unexpected, spectacular, shocking events, but only events which remain relevant endure as memories because they brought about significant changes in people’s lives and they have been used in the fashioning of a positive image of the community.36 According to the results of a follow up study in the US, in the future September 11th is more likely to be considered an important chapter in history than the Gulf War, which did not prove to be that significant after all, despite the overall effect of the media coverage of the war. The streets of American cities were empty because people stayed home and watched the war on TV. In the beginning, it seemed (at least according to the official rhetoric) that an international coalition emerged after the fall of the Soviet Union which would fight for freedom, justice, and democracy. One year later, however, the troops returned home, Saddam Hussein was still in power in Iraq, and there was no consensus on the part of the democratic powers about the aim of the war. Were they fighting for oil or democracy? To sum up, as far as its consequences were concerned this war was not significant.37 At the same time September 11th, in addition to being directly relevant to many people, produced very strong negative emotions, fear, worry, and incertitude in American society. Based on the analysis of 75,000 blogs, scholars claimed that after the first shock people were seeking the company of family and friends and tried to share their experiences in order to distance themselves from the experience. As a result, it became a shared, collectively formed, and later collectively recalled common memory, thus more and more a real collective memory.38 Switching to a “we mode”, people more frequently used the personal noun “we”, and they were more attentive to each other. Conversely, we have ample evidence of the fact that the lack of mutual support after a tragic event produced negative effects, for instance in Chicago after the 1871 fire or in Dallas after the assassination of Kennedy, events which were followed by a significantly higher death rate. For those who were directly affected by a shocking event it was more difficult to get over it. They faced the difficulty of finding an appropriate form of communication for traumatic memory. I would make one last point concerning the audience. If there is a compassionate, attentive audience then it is always easier to communicate shocking experiences as memory narratives.39

According to psychological research, past events can be best integrated into memory between the ages of 13 and 25. Adolescence and early adulthood are particularly important from the point of view of identity formation.40 We retain significantly more memories from this period than from other periods. For those who experienced World War II as young adults, September 11, 2001 was less significant than it was for younger generations. There are differences concerning possible future communicative memories as they have been theorized by Halbwachs and Assmann. They are not equally suitable as potential cultural memories. Events and celebrated personalities once considered significant might loose their appeal for society. Some of them become marginal, since they cease to be the source of consensus because they are highly disputed. Instead of symbols, they are rather seen as burdens. One could take Christopher Columbus as an example. First, he was celebrated as a hero. Then, his fame was overshadowed by new discoveries, but in the mid-16th century he began to become popular again. In the 18th century, he was considered a national hero in the United States, but by the end of the 19th century he was simply associated with important discoveries. At the same time, in France Columbus was seen as one of the greatest Christian missionaries. By the middle of the 20th century, however when the colonial past had become a burden for democratic societies, his name was frequently used in the context of imperialism and even genocide. No surprise that the 500th anniversary of his arrival in the Americas was not really celebrated and indeed was almost ignored.41

The same events can be remembered in different ways. World War II is generally evaluated negatively by Poles and neutrally or positively by Russians (mainly members of the older generations). According to the American psychologist James Wertsch, there are schematic narrative templates which represent a general view of history and guide the interpretation of national history without going into details. Russian history, for example, is represented in the minds of ordinary Russian people according to the following simple schema: Russia was always a peaceful country, which was suddenly invaded by foreign powers and suffered huge losses; through heroic fights, Russia finally triumphed over its enemies. We can discover elements of academic history in this scheme, though in a very simplified form. The public use of history reminds one of the functioning of memory: it is constructed by the needs of identity. The Hungarian version of the schematic narrative template reflects another narrative deep structure of collective memory which is centered around losses and inevitable failure. Collective identity is strengthened by mourning, which can be dangerous if a society has not worked through earlier experiences. Continuous reliving of the past can produce an inflexible identity firmly attached to the past. What is the relevance of the schematic structure when we try to concentrate on memory, history, and the contemporary?

For me, the schema represents the contemporary intersection of history and memory in the service of identity. Professional history, in addition to producing and reconstructing data and facts in a scientific way and establishing the interrelationships among facts, perhaps in a less scientific manner often provides a kind of a raw material for the public. In order to be applicable to the purpose of identity construction, history is used in a highly selective way. The source of selection is identity. The collective self-image of societies and of respective social groups cannot do without reliable historical material because to some extent it has to be anchored in real events and places. The meaning of these events and places is not determined by history alone, it can change according to eventual identity claims. Contemporary relevance necessarily results in oversimplification. Objective, impartial accounts of the past are problematic because they cannot always be easily integrated into personal and collective identity, which are better adapted to the schematic interpretations of history. As I mentioned earlier, identity as a multi-layered phenomenon has more facets. The historical layer, which become manifest in the form of narratives, is the eminent source of identity as a collective entity. This collective identity seeks a favorable self-image and, as a result, has a highly selective, perspectival character, playing down aggression, for example, on behalf of the state and community. A narrative deep layer of Hungarian history’s collective memory emphasizes pointless struggle and inevitable failure.42 Considering the great endeavors in Hungarian history, this picture is not unrealistic. Collective identity can be mainly strengthened on the basis of common mourning for the past 500 years. Again, if a society has not worked through its past, excessive mourning can lead to ceaseless reliving and to an inflexible identity that rigidly adheres to the past.43

20th-century history is a huge repository of traumatic events. There is much to mourn. In Hungary (as in many other countries, especially in those of the multi-ethnic region of Central Europe), there are hardly any social groups which did not suffer considerable losses over the course of the previous century: wars, genocide, executions, the Treaty of Trianon, deportations, population exchange, violent collectivization – mainly as a result of political regimes based on ideologies. Ethnic, confessional, and social groups of a great variety fell victim to these powers and ideologies.44 As many 20th-century biographies indicate, losses and traumas are here to stay in the aloof and isolated victims and in their offspring.45

For the time being, traumatic experiences have more real consequences at the level of personal traumas. In an atmosphere of mistrust, they cannot become common cultural traumas which are widely admitted in society after the act of self-inspection, which potentially can lead to a clearer social conscience, stronger social solidarity, and perhaps even the transformation of collective identity. This is not an easy task, however, because it is often hard to find an impartial “third side” that would create the necessary condition for the social interrogation of the traumatic events by providing objective information on these events for a wider public.46

Groups, Pasts, and Relevance

With the changing relationship between history and “truth,” academic history has become merely one version among many, and it is less and less suitable for the purpose of identity politics. Fueled by the singular emotional perspective of collective memory, identity can renew itself also on the basis of losses and mourning. As society is broken up into several memory groups, macro level inquiries are likely to give way to micro level investigations. With the increasingly widespread confession and recognition of sufferings and losses, and with their increasingly central role in history and international relations, the micro level gains ascendency over the super-individual, and this makes it possible for professional history to connect individual and collective history with the mediation of microhistory.47 This is increasingly seen as a moral duty for academic history.

The real significance of an event taking place in a society unfolds only afterwards, depending on whether or not it has the potential to change society as a widespread communicative memory. It is also important to know how a given community is characterized by the memories that anchor our collective identity. Flashbulb memories, identified in the late 1970s by researchers, are the consequences of the very exact and detailed recollection of extraordinary events. These types of memories are particularly vivid regarding the time and circumstances of certain events, events that were extremely important for the subject even in the moment in which they happened, as if someone actually had turned a light on to see things better. Flashbulb memories, however, do not have equal relevance for each social group. As it turned out in the 1970s, when this type of memory was discovered, the assassination of Martin Luther King was much more of a flashbulb memory for African Americans than it was for others. The same applies to September 11, 2001 in an international context: US citizens were much more affected than others. 48 Being closed within their ingroups, people react differently, and they are prone to overlook the faults of the members of their groups more easily than they will overlook the faults of members of so-called outgroups.49 Given this bias, one of the most important social functions of memory would be to remind us to our duties, which we can construe as obligations which provide us with what we as communities tend to allege as moral character. 50 As we have seen, alongside notions of past glory, tragedies can also be subjects of social memories. The result is more or less the same in both cases: strengthening group solidarity, emphasizing the mutual commitments of members and the outlines of the group itself. Our victories and our sufferings are construed as unique, and they belong only to us, no one else can possibly understand them.51 Recently, the growing wave of apologies on the international scene directs our attention to the potentially positive consequences of giving up rigid “ingroup positions” and emphasizing the importance of a notion of the mutually accepted common fate of the international community.52 In order to create peaceful relations, we surely have to begin working through our (real or imagined) grievances. It is not clear, however, whether our incorporated conscience (which has a deep social origin in the form of common rules) would be willing to undergo an overall self- inspection, or only a limited one relating to the past of its own society.


The interrelated nature of memory, history and identity is one of the most important phenomena for every past and present society and consequently also for those studying social groups in the present and the past. As for the future, this interrelation seems to be so deeply rooted in human nature that we are hardly able to get rid of it. It is an interrelation which is highly relevant both for the social sciences and the humanities. Using the results of psychological and anthropological research, we can better understand the role memory and identity have played in historical processes both at the national and the international level. Interdisciplinary cooperation of the social sciences (above all psychology and anthropology) and history can help us make sense of the way people as members of groups relate to one another in time by the means of memory and through identification.

After these general statements, I should return to the problems I originally raised, namely the relationship between history (historical writing) and memory (individual, collective and cultural). Following a functional approach, one can identify one of the main tasks of memory as providing a tool with which to travel, mentally, in time, i.e. a means of summoning (or crafting while appearing to summon) information from the past.53 Past knowledge can serve many practical purposes in our everyday lives, but humans have one particular need that we cannot do without as individuals living in societies: identities. Some information from the past is only relevant for us because it concerns who we are. Self-definition and self-image have more than a merely decorative role here. In order to be able to live in society, we need to have a coherent self consisting of more or less reliable self-knowledge provided by our memories of ourselves in earlier times.54 This view can be considered general among psychologists. As it was formulated by neuroscientists:


We are not who we are simply because we think. We are who we are because we can remember what we have thought about. ... Memory is the glue that binds our mental life, the scaffolding that holds our personal history and that makes it possible to grow and change throughout life. When memory is lost, as in Alzheimer’s disease, we lose the ability to recreate our past, and as a result, we lose our connection with ourselves and with others.55


If memory is so important in the life of the individual it surely has some significance in the lives of social groups as well. The overlap of personal and collective, historical, cultural memories in the course of self-definition, for example in the case of defining ourselves as individual members of a national and/or a religious community, highlights the interconnected nature of individual and collective identity as a result of their common supra-individual sources for identification, consisting of history and, broadly speaking, cultural memory. 56

Considering the issue from the perspective of history writing and, more particularly, contemporary history, one is prompted to ask whether or not there are any relevant consequences. The notion of the present as having a constantly moving horizon can lead to definitional problems and eventually to impasses.57 Either we live in the eternal present or, seen from the opposite extreme position, there are only vanishing seconds for the present between past and future. Accepting a realist view of time, with duration and succession, we can attempt to conceptualize and reconstruct past, present, and future. We can speak about past pasts, presents, and futures, present pasts, presents, and futures, and of course of future pasts, presents, and futures as well, based on the mutual relationship among these time dimensions.58 Using this conceptual tool, we can avoid the traps of the eternal presentism of our own time without losing the advantage of being able to study every historical period as contemporary history with possible perspectives from the past and the future. The problem, however, with the actual present in which we live and the contemporary history of this present is its unsettled, unfinished character, which makes it very difficult to interpret in clear cut time dimensions. So the question—and it is a very troubling question indeed—is whether or not we can identify our present position. I think that the functional approach to memory both at the individual and the social level can help solve this problem. If we take the general human need for self-consistency into consideration, the interconnectedness of memory and identity shed light on the overall context of historical writing. Actual self-definition and future planning serve as the basis of society’s interpretation of its own past. However, society in itself cannot produce these interpretations without historical contents formulated by the science of history. Political forces and influential intellectuals exert a kind of distortion when they use the “raw material” of academic history for the purpose of strengthening identity and feelings of belonging. Professional historians, mainly those who research the recent past, often feel obliged to react to out-of-context interpretations and distortions in order to defend their position as the legitimate producers of historical knowledge. Since history in its scientific form is less appropriate for identity purposes, we can claim that there is a necessary inconsistency between the two.59 The actual present helps orient people with the support of common historical, cultural memories. It provides a kind of anchor for definitions of the present through memories and a point of departure towards the future. The context of contemporary history is heavily influenced by the past in the form of memories, both for the wider public and for historians. The influence is manifold, for it reflects social needs and political aspirations, as well as the research areas of the study of history.

These interrelationships notwithstanding, there are significant differences between public and scientific interpretations of the past. Defined by the brokered memories of professional historians, history is expected to be reflective at least, i.e. to reflect on its own topics, methods, and narratives, as well as its position and functions within society. With the help of social scientific concepts and methods, which are especially relevant in the case of contemporary research, history can strengthen its position as a practice of critical observation of social processes and production of scientific knowledge.


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1 Eley, “The Past Under Erasure?” 555.

2 Ricoeur, Memory, History, Forgetting, 396–97.

3 About the past being “improved” for present purposes, see: Lowenthal, The Past is a Foreign Country – Revisited, 497–584.

4 The most seminal works on the relationship between social groups and memory are of course Les Cadres Sociaux de la Mémoire and the posthumous La Mémoire Collective by Maurice Halbwachs. Based on Halbwachs’ notion of social memory (but stressing mainly the role of long term cultural memories and, from this perspective, the relationship between social groups, memory, and identity), see Assmann, “Globalization, Universalism, and the Erosion of Cultural Memory,” 123. On the significance of the interpretation of memories as a dynamic process and the entangled, relational nature of remembering, see: Feindt et al., “Entangled Memory,” 27.

5 Huyssen, Present Pasts, 1–29; Olick, Vinitzky-Seroussi, and Levy, “Introduction,” 6–8; Csáky, “Die Mehrdeutigkeit von Gedächtnis,” 2; Nora, “Between Memory and History”; Hartog, Regimes of Historicity.

6 Huyssen, Present Pasts, 22–24.

7  Hartog, Regimes of Historicity, 113.

8  Connerton, How Modernity Forgets, 139.

9  Nora, “Between Memory and History.” This meant an explicitly presentist view of history, as reflected in the writings of Nora and the series Les Lieux de Mémoire, see: Hartog, Regimes of Historicity, 141.

10  Williams and Conway, “Networks of Autobiographical Memory,” 41–46; Wertsch, “Collective Memory,” 132–35.

11  For a social level application of Conway’s self- memory-system: Wessel and Moulds, “How Many Types of Forgetting?, ” 290–91.

12  Assmann, Religion, 6.

13 Pennebaker and Gonzales, “Making History,” 185–91; Lambert et al., “How Does Collective Memory Create a Sense of the Collective?,” 198–99; Assmann, Religion, 3–4.

14 Christiansen and Safer, “Emotional events,” 223, 238; Robinson, “Perspective, meaning,” 199–200. Barclay, “Autobiographical remembering,” 123: “Life is meaningful when experiences can be tied to functional affects and emotions, and one’s self is sensed as coherent when there is a useful temporal-spatial system for organizing, interpreting, and explaining life events.“

15 Assmann, Religion, 3.

16 Ibid., 6–7.

17 Assmann, “Canon and Archive,” 104–05.

18  Nora, “Between Memory and History”; Assmann, “Transformations,” 65.

19  Winter, “Historians,” 267; Wertsch, “Collective Memory,” 126–27.

20  Lowenthal, The Heritage Crusade, 88–172.

21  Lambert et al., “How Does Collective Memory Create a Sense of the Collective?,” 213.

22  Haslam, “Natural Kinds”; Gil-White, “Are Ethnic Groups Biological ‘Species’”; Mahalingam, “Essentialism.”

23  Standeisky, “A kommunista polgárellenesség.”

24 Assmann, “Canon and Archive,” 101–02.

25 Connerton, How Societies Remember, 83–88. Connerton used the notion of “habitual memory” when analyzing rites in society. Memory is written into the body so to speak. It is most effective when there is other communal, family relevance as well. See e.g. July 1 reminding people of the losses of World War I: Winter, “Historians,” 266.

26 Assmann, Religion, 11.

27 Emphasizing the role of media: Kansteiner, “Finding Meaning,” 189–95. We can formulate the following question: how would collected memories become collective memory? The emphasis is on its processual nature See: Olick, “From Collective Memory,” 155–59; Wertsch and Roediger, “Collective Memory,” 319–20.

28 Nora, “Between Memory and History.”

29 Heller, “A Tentative Answer.” E. Esposito holds a similar opinion concerning collective memory in the more and more complex societies: Esposito, “Social Forgetting,” 183–84.

30 In Hungary Gábor Gyáni wrote about the phenomenon. See: Gyáni, Az elveszíthető múlt, 68–84; 85–102.

31 See e.g. Wilson, “A Critical Portrait,” 34–35; Jenkins, “Introduction.”

32 Pennebaker and Gonzales, “Making History,” 172–75; Blatz and Ross, “Historical Memories,” 226.

33 On the tragic image of Mohács: Gyáni, Az elveszíthető múlt, 117–33.

34 Somers, “The Narrative Constitution.”

35 Erdelyi, “Forgetting and Remembering,” 276.

36 Pennebaker and Gonzales, “Making History,” 171–93.

37 Ibid., 172.

38 Ibid., 179–83.

39 Ricoeur, History, Memory, Forgetting, 505; Heller, Trauma, 14; Erős, Trauma, 23–26.

40 Pennebaker and Gonzales, “Making History,” 173.

41 Ibid., 187–88.

42 The social psychologist Ferenc Pataki about the deep layer of hungarian memory in a wertschian manner, stressing the role of inevitable failure. Pataki, “Kollektív emlékezet.”

43 Ricoeur, History, Memory, Forgetting, 79. Erős, Trauma, 17–20: About the consequences of collective traumas.

44 See e.g.: Argejó, “A hatalomnak alávetett test”; Bögre, Asszonysorsok; Braham, A népirtás politikája; Matuska, A megtorlás napjai; Ö. Kovács, “‘Ekkora gyűlölet még nem volt a falunkban, mint most’”; Pető, “Budapest ostroma”; Saád, Telepessors; Standeisky, “A kommunista polgárellenesség”; Szederjesi, Megtorlások évszázada; Tóth, Hazatértek.

45 Losonczi, Sorsba fordult történelem, 294; Erős, Az identitás, 117–18.

46 Giesen, “Social Trauma.”

47 Gabriel, “Introduction,” 4. About the danger of leaving history to non professional historians and history serving the purpose of identity, eventually the marginalization of academic history: Levi, “Historians,” 85–86.

48 Roediger, Zaromb, and Butler, “The Role of Repeated Retrieval,” 150–53.

49 Blatz and Ross, “Historical Memories,” 227–29.

50 Poole, “Memory, History,” 162–63.

51 Blatz and Ross, “Historical Memories,” 230.

52 Ibid., 230–34; Gyáni, Az elveszíthető múlt, 373–74.

53 For the functional approach and the need to study memory in an interdisciplinary way, see: Boyer, “What are Memories for?”

54 Conway, “Memory and the Self,” 597.

55 Squire and Kandel, Memory, IX.

56 See e.g. Assmann, Religion, 6; Wertsch, “Collective Memory.”

57 Koselleck, Zeitschichten, 247–48.

58 Ibid., 249.

59 See e.g. Wertsch, “Collective Memory and Narrative Templates,” comparing history and memory.

Volume 6 Issue 4 CONTENTS


Contemporary History as Pre-history of the Present: Analysing the Austrian Media Discourse about Investment Opportunities in the East

Oliver Kühschelm

University of Vienna, Department of Economic and Social History

In its first part the essay reflects about the concept and practice of contemporary history. Taking the transformation of Europe since 1989 as a starting point it finally advocates a genealogical reconstruction of the past as pre-history of the present. In its second, empirical part the essay discusses examples from print media that belong to a discourse about Austrian companies ‘going East’. The analysis focuses on images that without providing numbers nor technical arguments suggested investments in the former socialist countries as a huge opportunity. It discerns two narratives built on these images: the return of the Habsburg Monarchy and Western (Austrian) companies as conquerors of the East. The essay thus contributes to a critical media history of the transformation of Central Europe.

Keywords: business magazines, discourse analysis, transformation, Central Eastern Europe

What is Contemporary History And How Are Historians to Write about It?

What is the meaning of contemporary history, which period does it cover and which methods do we need to investigate it? These are relevant concerns for any historian who is fascinated by those stretches of history that link up to our present and that are so close to our current problems, predilections, and confusions that we sometimes even hesitate to designate them history proper. I will briefly discuss such questions on a general level but with regard to a major rupture in living memory that often is considered as marking the end of the short twentieth century. It sometimes is even considered as marking the end of contemporary history as legitimate field of historical research.1 I am of course talking about the events of 1989, the ensuing socio-economic transformation and the dissolution of the communist bloc. In the second, empirical part of my essay I will approach this seismic shift in European history from an Austrian vantage asking a highly specific question: How did Austrian business journals frame their reporting on the opening up of Central Eastern Europe? How did they reconfigure a former niche activity, the trade with the ‘East’ (“Osthandel”), into ‘a huge chance’ for Austrian companies? As an answer I will analyse images from business journals about the perspectives that were presenting itself to Western investors.

Philipp Ther’s book from 2014 “Die neue Ordnung auf dem alten Kontinent” [The new order on the old continent] has been widely praised as an account of the changes that Europe underwent since 1989.2 Ther lays his focus on the former socialist countries but emphasizes the co-transformation of Western societies. He observes that significant change in regions of the “old Europe” was connected to the transformation of the “new” Europe farther to the east. This makes his book a useful reference for my own more limited undertaking. Austrian politicians like to flatter themselves as having played a significant role in the removal of the iron curtain (the famous photograph of the Austrian and Hungarian foreign ministers Alois Mock and Gyula Horn comes to mind3), but Austria, much like the other Western countries, was a bystander of the most consequential political changes in a long time.4 However, with some reason Austrian society hoped to benefit from these unexpected political developments in neighbouring countries. Austrians acted less as bystanders when it came to trade and doing business with the reforming countries. Companies operating from Austria were rather among the first to seek profits in the newly open markets. This is one reason why the transition in Eastern Europe had a large impact on Austrian society. It contributed to a period of growth that lasted from the early 1990s to the financial crisis of 2008.

In the introductory chapter of his book Ther discusses what it means to historicize the recent past since 1989: “At which point does a given period become part of history, when does it become historical?”5 He then refers readers to Hans Rothfels’ influential characterization of contemporary history as “the epoch of those living”6 but proceeds to invert this definition by using the death of famous protagonists as his yardstick. Prominent figures like Václav Havel, Tadeusz Mazowiecki are not among the living any more, hence 1989 by now must be history. Ther names two more indicators for the present passing into history: when the ‘young’ have mostly been born after its signature moments (e.g. the fall of the Berlin wall) and when active memory dies or pales. These observations again play on the basic insight encapsulated in Rothfels’ dictum of contemporary history as the “epoch of those living”. There are still people who remember but those who do not or had not yet been born already play an active and growing role in society. Ther also observes that public discourse about 1989 has acquired “the style of historical debate”. This last point is tautological. An event becomes historical when historians enter the debate because they consider the topic historical.

Ther deploys three methodological strategies in order to enhance our understanding of the “history of neoliberal Europe”, as the subtitle of his book reads. First he takes a comparative stance in order to overcome the limitations of national histories. Secondly he makes ample use of findings and concepts from the social sciences and bolsters his narrative of transnational comparison with the help of statistical data from sources such as the World Bank, OECD, and the IMF. Thirdly he analyses expert discourses and media, seeking two connect both levels of discourse. This is all very well and as the response to the book has shown it forms the base for a convincing narrative. However, we have to be alert to the challenges these methodological options pose. Internationally or transnationally comparative history easily becomes yet another grand narrative. Historians thus must be cautious not to use historical material as building blocks for a philosophy of history. Historians also need to escape an unhealthy dependence on ready-made insights that the social sciences of the investigated period often seem to provide. Otherwise the historian’s brief vis-à-vis sociologists and economists consists of nothing more than an unimaginative renarration of past findings for a contemporary audience. If history as an academic endeavour overlaps with the social sciences, it also competes with historical narratives that mass media draw up. Lots of journalists dabble in history. This at least is how professional historians like to think of media people invading their home turf. With the proliferation of history magazines and TV programmes they do so ever more often.

We might be tempted to follow the lead of the British historian Peter Catterall who twenty years ago asked in a slightly desperate fashion: “What (if anything) is distinctive about contemporary history?”7 Catterall proposed that the distinguishing mark of historians should be their ability to take a wider view than journalists who suffer from “editorial pressures [that] dictate the primacy of the story in hand over analysis of its roots or the placing of it in context, the sensationalizing of material or even the perpetuation of myth”8. This argument has a lot going for it, especially since the resources of print journalism have not stopped dwindling. It is an advantage that academics are less constrained by the need to produce text for immediate consumption. However, having more time on their hands – in not just one sense – does not guarantee historians that their work keeps its distance from the political pressures and ideological preferences of the day. When Catterall wrote his essay, the end of history, the definitive victory of capitalism and liberal democracy, seemed a persuasive claim. Historians who did not subscribe to this Hegelian worldview, which Francis Fukuyama had updated for post-communist times, fought some sort of rear-guard action against the zeitgeist. Tellingly, Catterall used a military metaphor when he underlined that contemporary history needed a “hinterland”. He argued that it is necessary to take into account longer periods of time beyond the immediate and recent past. Again, making use of a ‘hinterland’ is no safeguard against the “perpetuation of myth”. Fukuyama, for example, did take into consideration long stretches of time. While he was no professional historian, there is little reason to think that it is different with historians. Historical writing has never been immune against self-serving narratives of the Whiggish kind.

In a more recent introduction into contemporary history Gabriele Metzler highlights the shrinking relevance of established disciplinary boundaries and a tendency towards organizing research according to the issues it investigates, not time periods.9 She advocates engaging with methods from other sciences, especially the social sciences and recommends espousing a transnational and comparative perspective. These ideas are not entirely new: When in the 1970s Hans-Ulrich Wehler and Jürgen Kocka promoted social history as an historical social science, they put forward the same notions. They directed them against the historicist tradition and its preference for political history as the history of great men.10 Metzler’s assessment of the current state of the subdiscipline and of the challenges that lie ahead sounds as if the practice of contemporary history today could still profit from incorporating the concerns of social history. I would argue that Ther’s account of the “new order on the old continent” is indeed indebted with Wehler’s Gesellschaftsgeschichte. Admittedly, there are important respects in which social history in the mould of Wehler does not offer a useful model to emulate. This pertains above all to its metaphysical core, which modernization theory provided. Wehler’s Gesellschaftsgeschichte betrayed a conviction (or at least the hope) that German history had finally found the right way of coping with modernity when it progressed towards liberal democracy and a social market economy. This looks a rather dubious premise today when the certainties of the post-war decades have long worn off. Therefore we also need a more modest concept of critique, which does not make its claims against the backdrop of universalist pretensions. Michel Foucault’s concept of problematization offers a useful starting point for reflecting about the possibilities of critical inquiry into the past.11 It emphasizes the complexities and contingencies of how a society comes to discuss something as problematic and to act upon it accordingly.

For some ten years now German historiography has turned to investigate the changes that entailed the end of the post-war boom since the 1970s.12 The discussion has focused on Germany and the ‘West’ and has spared little attention for Eastern Europe and how the transformation in the (former) socialist countries interacted with developments in Western Europe. However, the aim of writing a problem-oriented pre-history of the present has brought into sharp relief the necessity and the difficulties of cooperating with the social sciences. The “scientization of the social”13 since the late 19th century and especially the surge of social research since 1945 make available a wealth of intriguing findings and persuasive concepts. On the one hand, a practitioner of contemporary history would ignore them at his/her own peril, on the other hand this material comes with strings attached. Already in the 1950s social researchers like Helmut Schelksy were aware that suggestive notions such as the “sceptical generation” or the “levelled middle class society” exerted an influence beyond the conceptual sphere and shaped political practices and perceptions of contemporary elites as well as ordinary citizens.14 Social science helped to shape the reality it reflected upon. Furthermore, most historians are neither formally trained economists nor do they have a thorough knowledge of the intricacies of quantitative social research in its many guises. This harbours the danger of making them gullible consumers of sociological and economic diagnosis. While historians cannot aspire to become experts for everything, there exist remedies closer to home against the danger of becoming a conceptual prisoner of past social science. A genealogical reconstruction of scientific knowledge can help to avoid falling prey to naïve truth claims. It rather elucidates how the diagnosis is part of discursive strategies, power relations, institutional settings – vast networks of material and discursive relations.15

Contemporary history not only depends on concepts and results from the social sciences, it also has to incorporate mass media artefacts. Where archival sources are unavailable, they offer almost the only way to accede past processes apart from retrospective sources such as autobiographical writing and oral history interviews. Again, if one should not simply adopt what social sciences tell us about the past, this holds equally true for journalistic accounts. Contemporary history cannot do without critical discourse analysis that investigates how discourses staged social reality. This amounts to a “history of the second degree” to use the term that Pierre Nora coined for the goals of his multivolume editorial project about French sites of memory. He stated to be “less interested in ‘what actually happened’ than in its perpetual re-use and misuse, its influence on successive presents”.16 I am aware that many if not most practitioners of contemporary history prefer to learn how it really was but I am sceptical about any neat separation of the real and the discursive, which Nora’s description implies. In societies where all people consume mass media on a daily basis, media discourse is in itself an important event of the quotidian and forms part of what “actually happened”. We have to look at the narratives that media provided to make sense of the flux of events, at the metaphors they put in circulation, the frames they offered for to shape actions. This of course is far from being a one-way-street. Contemporary history to an important degree has to be media history,17 and this is the perspective I will pursue in the second part of my essay.

What should contemporary history do?

As different from

critique without Truth or teleology (modernization theory)

‘old’ social history since the 1970s

genealogical reconstruction of problematizations

present-oriented social sciences

“history of the second degree” (Nora)

Analysing established narratives

contemporary mass media

Table 1. The role of contemporary history

Conceptualizing the ‘East’ as an Investment Opportunity, 1988–1992

In the empirical part of my essay I will investigate the representation of the “Ostöffnung”, the “opening-up of Eastern Europe”, in Austrian print media, mainly business journals. Among the German speaking countries “Ostöffnung” is a notion peculiar to Austrian discourse. Germany had its reunification and Switzerland was not particularly focussed on the European east. Therefore, German or Swiss media only wrote about the “Ostöffnung” when referring to Austria and Austrian investments in the CEE-countries. In a first section I will use salient examples from business magazines. I have drawn these examples from a corpus of 400 articles about Central Eastern Europe that seven Austrian business magazines published between 1988–92.18 I will take a look at two interrelated narratives that tried to put the new investment opportunities in the CEE-countries into a perspective beyond the realm of the commercial. The first narrative can be called ‘back to an imperial future’. The second narrative showed Austrian companies as conquerors of the ‘East’, again drawing on an historic imaginary of Austrian expertise in ruling and ‘civilizing’ this region. The story of the food retail company Julius Meinl lent itself perfectly to be staged in this way. Meinl was one of the earliest ‘Western’ firms making direct investments in the CEE countries, setting up shop in Budapest in the mid-1980s. Meinl is the first of two cases of individual companies to which I will dedicate some space. The second one is Henkel Austria. Just like Meinl, that company was among the pioneering investors in the CEE countries, also starting in Hungary.

My discussion of exemplary visual and verbal items will be informed by an eclectic mix of tools from linguistics and social semiotics.19 Although my paper can contribute to a media history of business journalism, its principal goal lies elsewhere. It offers a glimpse into the manufacturing and circulation of concepts about the “Ostöffnung” at the intersection of business and the public sphere. Apart from business magazines, then, my sources include bits from print media that are related to the realm of business but do not qualify as “business magazines” as the term is commonly understood. A study such as this, which combines discourse theory and the history of journalism, has to navigate an underlying tension between the two approaches. Discourse analysis deals with statements (énoncés),20 which are not bound to any one medium or media type. They are an essentially transmedial phenomenon. However, it is important to keep in view the specifics of different types of media. Therefore, I will briefly outline the main characteristics of the print media that I use in my analysis.

Business magazines count on a readership from the upper middle classes that is sympathetic to a corporate perspective on economic, social, and political issues. According to 1992 survey data from Trend, the most renowned business magazine on the Austrian market, it reached about a fifth of Austrians from the highest income bracket and a third of those with a degree from an institution of higher education. Considering the population at large, business magazines were not widely read, but they typically boasted about their reputation among ‘decision-makers’. Another survey from the early 1990s found that 39 percent of Austrians who qualified as decision-makers read Trend and 29 percent read Gewinn, its most important competitor.21

The relation between business media and company actors can take many different forms. In their reporting, business journalists depend on access to key actors; hence, the latter have means of influencing the former. Although business journalists often have a background in economics, their articles centre less on technicalities and more on creating stories that a broader public can relate to. It is hard to pin down exactly where these stories originate, whether with journalists or with actors from companies. They are certainly the result of a cooperative interaction. Trend often published long, well-researched stories and sought to maintain a critical distance to its informants. Other business magazines, however, mixed reporting, promotion, and self-promotion of business actors in a less discerning manner. This applies for example to Gewinn. Founded in 1982, the journal was a decade younger than Trend. While the latter was fashioned as a general interest magazine that cultivated a business focus, Gewinn emphasized the perspective of personal gain. While Trend informed readers about business, Gewinn exhorted them to participate as investors. The quality of Gewinn’s reporting was no match for Trend; instead, it played on the increasing allure of the stock exchange that had been dormant in post-war Austria. For all their differences, the magazines shared some characteristics, such as a colloquial and sometimes irreverent tone. This distinguished them from the expert discourse of institutions such as the Wiener Institut für Internationale Wirtschaftsbeziehungen, which published the most serious economic research on trade with the socialist countries.

Apart from business magazines, I have consulted the company magazines of Henkel Austria and Julius Meinl. These magazines were rooted in the tradition of industrial welfare. They targeted employees in order to strengthen their identification with the company. In the case of Julius Meinl, the firm’s magazine also addressed regular customers of the company’s shops and supermarkets. The West-Ost-Journal was yet another of my sources that involved business but does not qualify as a business magazine strictu sensu. It was published by the Donaueuropäisches Institut, an association that was founded in 1947 to promote business contacts in Danubian Europe.22 The label “Donaueuropa” was an obvious attempt to avoid making a controversial claim to the legacy of the Habsburg Empire and to the dominant position that Vienna had held in it. Although the Cold War soon complicated the mission of the Donaueuropäisches Institut, it succeeded in establishing itself as a venue for commercial diplomacy across the Iron Curtain. Therefore, the West-Ost-Journal showed the characteristics of diplomatic discourse, including a penchant for grandiloquence and platitudes that emphasize cooperation but avoid concrete commitment. The association claimed for its journal an elite readership in embassies, chambers of commerce, and organisations that generally dealt with economic relations between East and West. It boasted that it had more than 100,000 readers all over the world. This figure, though, would have exceeded the circulation numbers for Trend in the 1980s. It is beyond doubt that this was an enormous exaggeration.

All these sources have in common that they do not document internal processes of decision making. They stage investments in the CEE countries as a media topic. However, I propose that the narratives and metaphors detected by my research in media discourse should be regarded as a recontextualization of business practices. While the exact relation between discourse and practices cannot be determined from media sources alone, in line with Critical Discourse Theory I assume that they should not be treated as though divorced from one another.23 The representation of investment practices in the media links them to concerns that go beyond the business sphere. It thus establishes consequential relations between the varying spheres of discourse and action. A conspicuous role is played by conceptual metaphors. Cognitive linguistics, a booming strand of linguistic research, stresses that metaphors are not mere rhetorical devices. Instead, they shape processes of understanding that are fundamental for the capacity to act upon the world.24 This suggests that if business magazines use forceful conceptual metaphors, analysis should not reduce them to an epiphenomenon of the linguistic surface, something that merely represents business practices in an attention-grabbing manner. They are rather visual and verbal realizations of cognitive processes and should be considered as a way to transform social imaginaries into real-world practices and hence as potential elements of business practices themselves. Although my article will not be able to furnish empirical proof of this thesis, it does formulate a crucial question for future research.

The Economic Context

In the first years after the end of World War II Austrian politicians and businessmen harboured some hope for revived economic cooperation in “Danubian Europe” as they liked to call it. With the onset of the Cold War these illusions turned out to be just that: illusions. Cooperation could be achieved only on a much reduced scale some time later.25 In the 1980s a rhetoric that dwelt on the idea of Central Europe experienced a renaissance in Austria, more precisely among intellectuals and politicians with a Christian-Democratic outlook.26 However, this rhetoric focused more on cultural ties while the economy was a different matter.

Since the 1960s, Austrian companies again increasingly engaged in trade with Eastern Europe. Commercial exchange with the socialist bloc gained far more economic weight then elsewhere in the OECD with the exception of Finland.27 In 1980 14 percent of Austrian exports were directed to socialist countries in Central and Eastern Europe.28 Admittedly, the so-called successor states of the Habsburg monarchy, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Yugoslavia, were far from being the important trade partners they had still been in the interwar period. In the 1980s trade with the socialist bloc even lost some of its significance due to the indebtedness of these countries and their mounting economic troubles. Although the grave problems of the centrally planned economies could not be overlooked, the implosion of the socialist bloc came as a surprise. This was an unexpected turn of fortunes for Austrian businesses, which were well placed to profit from the economic transition. Since the 1970s Austrian banks had established a service infrastructure that enabled commercial transactions with the region. Early on Austrian companies started to make direct investments, initially as joint ventures and especially in neighbouring Hungary, but soon in many (formerly) socialist countries.

The opening up of Central Eastern Europe contributed significantly to the growth of the Austrian economy, which during the 1990s outperformed that of the other member states of the European Union (EU 15). The economist Fritz Breuss estimates that the opening up can be credited with an increase in real GDP of 0,2 percent per year in the past two decades.29 Austria had long been more a destination of foreign direct investment than the place where cross border investments originated. Now the investments of Austrian companies abroad were increasing sharply. While in 1990 outward FDI amounted to only 2,9 percent of GDP, in 2004 they reached 23,3 percent.30 In 2003 for the first time the stock of active direct investments exceeded the stock of passive investments. This development was largely due to the expansion of Austrian companies in Central Eastern Europe, which had become the main destination of foreign investments. In 1990 11 percent of FDI had gone into this region. Ten years later the figure was 30 percent, and in 2006 it climbed to 46. More investments now went to Central Eastern Europe than to its Western parts.31

While trade with Central Eastern European countries had been relevant for Austria before, the development in the 1990s was not only a difference in degree but of kind. This also holds true from the vantage point of the receiving countries. During the Cold War Austrian companies had been bit players even if from an Austrian angle their role looked important enough. In the 1990s Austrian companies really acquired a disproportionate prominence as investors or as a means of channelling corporate resources from Western – above all German – companies to the region. In many Central and Eastern European states Austria was among the most important countries of origin of foreign capital. At different moments Austrian investments corresponded to well over a quarter of the stock of foreign direct investments in Hungary, Slovenia, and Slovakia.32

It is no exaggeration to say that from the perspective of the Austrian national economy the transformation of Central Eastern Europe has been a roaring success. Still, qualifications in this assessment are needed: It is clear that Austria has profited from the opening up of Central Eastern Europe. If seen from the so-called reforming states, the balance of the transition looks more mixed.33 Furthermore, overall growth does not exclude that there are winners and losers, (workers in Austrian textile industries could serve as an instance of the latter). It also does not imply an equal distribution of the spoils. Austria has proved no exception to the general dynamics of income distribution in Western societies: Real wages have stagnated since the 1990s, and the share of salaried workers in the national income has declined.34

Narratives: Stories of Conquest and the Return of the Habsburg Empire

As Austrian companies went East, Austrian business magazines had something to tell. In magazines having something to tell also means having something to show. Photographs, illustrations, diagrams, etc. play a vital part in communicating the story. Comprehensive articles often start with images that stretch across the whole page or even extend across the spread. The most salient image is the cover-illustration, which tries to attract consumers to buying and reading the magazine. Therefore, from an analytical point of view cover-illustrations deserve special attention. I will begin with briefly discussing one of them: the cover of the Austrian business magazine Cash-Flow from April 1990 (Figure 1).

Here we face the emperor Franz Joseph sitting in a chair and giving us a benevolent look. The cover refers us to a story about Austrian companies that have successfully expanded into the transition countries. Are we meant to think of the sudden activity by Austrian companies as some sort of déjà-vu because what we observe is “the comeback of Austrian companies in the Crown lands” as the sub header has it? The headline asks a question that implies an even more sweeping claim about the meaning of all this: “Back to the Monarchy?”

Showcasing Frances Joseph might point to monarchist nostalgia but the cover story is really about asserting entrepreneurship. It is accompanied by an article that tells the history of the Habsburgs rather irreverently as one of money making. 700 hundred years of rule are seen as the business venture of an extended family. About a century earlier the article would have been a remarkable expression of bourgeois self-confidence. In 1990 it might just have been what was to be expected in a business magazine that recycled the past in order to talk about the present. Another hint towards playful ambivalence is the fact that the cover does not actually show Frances Joseph but an actor who impersonates the emperor. A note on the last pages of the magazine tells about the difficulties that had to be overcome in order to plausibly fake the emperor for the photograph. This suggests that the question “back to the Monarchy” is not to be taken literally; nor is it to be taken seriously, or is it? I think it is indeed if we look at it from a different angle. The cover refers us to a geographic space, to the question who is in charge in this territory, and to a past that is assimilated to the needs of converting present business activities into an object of national pride.

While in early 1990 most articles revelled in what promised to be “a brave new world”35 full of business opportunities, already in autumn of the same year journalists paid increasing attention to the flip side of this coin, the many risks that went along with the new. Shorthand for addressing this situation was the imagery of the “Wild East”. This was a conceptual metaphor that provided recipients with an understanding of what doing business in the CEE-countries meant. According to cognitive linguistics metaphors are not mere figures of speech but powerful engines of cognition. This clearly applies to a metaphor that uses the Wild West as a source concept that it projects onto Eastern Europe. It is a curious turn in a long tradition of “inventing Eastern Europe”36 to satisfy the needs and obsessions of the ‘West’.

Let us turn to two illustrations based on this conceptual metaphor. One is an illustration from Trend,37 arguably the most influential Austrian business magazine (Figure 2). Without doubt it was the most carefully crafted. This kind of illustrations, spreading across two pages, was typical for the magazine’s style. We see a businessman climbing ruins in the jungle. The ruins refer us both to the idea of an ancient temple in a tropical rainforest and to Communism. They have the shape of an oversized hammer and sickle. This decrepit temple did not serve the purpose of venerating pre-Columbian gods but Marx and Lenin, whose busts are part of the pseudo-archaeological site. The illustration conveys the message that El Dorado is a dangerous place. The businessman therefore needs a helping hand: an Indiana-Jones-type adventurer pulls him up with a rope. In real life Indiana Jones is a consulter or rather an institution because the article recommends the services of private and parastatal organisations that had been established during the Cold War to promote trade with the Communist countries: the Eastern Department (Osteuropareferat) of the Chamber of Commerce and her trade representatives in the CEE-region, the registry for international trade (Evidenzbüro für Außenhandelsgeschäfte) and the Institute for Danubian Europe (Donaueuropäisches Institut). These organisations were supposed to guide companies through “the tricky business adventure land between Vladivostok and Tirana”. The title of the article reads: “Guides through the Wild East” (Lotsen durch den Wilden Osten). The imaginary of the “Wild East” could also emphasize the profits, which this vast territory held in store for businesspeople who did not fear its dangers (Figure 3).38 The title of the respective article reads: “Let’s go to the Golden East”. The illustration blends elements from two different mental domains: One is the “Wild West” – we immediately recognise many paraphernalia of this mass cultural phenomenon. The other domain consists of an idea of riches waiting in the East. Its embodiment seems to be Russia, which in turn is represented by the famous silhouette of the Kremlin as a visual metonymy.

The three images we have seen communicate the two narratives I want to focus my paper on: on the one hand the revival of the Habsburg Monarchy and on the other hand the conquest of the East, which is related to an imaginary of exploration into foreign lands. There is another important difference between the first representation and the other two: The image of Frances Joseph bears an inextricable relation to Austrian history, whereas the images of the Wild West and the tropical jungle are drawn from the symbolic resources of Western consumer culture. If the latter images can be regarded as realising the conceptual metaphor of conquest, it is also important to remark that the concept itself is very common in business discourse.39 Companies are said to conquer markets while others defend their place, etc. The concept of conquest and the visual and verbal realisations we have encountered in our examples could be used in much the same way almost anywhere. The discourse about opening up the East moves between collective symbols of Western consumer culture and capitalist business culture and a layer of more specifically Austrian concepts.

Part of the imaginary was not conceived to tell the story of Austrian businesses investing in transition economies and is not linked in any meaningful way to Austrian society and its history. Still, an alluring story about entrepreneurship can be built around those elements. It has its appeal for the journalists who write it, for the broader public, and probably also for a highly coveted target group: the ‘decision makers’, among them entrepreneurs. However, local flavour makes the story more convincing or more inviting to the local recipient. This is the point where references to the Austrian past and Austrian mentalities came in. Therefore the discourse oscillated between a local/national and a broadly Western horizon.

The narratives of conquest and of the Habsburg past can be used separately but it is easy to connect them, which was often done. I will have a brief look on another illustration taken from the article “Let’s Go to the Golden East”: It shows a map that is titled “deployment plan” (Aufmarschplan), a notion with obvious military connotations (Figure 4). It is worth noting that in Eastern Europe Austrians had last been occupiers in a literal sense during World War II. In the late 1980s the generation of Wehrmacht soldiers had only just ceased to hold dominant positions in Austrian society. The Waldheim affair had brought into the open some of the tacit understandings about the Austrian mission in the East and on the Balkans. Therefore the concept of a deployment plan applied to a map of Eastern Europe is not free of connotations that lead us back to Nazi imperialism. The sub header adds a different meaning. It informs: “Austrian banks are determined to resume the role they had played in the [Habsburg] monarchy”.40 Not only the media often make this connection but also bankers themselves. However, looking on the map one realizes that it stretches the concept: Habsburg territory for example did never include the “former GDR”. This might seem a trivial observation but it points us to what metaphoric projections are used for: They lend intuitive plausibility to complex issues, which in this case is the investment of Austrian banks in countries that were about to plunge their economies in an all-out transformation with uncertain results.

I argue that the narratives of conquest and of the Habsburg past play an important role for how the opening up of the East was perceived and hence for how it was acted upon. However, this does not mean that each and every magazine article that dealt with investments in Central Eastern Europe was steeped in these narratives. Rather they appear in certain contexts. Generally, a perspective that centres on the national economy without arriving at economic analysis with all its technicalities is prone to using grand narratives. It is worth remembering that the term “national economy” (Nationalökonomie/Volkswirtschaft) betrays a relation to nationalism, one of the most powerful political, cultural, and economic narratives of modernity.41

When did the media insinuate the return to a status quo ante that was loosely identified with the Habsburg Monarchy? First, the narrative came in handy when a company actually had existed in those times and played a superregional role. Secondly, the narrative was a valuable journalistic asset when the article did not focus on individual careers or the business performance of a given company but tried to paint a larger picture instead.

When dealing with the investments of Austrian banks, these factors merged into an incentive for recurring to imagery connected with the Danubian Monarchy. The nature of the financial business draws it near to expert discourses centred on the national economy and all the big players in contemporary Austrian banking have roots that go back to the 19th century. During the interwar years Austrian banks had tried to keep their influence in the successor states, which did not end well. After 1989 they gave it another go, this time with a more enduring success; or so it seemed before in 2008 the global financial crisis cast doubt on their Eastern strategy. Therefore, to explore the interaction of media representation and business history we could centre on the Austrian banks. I will forgo this option and draw instead on two cases from trade and industry respectively.

Julius Meinl International

The Julius Meinl Company was founded in Vienna in the 1860s. It was a retail store that sold coffee. It started to offer roasted beans, which relieved consumers from an arduous task. This turned out to be a good business idea and the founder of the company, Julius I., became an affluent man. In the 1880s the company started to outgrow the dimensions of small business, and his son Julius II. transformed it into a trust that integrated many economic activities related to the production and trade of foods. The company now possessed chain stores in all the important cities of the Habsburg Empire. The boom years around the turn of the century facilitated this success story but it did not stop with the disintegration of the Empire and the loss of a large interior market. On the contrary, when before Meinl had been an important company, it now became a huge international corporation. Tariff barriers were circumvented by establishing production facilities in the successor states of the Monarchy (a process that had already begun before World War I but became a necessity afterwards), which in turn exerted pressure towards increasing the number of stores. It was only in the aftermath of World War II that the company lost most of its Central European possessions and limited its business activities to the small Austrian market. In the late 1940s Julius III., the grandson of the founder, took over and steered the company for several decades. He embodied bourgeois traditions that became the object of nostalgia but ceased to provide a secure base for retail profits. In the first half of the 20th century the Julius Meinl company had been highly innovative and fiercely competitive, while in its second half a company that started out as the biggest player in Austrian retail managed to squander all its advantages over younger competitors. In the 1980s it became ever more obvious that the company was moving on a downhill slope.42

In many respects the Julius Meinl Company diverges from the common narrative about Austria’s economy. It did not suffer through a disastrous interwar period to enter en era of remarkable success in the 1950s. This explains in part why the business history of Meinl has entered Austrian cultural memory in a distorted fashion. In the second half of the 20th century its traditionalist appeal caused the Julius Meinl Company to become closely associated with Habsburg nostalgia. In contemporary Austrian media culture, references to Meinl help to create period atmosphere if the period in question is the 19th century,43 which has long receded from living memory into the mythological good old times. But already in the interwar years the company built an image that represented it as an empire onto itself. Not only did the Meinl family carefully observe the dynastic principle: the eldest son bore the name Julius and inherited the throne; the company was what remained of Austrian dominance in a region that had fragmented into several independent states. The Meinl company staged itself as a benevolent coloniser in the name of (upper) middle class consumption. It thus appeared as the legitimate heir of the defunct Habsburg empire.

Since the 1960s the company sought to establish commercial links with the Communist countries. Julius Meinl participated in the food fair in Plzen and on the occasion of the Budapest Fair of 1967 the company magazine informed about the “new contact with old friends”. In November 1981, Meinl opened a Viennese café in the hotel Forum in Budapest. The following year, the company began to collaborate with the Hungarian food chain Csemege, which after 1945 had taken over 45 former Meinl stores. Some Csemege shops now began to offer Meinl products. In 1989 Julius Meinl took the next step and founded a joint company with Csemege. The Austrian partner at first held only a minority of the shares but eventually owned the whole company. In 1996 Meinl operated 110 supermarkets, 70 discount stores, and five wholesale stores in Hungary. Meinl also moved quickly into the markets of Czechoslovakia and Poland. Consequently Julius Meinl International developed into the most valuable part of the Meinl retail empire.

In view of the company’s history it is small wonder that business media framed its investments in Central Eastern Europe as a return into the lands of the Habsburg Monarchy. The Meinl family and company of course actively collaborated in the creation of this image. When the journal Gewinn asked for the reasons of their expansion into Central Eastern Europe, Thomas Meinl, the younger son of Julius III. and brother of the company’s president Julius IV., named three reasons but emphasized above all “historic sentimentality”44: “We have the feeling that we have a certain mission in the lands of the former Monarchy, which were our original field of activity.”45

We could dismiss such a claim as mere talking, which the media eagerly took up. Possibly it was only public relations that did not have much in common with ‘real’ motivations and served to hide the overriding profit-seeking motive built into the DNA of capitalist enterprise. However, there is one strange thing about the Meinl Company. Since the 1950s it had missed every single trend in retail and shown itself as more risk averse than advisable even under the favourable conditions of post-war Austria. But this one they got absolutely right: They jumped to the opportunity of moving into Central Eastern Europe before most of their competitors considered the step. The swiftness of the action calls for an explanation. It lies in a corporate culture that never forgot about the fall from grace after World War II when the company lost its properties in countries behind the “Iron Curtain”. It lies in an owner family whose head, Julius III., thought of himself as a fatherly ruler. Admittedly, his empire consisted of chain stores but it was above the mere selling of goods.

Henkel Austria

The headline of a 1992 article in Gewinn sees “the White Giant on the tracks of the Habsburgs”. The top-head adds another aspect: “How Henkel Austria is conquering South East Europe”.46 The article’s author was Georg Waldstein, who had co-founded the business magazine Gewinn. He also had roots in the nobility of the empire. If the “on the tracks of the Habsburgs”-line was how a business journalist chose to frame the expansion of Henkel, how did the managers in charge talk about their investment policy? Was the Habsburg analogy thrust upon them by some secretly nostalgic journalist? Not at all. As in the case of Meinl important actors within the company could not resist staging their investments with reminiscences to the past.

In 1987 Franz Kafka, the general manager of Henkel Austria, introduced the readers of the West-Ost-Journal to his “personal vision” for the future of his company: It consisted of “opening up additional markets in the successor states”.47 Kafka pursued this goal with a lot of consequence in order to enhance the position of the Austrian branch of the Henkel group. Some years earlier it had been renamed Henkel Austria and it enjoyed certain autonomy vis-à-vis the Düsseldorf headquarters. The Austrian market alone did not carry enough weight to make Henkel Austria important but in 1984 it had been entrusted with working the markets of the COMECON. At first this probably was not that huge a deal but Henkel Austria strove to broaden the scope of its activities in the socialist countries. In 1987 it created a sales organisation in Hungary as a joint venture, and soon it also established footholds in Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia.

The article in the West-Ost-Journal thus celebrated an investment policy, which was on the verge of becoming an impressive success story. The title of the article read: “Henkel now in Austria-Hungary”. One could read the title as indicating direction: from Austria to Hungary. But it also evoked historical connotations and conveyed a sense of revival. Another instance of the same discursive strategy is an article from the employee magazine about the joint venture. Such magazines are an interesting source because they serve to communicate the mission of the company to its employees. While these magazines will not publish business secrets or anything that is unfit for the ears of outsiders, who might possibly get hold of a copy, they represent the company talking to itself.48 The article that here deserves our interest carries the headline: “Henkel für Österreich-Ungarn”49. In German the pronoun “für” allows different connotations. The headline can be translated as “Henkel on behalf of Austria-Hungary” or “Henkel in favour of Austria-Hungary”. The article told the story of the day when the Henkel management signed the contract for the joint venture: “In the early morning hours a stately delegation from Henkel Austria boarded the train to travel to Budapest, to walk on nostalgic k.u.k. tracks and at the same time march unerringly into the future”. The concept clearly was: back to the future. The article finishes by mentioning that the Habsburg Monarchy stretched beyond Hungary: “Prague surely is a very beautiful city too.” There was more territory to bring under Henkel rule.

The references to the Habsburg Monarchy were embedded in a corporate culture which included the organisation of conferences that connected the world of Henkel to a broader discourse about Central Europe (Mitteleuropa) or South East Europe: Austria and Austrians had exerted large influence in this region and should resume doing so in the present. In 1989 Henkel Austria held a “South East Europe Symposium” in the Hungarian town Eger: Among the participants were the Austrian Minister of Economic Affairs Wolfgang Schüssel, the Hungarian Finance Minister Tamas Beck, and the prominent Austrian journalist Paul Lendvai, an emigrant from Hungary.50 Not incidentally such practices resembled public diplomacy. If the Julius Meinl Company depicted itself as an empire, the corporate culture of Henkel Austria apparently was also cast in the mould of statehood. General Director Franz Kafka clearly strove to craft his role as statesmanship. When he died in 1990, prematurely and unexpectedly, the company magazine emphasized in its obituary that Kafka’s arena had been the “mutual interrelations of business, economic policy, society, politics and the public”.51

Henkel Austria preferred to present itself as an Austrian firm, which in some respects it really was. However, from a capital point of view it was the subsidiary of a German corporation. The not so openly advertised part of the narrative consisted of Austria’s role (once again) as junior partner of a possible German dominance over Central Europe.52

What Is The Relevance of Grand Narratives about Business
in the CEE-region?

The increase in foreign direct investments flowing into Central Eastern Europe was an economic process. Why pay attention to how it was staged in business media? To answer this question it is first necessary to sketch their role in public discourse.53 Business magazines such as Trend offered economic and business information in an accessible form but their avowed goal was to address opinion leaders on economic and political matters. They typically vaunted their relevance for social elites,54 which was a strategy to both attract advertising and to capture a larger audience that identified with a pro-business stance. According to a survey data from 1992 Trend reached 25 percent of Austrians from the highest social stratum.55

Business magazines articulate hegemonic stances on questions regarding business and politics.56 In the late 1980s Austrian elites were reframing the national narrative. The long post-war boom had offered a high degree of stability and the perspective of steadily growing wealth. Austrians came to regard their country as an “island of the blessed”. But as elsewhere in Europe the 1980s were a period of crisis, which gave rise to doubts regarding the relatively closed, state centred economy and society of the post-war era. Austria again seemed in need of finding a role in some larger story that transcended the dimensions of a small nation state. As the decade neared its close, two narratives gained shape: one was the integration into Europe, the European Economic Community that is. In 1989 the Austrian government filed for membership. The other narrative proposed the renewal of ties with the CEE-countries. While “Mitteleuropa” had gained currency as a nostalgic dream for some time, in 1989 Central Eastern Europe all of a sudden acquired a new economic potential. The breakdown of communist regimes held the promise of business for Austrian companies that were looking for their niche as exporters and investors in foreign markets. This implied attractive phantasies of power for the elites of a country that had once been the centre of an imperial state.

But did these phantasies have a bearing on business decisions? Maybe media only add an ideological superstructure or some entertaining narratives to what is really happening. Maybe it would be best to turn to economists for an accurate picture of this reality. Maybe it is very simple: Companies have to seek profits, East Central European markets were underexploited, and businessmen from Austria, a neighbouring country, got the news first. End of story. I would not deny that this has to form part of an explanation, but I do not consider it sufficient. In a market economy companies cannot thrive without profits but there are always many options of seeking them. It is by no means evident that the best way of achieving a reasonable return on investment is carrying money and expertise to countries whose power structure has been built on precluding private ownership of any means of productions that go significantly beyond a vegetable garden. Even if the political system of these countries is radically changing, this does not guarantee profitable results. Dramatic political change more often than not ushers a country in prolonged periods of instability with unpredictable outcomes.

Of course, taking risks, jumping to chances, trying new combinations defines entrepreneurship. At least these are aspects on which many theoretical approaches to the role of the entrepreneur converge. A Schumpeterian entrepreneur for example is not an accountant and whereas the latter can be replaced by a calculating machine, the former plays his role in situations where the outcome is not easily predictable.57 While we do not need to agree with a heroic image of entrepreneurship, we have to concede that there is a hiatus between run of the mill economic calculation and business success in an environment with many unknowns. In the late 1980s, even after the revolutions of 1989, nobody could be sure that it really was a good idea to invest in Hungary, Poland, or Yugoslavia – the latter country soon proved to be more of a dangerous place than a promising market.

The assumption that stories of conquest and of the return of the Habsburg Monarchy played a significant role for business people is in line with theoretical developments and empirical research in economic sociology. Ruben Dost points to media discourses on the rise of China as a crucial influence on German managers who decided about relocating production facilities to the Far East.58 Geny Piotti found that in interviews managers described their decision making process referring to the “Gold Rush in America”.59 This is yet another example of how this conceptual frame, to which historical novels and movies have given wide currency, enters the realm of business discourse. Jens Beckert has introduced the notion of “fictional expectations” as a mode of explaining how economic actors decide in situations of fundamental uncertainty.60 Fictional narratives complement or substitute the calculation of optimal choices, which is how mainstream economics analyses the decision-making of economic actors. Referring to Schumpeter’s emphasis on innovation, Beckert argues that fictional expectations are not a peripheral phenomenon in modern capitalism but at the heart of its dynamics.

The imaginaries of conquest and Habsburg rule encapsulated a long-standing claim to expertise in governing the territories of Eastern and South Eastern Europa. It came with institutional networks and a specific regime of subjectification. The economist Gustav Stolper observed in the aftermath of World War I: “Among the peoples of the former Monarchy the German-speaking Austrian was effectively the ‘bourgeois’”.61 This observation concerned above all the Viennese elites, who after 1918 were unsure about their future role. To an important extent they hoped being able to uphold their economic sway over the countries that were “Neuausland”, the new abroad.62 The corresponding (post-)imperial habitus did never entirely disappear, not even in the decades after 1945 when Austrian elites pursued a more inward-looking and West-oriented focus, concentrating on nation building and on integrating the “island of the blessed” into the capitalist world. When the socialist countries transformed into market economies, it came ‘natural’ to Austrian business elites to picture themselves as foreign investors guiding this process and benefitting from it. They also could rely on a network of private, parastatal and government organizations that for many decades had been dealing with export promotion, cultural and diplomatic exchange, as well as knowledge formation about Eastern Europe.


As even a brief glimpse into content from business magazines, company magazines, and the West-Ost-Journal shows, it was possible to manufacture compelling stories and attractive metaphors that helped to make the case for going “East”. These media took an active part in this process. While internal decision-making processes of the companies remain largely obscure, semi-public practices and discourses that are accessible indicate that one should not dismiss grand narratives as inconsequential pretexts. For whatever one thinks about Habsburg reminiscences and metaphors of conquest, it seems a reasonable assumption that they played their part in the recent economic history of Austria and its neighbours in Central Eastern Europe. This of course is a hypothesis that warrants further empirical research and must go beyond the analysis of business media. It has to include investigation into institutional networks and regimes of subjectification.63 It has to adapt sociological and anthropological approaches for the historical reconstruction of business practices.64 In short, dealing with media discourse must form part of a broad genealogical reconstruction of the “opening-up of the East”.

The term “Ostöffnung” signified a process that was beneficial for Austrian companies and the Austrian economy. By now it also refers to a closed period that ended with the onset of the financial crisis in 2008. It is important to show it as pre-history of the present in the Foucauldian sense. The analysis of media discourse is one way of contributing to contemporary history as a critical endeavour.


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1 Sabrow, Die Zeit der Zeitgeschichte, 8.

2 Ther, Die neue Ordnung auf dem alten Kontinent.

3 However, Helmut Wohnut claims that Mock’s media coup “massively accelerated” the disintegration of the GDR: Wohnut, “Vom Durchschneiden des Eisernen Vorhangs bis zur Anerkennung Sloweniens und Kroatiens.”

4 Tony Judt put it bluntly: Western European politicians “were content to live with Communism so long as it left them alone”. As for the US, it “played a remarkably small part in the dramas of 1989”. Judt, Postwar, 631.

5 Ther, Neue Ordnung, 17. (the translation is mine), for the following: 17–22.

6 Rothfels, “Zeitgeschichte als Aufgabe.”

7 Catterall, “What (if anything) Is Distinctive about Contemporary History?”

8 Ibid., 450.

9 Metzler, “Zeitgeschichte: Begriff – Disziplin – Problem.”

10 Nathaus, “Sozialgeschichte und Historische Sozialwissenschaft.”

11 Scott, “History-writing as Critique.”

12 Doering-Manteuffel and Raphael, Nach dem Boom, 3.

13 Raphael, “Embedding the Human and Social Sciences in Western Societies, 1880–1980.”

14 Albrecht, “Reflexionsdefizit der Sozialstrukturanalyse?”

15 Cf. Graf and Priemel, “Zeitgeschichte in der Welt der Sozialwissenschaften.”

16 Nora, Realms of Memory, vol. 1, XXIV, quoted in Tai, “Remembered Realms,” 907.

17 Bösch and Vowinckel, “Mediengeschichte.”

18 Kühschelm, “‘Goldener Osten’. Die Ostöffnung in österreichischen Wirtschaftsmagazinen.”

19 Among the literature that I have found useful for the analysis of verbal and visual discourse I want to highlight the work of Gunther Kress and Theo van Leeuwen: Kress and van Leeuwen, Reading images; van Leeuwen, Introducing Social Semiotics.

20 Foucault, Archeology of Knowledge.

21 I use the figures from a self-advertising of the business magazine a3 eco, which came third in this ranking: Das lesen Österreichs Manager, a3 eco, no. 8–9, 1992.

22 Kühschelm, “Den ‘Osten’ öffnen.”

23 On discourse as recontextualization of social practices: van Leeuwen, Discourse and Practice.

24 Lakoff and Johnson, Metaphors We Live By; Kövecses, Metaphor.

25 Resch, “Der österreichische Osthandel im Spannungsfeld der Blöcke.“

26 Marjanović, Die Mitteleuropa-Idee und die Mitteleuropa-Politik Österreichs 1945–1995.

27 Breuss, Österreichs Außenwirtschaft 1945–1982, 139.

28 Butschek, Österreichische Wirtschaftsgeschichte, 402 (Table 76).

29 Breuss, “EU-Mitgliedschaft Österreichs.”

30 Sieber, “Direktinvestitionen österreichischer Unternehmen,” 614.

31 Obernhuber, “Auslandserfolg österreichischer Unternehmen in Zentral- und Osteuropa.”

32  Sieber, “Direktinvestitionen,” 617.

33  Orenstein, “What Happened in East European (Political) Economies?”; Ther, Neue Ordnung.

34  Arbeiterkammer Oberösterreich, “Aktuelle Daten zur Einkommens- und Vermögensverteilung, Stand September 2011.”

35 Riffert, “Schöne neue Welt.”

36 Wolff, Inventing Eastern Europe.

37 Riffert, “Lotsen durch den wilden Osten.”

38 Folkes, “Auf in den goldenen Osten.”

39 Koller, “Critical Discourse Analysis and Social Cognition.”

40 Folkes, “Auf in den goldenen Osten,” 210.

41 On the relation between nationalism and capitalism see Greenfeld, The Spirit of Capitalism; Speich Chassé, “Nation.”

42 Kühschelm, “Julius Meinl.”

43 For example, Julius Meinl was mentioned in the first episode of the popular 1970’s TV-series “Ringstraßenpalais”.

44 “historisch-sentimentaler [Grund]”.

45 Waldstein, “Der Mohr in Budapest und Preßburg,” 28.

46 Waldstein, “Der weiße Riese auf den Spuren der Habsburger”.

47 Kafka, “Henkel jetzt in Österreich-Ungarn,” 42.

48 For company magazines as a media form see Heller, “Company Magazines 1880–1940.”

49 N. N., “Henkel für Österreich-Ungarn,” 6 f.

50 N. N., “Südosteuropa Symposium,” 5 f.

51 N. N., “Wir trauern um Gen. Dir. KR Prof. Franz Kafka,” 2.

52 In the interwar years an important part of the Austrian elites saw this as the best chance for Austria and particularly for Vienna: Freytag, Deutschlands ‘Drang nach Südosten’.

53 Business journalism is an underresearched topic, all the more so in a historical perspective. Regarding its development in Scandinavia: Kjær and Slaatta, Mediating Business.

54 Leeb, Das Wirtschaftsmagazin trend, 30.

55 Verein Arbeitsgemeinschaft Media-Analysen, Media Analyse, 59.

56 A discourse analytical approach to the Gramscian concept of hegemony: Nonhoff, Diskurs—radikale Demokratie—Hegemonie; idem, Politischer Diskurs und Hegemonie.

57 Schumpeter, Theorie der wirtschaftlichen Entwicklung; an introductory overview about theories of entrepreneurship: Berghoff, Moderne Unternehmensgeschichte, 31–41.

58 Dost, Produktionsverlagerungen deutscher Unternehmen nach China.

59 Piotti, German Companies Engaging in China, 23.

60 Beckert, “Capitalism as a System of Expectations.”; idem, “Imagined Futures: Fictional Expectations in the Economy”; idem, Imagined Futures: Fictional Expectations and Capitalist Dynamics. On the role of economic narratives see also: McCloskey, If You’re so Smart; idem, “Storytelling in Economics.”

61 Stolper, Deutschösterreich als Sozial- und Wirtschaftsproblem, 115: “Der Deutschösterreicher ist unter den Völkern der früheren Monarchie gewissermaßen der ‘Bourgeois’ gewesen.”

62 Matis, “Wirtschaftliche Mitteleuropa-Konzeptionen in der Zwischenkriegszeit.”

63 In the line of governmentality studies inspired by the work of Michel Foucault: Bröckling, Krasmann and Lemke, Governmentality.

64 Carrier, A Handbook of Economic Anthropology; Hann and Hart, Economic anthropology; Callon, The Laws of the Markets; Carrier and Miller, Virtualism.


Figure 1: Cover photo by Götz Schrage. Cash-Flow 7, no. 4 (1990). © Cash-Flow/mh medienberatung + management e. U./Götz Schrage.


Figure 2: Illustration by Frank Gerhardt. Trend 22, no. 4 (1991): 244–45. © Wirtschaftsmagazin trend/Frank Gerhardt.


Figure 3: Illustration by Stefan Stratil. Trend 21, goldener trend (1990): 206-07.
© Wirtschaftsmagazin trend/Stefan Stratil.

Figure 4: Illustration by Walter Grösel. Trend 21, goldener trend (1990): 210. © Wirtschaftsmagazin trend/Walter Grösel.