Volume 4 Issue 1 CONTENTS

pdfNikola Baković

“No One Here is Afraid of Blisters or Work!”

Social Integration, Mobilization and Cooperation in Yugoslav Youth Brigades. The Example of Čačak Region Brigades (1946–1952)


In this article I analyze the organizational mechanism of youth labor projects and the place of ideology and agitation-propaganda in the everyday lives of young laborers. I adopt a local micro-historical perspective in my analysis of the organization, documented activities and everyday functioning of youth brigades from the Čačak region of Serbia that participated in the earliest labor projects in Yugoslavia (1946–1952). The documentation on the brigades reveals omnipresent Party surveillance of brigadiers (with the ultimate aim of selecting the most “appropriate” elements for Party membership), but it also offers a glimpse into the ambivalent attitudes of youths (ranging from passive resistance to conformist participation and cooperation). The daily routine of brigade life helps further reflection on emancipatory and modernizing effects that transformed local society and proved notably more far-reaching and long-lasting than the superficial effects of agitprop efforts.

Keywords: Yugoslavia, labor actions, Čačak, youth, agitprop, shock workers

Voluntary youth labor actions organized by Yugoslav socialist authorities stemmed from the twofold set of influences, global and local. The most important external role model on which the Yugoslav projects were based was the Soviet Stakhanovite movement, together with the system of “shock-work,” public works and competitions, common to all socialist countries and the interwar corporatist societies.1 The local roots were sought in the pre-modern tradition of communal labor during harvests (moba) and the antifascist resistance in the Užice region (Serbia) and Sanička dolina (Bosnia), where locals helped the partisan army by harvesting crops within the range of German artillery in 1941/42.2 Upon liberation, a wave of initiatives aimed at providing winter fuel and clearing the war debris was instigated by the United Alliance of Antifascist Youth of Yugoslavia3 during the winter 1944/45.4 The network of similar local initiatives quickly spread among youths in liberated parts of Yugoslavia. This was just a prelude to grand infrastructural projects for which the voluntary youth labor was used as an asset of reconstruction and industrialization processes.

The first federally supported project was the “Youth Railway” Brčko–Banovići, which connected the fertile wheat fields of Vojvodina and Slavonia with coal mines in central Bosnia. From May until November 1946, over 62,000 members of the People’s Youth of Yugoslavia, with very little in the way of proper machinery, completed the railway 22 days before the deadline. The following year saw an even greater endeavor, the construction of the Šamac–Sarajevo railway, which was built by over 210,000 Yugoslav and 5,000 foreign youths.5 However, the most ambitious projects on the federal level were the construction of the Zagreb–Belgrade stretch of the Brotherhood and Unity Highway and the building of the city of New Belgrade.6 Together with numerous labor projects on the federal and local level, over one-million Yugoslav youths participated in the country’s reconstruction and fulfillment of the First Five Year Plan,7 with an astounding rate of 80 percent of eligible youngsters applying to work as part of the labor brigades.8

Already in 1950, some Yugoslav politicians and economists criticized this system for its alleged financial inefficiency, as well as for its potentially anti-industrial over-emphasis on manual labor. Consequently, there was a halt in federally backed projects beginning in 1952 and lasting until 1958, when the initiatives were reinvigorated with the construction of a new stretch of the Brotherhood and Unity Highway. The financial burden and the organizational complexity of federal actions were always weighed against their benefits for the Yugoslav regime. Although the maintenance of youth camps and the organization of brigadiers’ extra-labor activities cost far more than the hiring and lodging of qualified workers, Tito never underestimated the value of such endeavors for the ideological indoctrination of young Yugoslavs, whose loyalty was won by offering them professional, social and intellectual resources otherwise unavailable in their native environment. He believed that these expensive and demanding activities had to be provided to the brigades, should a sufficient recruitment rate be achieved, because “if youngsters are given only shovels and cramps, no one will go.” A strikingly militarized atmosphere in the camps was not a coincidence for Tito, since “people forged through work can hold on through every struggle, be it in work or in war.” Labor projects were an intrinsic part of the socialist project of creating a new man, a place “where the new people are forged, with a new understanding of work.”9

In this article, I analyze the “first wave” of youth labor projects as one of the tools of power in the creation of a sense of belonging to a cohesive multinational community of Yugoslavs during the immediate postwar period. Voluntary youth work was not only a convenient means to secure free labor for ambitious infrastructural projects, but also a “social adhesive,” aimed at bringing together youths from the most distant parts of the country in order to disseminate the ideological tenet of “brotherhood and unity” between various representatives of the Yugoslav nationalities. The primary role of members of the younger generations in this process was that of a far-sighted, “tempered” (but in the long run also “tempering”) political and social consolidator of the new system, which ultimately was supposed to solidify the newly re-conceptualized social relations and power structures, simultaneously internalizing the omnipresent revolutionary ideological narrative. Youth projects also served to enable the authorities to select a reliable future party cadre, ultimately expanding the Communist Party’s support basis. On the other hand, brigadiers used the projects as opportunities to gain otherwise unavailable material, social and educational resources and improve their chances for upward social mobility. The very act of volunteering for socialist reconstruction projects (although the truly voluntary nature of brigadiers’ recruitment in this period was always in question) entailed the youths’ implicit cooperation with the regime, the ideological “pills” of which were (willingly) swallowed, along with far more significant and longer-lasting benefits of emancipation and education.

I will examine the role of these projects by embedding a local micro-perspective of brigades sent from the region of Čačak (Serbia) during the reconstruction and First Five Year Plan actions (1946–1952) within the broader postwar historical context in Yugoslavia, as well as within the already existing body of scholarly work. The article’s shifting analytical focus, swinging between the official “top-down” and the local experience helps shed new light on the ambivalent relationship between the power-holding center and the potency of the agency of individual subjects in the circumstances of an overarching socio-political transformation. Thus, I explore the non-dichotomous character of the interaction between the “regulating” state and the “regulated” society, which was highly ambivalent and often a contingent process. The brigades under discussion came from the central Serbian municipalities (srez) of Ljubić-Trnava, Dragačevo and Rudnik, as well as from the towns of Kraljevo and Čačak. The following federal actions were included in the analysis: the Brčko–Banovići railway (1946), the Šamac–Sarajevo railway (1947), the construction of New Belgrade (1948–1950), the Brotherhood and Unity Highway (1948–1950), the Doboj–Banja Luka railway (1951) and the Konjic–Jablanica railway (1952). I analyze various features of organizational mechanisms and everyday modes of social integration, including recruitment process, motivational concepts of “shock status,” the screening of brigadiers for prospective Party membership, the involving of brigadiers in an array of physical, educational and cultural activities with a strong modernizing pretext, and the creation of trans-ethnic and trans-national social networks through contacts with peers from other republics and countries.

Until the first decade of this century, historical works dealing with Yugoslav youth labor projects were surprisingly sparse, probably because of the general post-socialist disinterest in the history of labor movements, a topic too closely entwined with the perceived communist utilization of science. Special monographs dedicated to individual actions, albeit devoid of much analytical value, remain an important source of information on the organizational setup of brigades, as well as sources of statistical data. They were usually published to honor anniversaries of certain projects, as well as to promote the ideologies on which these projects were based.10 Sociologists Rudi Supek and Srećko Mihailović did significant research concerning youth’s perceptions and motivational factors. However, their research mostly referred to the later phase of labor projects and is of little relevance to the period discussed here.11 Very important recent contributions to the historiography on labor actions, both because of the wealth of data they include and because of their analytical value, are found in Slobodan Selinić’s articles and Saša Vejzagić’s MA thesis.12 The importance of this secondary literature notwithstanding, however, the main sources for this article were youth labor brigades’ records kept at the Regional Historical Archives of Čačak, as well as the personal collection of lawyer Velimir Cvetić, a communist activist from Čačak and the commander of a 1946 brigade. I also used the relevant press coverage from the heavily ideologized local weekly Slobodni glas, which was published by the local Popular Front branch.

Organizational and Recruitment Mechanisms

Brigades from Čačak region, apart from their municipal designation (i.e. ljubićko-trnavska), were usually named after distinguished local communists or war heroes. Thus, the first brigades sent in 1946 were named after Ratko Mitrović and Bata Janković. On the other hand, high school brigades from the town of Čačak got their name in honor of Rade Azanjac, a 20-year-old political commissar shot in late 1941. Brigades were serially numbered, promoting the idea of a continuous and seemingly constant outflow of youth workforce to dispersed construction sites across the country. This way, the new regime tried to enforce its own traditions, drawn from the historical legacy of the persecution of communists in the interwar period and their subsequent fight against the occupiers and quislings, thereby passing these traditions on to generations that had been too young to have had personal experience of these events.13

The “Ratko Mitrovic” and “Bata Jankovic” brigades, which are best documented in the available sources, attracted predominantly (although not exclusively) agricultural youth from villages around Čačak, most of whom had already completed their education and thus were not tied to the school year schedule. They usually left for campsites in spring and late autumn, when the agricultural season allowed. The “Rade Azanjac” brigades mostly consisted of teenagers with urban and non-agricultural backgrounds who studied and lived in Čačak. They would be dispatched in July and August, when schools were not in session.14 It was not uncommon, especially in 1946/47, for the returning brigades to be greeted with lush public celebrations and agitprop slogans in the town center.

Figure 1. Citizens of Čačak await the return of the local brigade from Bosnia, November 1946 (Source: Regional Historical Archives of Čačak )


Youngsters from the neighboring town of Kraljevo were also part of Čačak brigades until 1949, when they started to form their own brigades.15 As far as the practical meaning of the term “youth” is concerned, the documents show that most brigadiers were between 16 and 25 years of age, although there were some exceptional cases of brigade members being in their late 20s and even early 40s.16

Mobilizing youth for labor actions was a complex task for mass organizations since it had to be (or at least seem to have been) performed strictly on a non-coercive basis. Yet, the Party’s youth organization, the Union of the Communist Youth of Yugoslavia (Savez komunističke omladine Jugoslavije, hereafter: SKOJ),17 and other organizers set ambitious plans with territorial recruitment quotas. These quotas depended on various specificities of the respective areas (for example, in regions with numerous ethnic minorities, organizers were not expected to draw in big numbers because the loyalties of the local populations were sometimes in question).18 Due to the centralized nature of establishing quotas, local SKOJ branches were often in a tricky situation. On the one hand, they needed to attract the required number of brigadiers, but on the other hand, it was an imperative that these youths apply voluntarily. There were many (albeit not numerous) cases of coercive collective recruitment, especially in regions notorious for their anti-Party stance.19 Moreover, certain categories of prisoners were also taken to construction sites as a part of their sentences, and some youths, such as 36 men from Kraljevo, fulfilled their military service obligations by participating in the construction of the Šabac–Zvornik railway.20

Although blatant force was not permitted (at least nominally), it can be assumed that multifaceted informal means of persuasion were used to increase the number of brigadiers. In the countryside, agitprop units developed extensive propaganda aimed at presenting labor actions as a catalyst for social mobility and a life-enriching experience, which would in no way handicap the families of the youths during periods of seasonal work (they were promised help with house chores while children would be away).21 Schoolchildren were recruited through a web of students who were either SKOJ members or had already participated in such projects, as well as teachers who organized special lectures on the importance of the initiatives. Students who were doing poorly in their studies were attracted by prospects of special assistance in preparing for their make-up exams while the projects were underway.22

At first, collective agitation was the most widespread recruitment method, entailing group lectures and promotion. However, the Party realized that this approach did not bear satisfactory results, so SKOJ members were urged to undertake more personalized, individual agitation, designing specific means of persuasion and motivational factors for each potential brigadier. This was especially important for schoolchildren, who often failed to apply because of their parents’ reluctance (to the great dismay of local commissars).23 Still, the Čačak branch of SKOJ had no major problems fulfilling their quotas. The first brigade sent to the Youth Railway in 1946 (initially supposed to gather 200 brigadiers) had 275 members selected from a pool of 350 applicants, including one who had been rejected but who then had to be accepted after he refused to get off the train to Brčko.24 Brigades were divided into troops (čete), usually hosting around 50 brigadiers each. The surprisingly high number of 1,331 brigadiers in 1946 increased SKOJ’s ambitions, and the planned 1947 quota was raised to 3,000 youths. This target proved easy to reach as well, since in early March the quota for Čačak was surpassed by 40 applicants.25 Village brigades usually had more members than the high school ones (counting up to 400 youths) due to their demographic prevalence.

Although the enthusiastic reports by SKOJ officials have to be taken with a grain of salt, it is obvious that it was a matter of prestige for local leaders not merely to fulfill their quotas, but also to have as great a percentage as possible of the youths of their settlements apply. According to these reports, in some villages, such as Mršinci, every eligible youngster applied for local or federal actions, and in Opaljenica the application rate was 96 percent.26 Despite the possibility of these numbers being inflated, internal brigade records show no hints of understaffing problems. Moreover, the fact that many 15-year-old applicants had to be rejected from drafts clearly shows that the youth of the Čačak region saw labor projects as a unique opportunity to improve their social, political and material standing under the new system (as well as to widen their career prospects), despite all probable forms of formal and informal pressure to volunteer. Despite the Party’s nominal dissatisfaction with agitation results, the prescribed quotas were always surpassed, significant differences between the republics notwithstanding.27 Yet, the success of the recruitment efforts should be credited not only to the enthusiasm or pragmatism of the youth, but also to SKOJ branches intentionally setting low quotas for fear of failing to meet them. The organizers were always pleased to accept more brigadiers than originally sought, although this simultaneously burdened them with additional board and lodging costs (which could have contributed to the temporary halt in the organization of federal projects from 1952 until 1958).

Becoming a Shock-Worker

Immediately after the revolution, the Yugoslav authorities introduced the system of competitions and shock-worker awards (udarništvo) to develop a culture of adulation of work, as well as to promote agency channels through which the working class could prove their devotion to the new order and be motivated to contribute to its solidification. This system, although it took its name from the Russian term for strike work (udarniki), was a virtual copy of the Stakhanovite movement developed in the Soviet Union in the second half of the 1930s.28 Just as the Soviet precursor was named after the most prolific miner, Alexei Stakhanov, the Yugoslav version came to be best known by the name of the Bosnian Roma miner Alija Sirotanović, who allegedly broke the coal mining world record in 1949. Since the udarništvo movement and system of competitions was introduced in all production activities in the country, it was also an inseparable feature of youth actions. Work tasks in camps were usually set according to “decimal plans” (dekadni planovi, lasting 10 days), at the end of which the most industrious brigade (udarna brigada), as well as individual workers (udarnici), would be proclaimed.

In order to become a so-called shock-worker, one had to surpass the work norm by 20 percent continuously. If case there were no specified norm, one had to surpass the common work result of the brigade by 30 percent. Brigadiers could also gain the status of shock-worker by applying measures through which 10 percent of the raw materials, fuel or work hours could be saved, or by introducing innovative techniques and methods that improved overall efficiency. The shock-worker status lasted for three months. During that time, in addition to enjoying prestige and respect, the individuals who had been given the award also got convenient material benefits, including better meals, shopping coupons, discounts for various goods, etc.29 These benefits explain the often fierce competition among brigadiers at a worksite, as well as the obsessions of commanders with their brigade attaining the shock status. Although allegedly even Tito expressed concern that this insistence on surpassing norms would harm the health of the youths,30 the brigade documents show that competition and the striving for more were the order of the day in literally every brigade. Typical is the quote of one brigadier at the Youth Railway: “Look, I have 34 blisters. I have never had them before. Tell the others not to be afraid of blisters. No one here is afraid of blisters or work!”31 Although the percentage of shock-workers varied according to the respective brigade’s work efficiency, available shock-workers’ lists show that seven to twelve percent of the Čačak brigades were declared shock-workers at some point.32

Still, the workers had to participate in the competition in a comradely spirit, lest the rivalries lead to internal hostilities or intrigues among brigadiers. Overemphasizing one’s own work contributions and effort was strongly looked down upon, if not outright condemned by commanders. Such was the case of а 24-year-old brigadier who (apparently trying to make up for being put in a high-school brigade at such a late age) “had an tendency to show off blisters on his hands and dirt on his suit, overall one sick ambition for a shock-worker’s badge.”33 On another note, 20-year-old Pantelija Glišović, despite having surpassed norms by 70 percent, was criticized in personal evaluations for “not being an agitator.”34 The order of Main Headquarters of youth brigades on the construction of the Konjic–Jablanica railway in 1952 indicates that the overt enthusiasm (or the unconcealed ambition of their commanders) of some brigades to gain shock-worker status could eventually prove detrimental to the overall work dynamic. The youths were forbidden to work longer than the usual seven hours without the Headquarters’ prior approval, due to bad effect this would have on the overall performance.35 This case represents an interesting official condemnation of an exaggerated work ethic, quite unlike the usual public shaming of lazy brigadiers or those who invested less in their work than they were supposedly capable of.

Selecting the New Cadre

Brigade commanders, by unwritten rule Party members, wrote personal evaluations for each brigadier in order to support or hinder his or her nomination for SKOJ membership. These evaluations had a template-like character, with an established pattern for data input: year/place of birth, nationality, social background, family standing during the war, (non)participation in the Liberation Struggle. Furthermore, the categories for personal impressions consisted of: attitude towards authority, physical effort at work, treatment of state property, conduct with other brigadiers, activity in classes, proneness to (self)criticism and notes on private life. Evaluations concluded with the commander’s opinion on whether the respective comrade was eligible to become a SKOJ member.36 These documents represent a particularly valuable source, helping historians reconstruct different demographic structures of labor volunteers and testifying to the Party’s ever-watchful eye. In compiling their evaluations, commanders paid due attention to the conduct of members of the brigadiers’ families during the war, as well as to their current standing towards the Communist Party and “the state of today.” One of the more revealing cases was that of a 17-year-old Mileta Čvrkić, nephew of the interwar minister of posts Vojko Čvrkić (known to have supported a rival četnik movement37 during the war). Although Mileta’s characteristics were judged in a positive light, “special wariness” had to be paid to his education, because he “was surrounded by people with a negative attitude, who could tarnish his righteous development.”38 In several other evaluations, the family’s attachment to četnik movement, which was equated with having “rebel bandits” for relatives or clinging to “reactionary attitudes,” was mentioned as a potentially disruptive factor in the rearing of a youth. There was even a case of a former policeman who was fired and expelled from the Party after having beaten up one “reactionary” woman. This policeman went to the Brčko–Banovići action to atone for and recover from his past mistakes.39 However, there were relatively few cases of brigadiers being explicitly considered unreliable on the basis of their family’s political affiliations. A probable reason was that individuals coming from extremely hostile families would not volunteer for labor projects anyway and even if they did, their applications most probably would not have been accepted. Still, members of more “benignly hostile” families were accepted to brigades. This can be interpreted as an attempt on the part of the Party to “inject” itself into these families through their offspring or, conversely, as an attempt on the part of the “problematic” families to “whitewash” their past by encouraging participation in the new regime’s legitimization.

Available internal documentation of brigade party cells suggest that the cases of resistance and conflict within the brigades most often had a markedly non-political character. The usual incidents occurring at the worksites were mostly connected to bad maintenance of tools and the scarcity of machines, as well as violations of conduct, such as walking barefoot or wearing dirty uniforms,40 or simply sitting idly and failing to comply with the commander’s orders. At campsites, complaints mostly referred to bad hygiene habits, not making one’s bed, and being late for or avoiding morning gymnastics. Female brigadiers were frequently criticized for using their menstrual cycles as an excuse to stay in the camp for an entire day. One girl was reprimanded for taking leave on the pretext of visiting her ill father at home, but actually in order to celebrate Easter.41 In the course of the Brčko–Banovići project, a bizarre ideologically grounded “hygienic measure” caused a scandal among the brigade party leaders. A female brigadier, apparently from a better-off family, was the only one in her troop to own a toothbrush. The troop leader “expropriated” the toothbrush from its owner and declared it “common property” to be used by all brigadiers, in line with the collectivist spirit. This order was met with the superiors’ condemnation, both for breaching hygienic norms and for misrepresenting the “socialist lifestyle.” Yet there was no recorded disciplinary proceeding against the overtly diligent commander, nor is there evidence that this “expropriation” was corrected.42 However, it showed the extent to which the commanders’ lack of education, coupled with a relentless obedience to authority, could often lead to comical interpretations of the official party doctrines.

On the interpersonal level, conflicts usually derived from teenager pranks (such as smearing toothpaste on a comrade in his or her sleep at night), alcohol consummation (despite a strict ban, brigadiers frequently used their leaves to go to nearby villages and get drunk), or “inappropriate” interaction between male and female comrades. One of the commanders’ frequent concerns was keeping peace between their campmates and the locals, since cases of theft, drunken brawls or stealing fruit were quite commonplace.43 Cases of workers who were too rowdy with commanders or engaged in (arguably, a rather superficial sort of) dissent and confrontation were very rare and were connected to pragmatic material problems (i.e., brigadiers who were unsatisfied with their accommodation would sarcastically invite Tito to their luxury resort).44 One of the rare instances of open vandalism among Čačak brigadiers occurred in 1948, when some youths who had not been provided new footwear tore down the performance graphs as a sign of protest.45

One can offer several hypotheses regarding the reasons for this cooperative attitude. Firstly, brigadiers were mostly too young and immature to be actively politically engaged and form their own independent stance towards the communist regime. Secondly, the voluntary nature of the projects (casual, yet non-negligible aberrations of forced recruitment notwithstanding) made the “infiltration of reactionary elements” rather unlikely. Hence, this potential source of dissent and disobedience was apparently missing. Moreover, a great majority of brigadiers came from rather poor and backward areas, ravaged by the war and postwar poverty. Not only did labor projects present an opportunity for them to gain skills, knowledge, and personal contacts that could potentially improve their social status, but for many they were a rare place where they could secure their mere sustenance. Bearing this in mind, it is understandable that the few instances of resistance and conflict with party members and commanders usually derived from trivial reasons pertaining to personal character or simple material needs, rather than from any profound ideological stance or conflict. For most youths, eager participation in state’s reconstruction projects (coupled with occasional, rather unobtrusive resistance) offered much greater benefits and social capital than any sort of open opposition could ever have provided under the circumstances.

Youth Education and Politicization

The activities that the Party planned for brigadiers did not come to an end after the seven-hour shifts at the construction sites. The rest of the day was filled with different kinds of additional tasks and programs, which can roughly be grouped into two categories. The first included physical activities aimed at keeping brigadiers fit and increasing their stamina. These activities included regular morning gymnastics, pre-military training, driving lessons, sport matches and athletic competitions. The second group of activities nurtured intellectual and political growth, with a clear intention to educate the youth in various spheres of life and equip them with new skills, yet always within the ideological and theoretical confines of communist dogma. By attempting to engage every single brigadier in as many of these activities as possible, the authorities hoped to disseminate their ideological tenets into all pores of youth life, as well as to erase the old era’s accumulated social obstacles to the development of every individual’s creative potential.

Pre-military training was supposed to acquaint boys and girls with the basics of combat skills and firearms usage in order to improve their efficiency in case of a foreign invasion. This fear became all too realistic after the 1948 break with Stalin, making pre-military training compulsory for all youths older than 17. Each brigade was supposed to have at least one specially educated military instructor, often a distinguished Liberation Struggle soldier, who would teach these classes every other day.46 Lessons covered the skills necessary for the general functioning of camps (making beds, cleaning barracks, keeping guard), but also more strictly military topics (loading a rifle, shooting practice from various positions, bullet trajectory, marching steps, etc).47 Providing youngsters with an education in military conduct was seen as a peacetime perpetuation of the People’s Liberation Struggle, and indeed many instructors insisted that the wartime revolutionary combatant zeal must not falter in absence of actual battles. Yet many brigadiers avoided attending these programs, as can be seen from attendance sheets. Thus, except for the first two days of the shift, the 246-people-strong ljubićko-trnavska brigade working on the construction of New Belgrade in 1949 never had more than 190 brigadiers present at pre-military training (the overall participation at the Highway site that year was approximately 95 percent).48 Youths used various excuses, such as sickness or cleaning and cooking duties, but commanders also noted accusingly at Party cell meetings that even SKOJ members abused their political agitation duties as an excuse to skip gymnastics or military training. Another way to improve brigadiers’ fitness was to engage them in team sports. It was especially important for camp commanders to organize matches (sometimes in league form) between brigades from different parts of the country in order to strengthen interethnic ties and showcase the volunteer movement’s regional diversity. Athletic competitions were usually organized on state holidays (Tito’s birthday on May 25, Labor Day on May 1, Day of Republic on November 29), prior to which the athletically talented brigadiers underwent preparations that lasted for weeks, as these events were often attended by important Party officials, and the individual competitor’s success would increase the overall reputation of his or her brigade, eventually raising the brigade’s chances of gaining shock status.49

Political-ideological education was one of the most crucial non-labor programs organized for brigadiers, as it represented the most explicit means of influencing youth by exposing them to and indoctrinating them in the official ideology, as well as recruiting new members to the Party’s youth organization. The curriculum consisted of essential socialist literature (works by Marx, Lenin and Gorki), but also of works of the domestic Yugoslav canon (ideological literature by Tito and Edvard Kardelj). Classes on theory were followed by textual analysis and often fierce debates, in which individuals interested in Party membership had to excel should they wish to gain admission rapidly. These meetings were also used officially to denounce derogatory texts about Yugoslavia, which were being published in organs of the East European press after 1948, which often spread rumors (not always without any basis in reality) about abuses of child labor and deaths in campsites.50 This was supposed to prevent potential outbursts of political dissent during that critical period. It was not a coincidence that Tito himself visited the Highway construction site only 15 days after the 1948 Cominform resolution.51

Party members had additional ideological classes, which provided forums for discussion of more advanced theoretical questions, but also for agitation planning and evaluations of the behavior of non-members. A new set of lectures for members and non-members alike was introduced in 1948. They consisted of sessions dedicated to the analysis of Yugoslavia’s fall from Stalin’s grace. Naturally, the purpose of these “analyses” was to defend Tito’s position, proving that even Lenin himself established that every country had its own way to communism, regardless of the Soviet policies. The minutes from brigadiers’ discussions reveal the depth of this diplomatic twist, since the meetings in 1948 were often dedicated to badmouthing Bulgarian pretensions to Macedonia, whereas previously there had not been any negative remarks about any other socialist country whatsoever. Other topics discussed at these meetings included rumors about Yugoslavia being involved in the failed assassination of Palmiro Togliatti in July 1948, justification of Yugoslav cooperation with USA concerning the restitution of Kingdom of Yugoslavia’s gold reserves, the recommendation that Yugoslavia take part in the Danube conference, etc.52 Party cells also made decisions on future work norms, the organization of events, and disciplinary measures, regardless of the wishes of other brigadiers.53 In the meeting transcripts, one can discern the timidly expressed antagonism of non-members towards the Party members, who wished to exercise unquestioned authority over the rest of the brigade, as well as to enjoy small benefits, such as being spared more tedious or tiring duties. Thus the nominally democratic decision-making in brigades usually came down to party members presenting their decisions (or preferred choices) to the rest of brigade (which was supposed to accept them), whereas the egalitarian discourse was often twisted in order to provide small everyday “privileges” for individuals who were more politically engaged.

The “War” on Illiteracy

One of the main emancipatory and educational efforts (and arguably the greatest success) of the People’s Youth was the eradication of illiteracy among young people. This problem, which had already been a concern in previous decades, was especially acute in the immediate aftermath of World War II, when schools in many areas were destroyed or difficult to reach for many school-age children. It was one of the new regime’s priorities to advance the position of the working class (youth included) by ensuring that everyone was taught to read and write. Each youth brigade was thus supposed to have at least one instructor who specialized in such courses, and all illiterate volunteers were obliged to attend. The classes were organized in improvised classrooms or, weather permitting, in outdoor settings.

Figure 2. Literacy course of the 3rd Čačak brigade, 1946 (Source: Regional Historical Archives of Čačak)


Curiously enough, in addition to illiterate brigadiers (usually around a dozen per brigade), Čačak brigades had a much greater number (up to one third of all brigadiers) of “semi-literates,” proficient in only one script (in their case, Cyrillic). Commanders were adamant that both Latin and Cyrillic script be mastered, as this was considered one of the basic prerequisites for disseminating the ideology of brotherhood and unity of the Yugoslav nations.54 The brigadiers seemed to have diligently attended the courses. The internal diaries imply that most of them did master the basics of reading and writing both scripts, with only one mention of a former policeman who declined to learn the Latin script, claiming he did not need it.55 Such enthusiasm was understandable, as it would have been hard for anyone to fail to see the advantages of literacy. Moreover, these classes were one of the rare activities the practical purpose of which was not subjected to blatant ideologization (although the increase in literacy rates was certainly cited in state propaganda as an example of the successful emancipation of the working class). And a vast success it was, as it is estimated that more than 70,000 people learned how to read and write during the first wave of labor actions (1946–1952), although one could definitely call into question the effectiveness of such quick learning while pupils were also involved in hard manual labor.56

In addition to offering the workers a chance (or rather obliging them) to master the basics of reading and writing, labor camps and individual brigades also had their own modest libraries, and youths were constantly motivated to use them through involvement in literary circles. The book list of the library of the Camp “Jože Vlahović” on the New Belgrade site indicates the openly politicized nature of these libraries. Of the 215 titles, only around 30 did not explicitly pertain to communist theory and revolutionary history. Yet, a glance at the 56-item loan list from the second ljubićko-trnavska brigade shows that brigadiers overwhelmingly preferred the non-political literature, with the exception of the novels of Maxim Gorki. On the other hand, this same brigade had its own small library with 75 books that for the most part dealt with communist themes, but it also had works by Shakespeare, Jack London and Jules Verne.57 These details and other documented statistics indicate that one loaned book amounted to hardly two brigadiers from Čačak, which is even worse than the admittedly low ratio of just over one book per brigadier for the whole New Belgrade worksite.58

Yet this low ratio for the Čačak brigades should not be interpreted as a sign of the irrelevance of these libraries for the few youths who did use them, since for many it was their first contact with books. The collectivist nature of all daily activities in isolated camp communities and external peer pressure obviously enticed many otherwise disinterested youths to start reading, as can be seen from one brigadier’s quote: “Here we have better conditions for reading and studying than in the countryside, because here we are all together.”59 In addition to visiting camp libraries, brigadiers could improve their writing skills by compiling articles for wall newspapers, as well as writing letters about their camp experiences, which were sent to newspapers and various economic and political enterprises back in Čačak.

Quite contrary to some authors’ characterization of labor projects as “attempts to kill the youth’s creative cultural instincts through exhausting physical toil,”60 the documents of the Čačak brigades indicate that life in the camps was rich with lively amateur cultural and artistic activities. Choirs, theatre and recitation troupes were founded for individuals who prepared performances for their campmates. The surviving documents show that their repertoire consisted almost exclusively of material devoted to themes of communism and the Liberation Struggle. It included odes to Stalin (naturally, only up until 1948), plays and excerpts by Soviet authors (especially popular was Nikolai Ostrovsky’s How the Steel Was Tempered, as well as Chekhov’s Diplomat) and works by Yugoslav writers which could be interpreted in terms of social justice and class struggle (i.e. works by Branislav Nušić, but also Desanka Maksimović and Mira Alečković).61 Film screenings were also organized, either within the camp or by taking brigadiers to town cinemas, and for many it was the first time they had watched a motion picture. The choice of screenings was carefully premeditated, with a particular favorite being the first Yugoslav partisan film Slavica (1949), due to the “volatile reactions” of the viewers whenever they saw German soldiers on screen.62

Cementing Brotherhood and Unity

Alongside their apparent economic importance as a source of free workforce, the youth labor projects came to be seen by the Communist Party of Yugoslavia as one of the most effective ways of cementing the ideological concept of “brotherhood and unity” among the Yugoslav nationalities. This aim was particularly important because there had been numerous interethnic massacres during World War II, and chauvinistic movements had sown hatred among the nationalities. Under these circumstances, the victorious Communist movement inserted itself with its federal vision of Yugoslavia as a reconciliatory force, securing equal rights for all of the country’s ethnicities, some of which (Montenegrins and Macedonians) came to be recognized for the first time only after the communists’ accession to power. The most farsighted way of disseminating the “brotherhood and unity” ideology was to internalize it among members of the younger generations, whose worldview had not yet hardened and many of whom had been too young to remember the ethnically motivated atrocities that had taken place during the war. Federally organized actions proved an invaluable tool in this endeavor, as they attracted brigades from all of the republics. Tito himself emphasized their importance, deeming them even more important than local projects, the “localist tendencies of which might eventually gain a chauvinistic character.”63

Camps of federal labor actions provided the preconditions for the propagation of such ideas. They were mostly set in isolated areas, bringing together youngsters from the most diverse parts of the country to live together in conditions that resembled those in which the army functioned in a secluded environment where they had to interact with one another on a daily basis. This way, young people from ethnically homogenous areas (such as the Čačak region) had the opportunity to spend time and build friendships with members of other nationalities for the first time. The brigadiers’ reports and articles sent to Slobodni glas suggest that this experience left a most positive mark on them. Situations of cultural shock were all but rare, such as the bewilderment of Čačak men who for the first time saw Muslim women in their oriental clothes at the Brčko railway station,64 while the typically exalted reports described scenes from bonfire parties, where youths from regions as diverse as Dragačevo, Šid, Orašac and Mitrovica joined together in the partisan kozaračko dance.65 Some wartime mental wounds were healed, as indicated by a commander’s evaluation of one young man whose father had been killed by Croatian fascists, but whose interaction with fellow Croatian campmates helped him overcome his hatred.66 In order to ensure as much interethnic mingling as possible, commanders placed brigades from the most distant regions of the country in neighboring barracks and also organized sports matches between them.67

From the outset, the People’s Youth of Yugoslavia invited foreigners to participate in labor projects. Thus, as early as 1946 over 1,800 foreign youths from both capitalist and socialist countries took part in the Brčko–Banovići project,68 and in 1947 this number rose to 5,800 people from 42 countries. Several youths from Switzerland worked at the Brčko–Banovići action together with the Čačak brigade “Ratko Mitrović,” and despite the language barrier they developed strong friendships, as indicated by warmhearted farewell diary entries. Naturally, Swiss brigadiers had been professing a leftist political standing, as could be seen in their plans to “undertake an even stronger and more decisive fight against capitalism in Switzerland.” Such enthusiasm for spreading revolutionary zeal could not be tarnished by one incident, when a Serbian girl was accused of stealing a pair of trousers from a Swiss brigadier.69 That same year, Greek brigadiers were added to Čačak brigades, which fell in line with the Yugoslav interventionism concerning the civil war in Greece.70 This transnational exchange of voluntary youth labor was mutual. Already in 1946, a Yugoslav brigade went to Poland to help in the reconstruction of Warsaw, and another such brigade was sent to Czechoslovakia in 1947. Both brigades had members from Čačak and Kraljevo.71

The primary aim of hosting foreign brigades was not to increase their work capacity, but to propagate communist ideas among youths from the West, as well as to strengthen ties with “friendly” countries (until 1948 socialist, after that Western and non-aligned ones). The authorities often noted the practical uselessness of foreign brigadiers, who usually regarded their stay in Yugoslavia merely as a vacation. However, the propaganda value of having foreigners among the volunteers compensated for their inefficiency as workers. Much as isolated camps offered a perfect setting for creating social networks between members of different Yugoslav nationalities, they also served as an ideal site to establish personal connections between Yugoslavs and their peers from both ideological blocs in order to help address the political isolation of Yugoslavia after 1948.

Conclusions: Youth Projects – From Social Glue to Nostalgic Memento

In the immediate postwar years, the authority of the Communist Party was still not completely solidified, since many strata of the population opposed (mostly in a silent and passive manner) the new system for various reasons. The younger generations, however, especially those living in regions most stricken by the disastrous civil war and occupation, represented a tabula rasa on which the regime could “inscribe” its program for the future, to a greater or lesser extent, according to its own needs and ideological tenets. The local perspective of the Čačak brigades that were sent to participate in federal labor projects offers illuminating insights into political and social mechanisms of this early socialist social engineering project, often not perceptible in the “grand” perspective of the state-level narratives. The predominantly voluntary nature of the recruitment process (with sparse, yet notable exceptions of formally and informally coerced mobilization) ensured that the most “hostile” segments of the youth would be excluded. This prevented them from potentially disseminating politically inappropriate ideas among other youths. Thus, labor camps represented isolated “islands” where youths could be exposed to a diverse set of politicized influences and agitation by Party members. Spatial consciousness represented a very important feature of the ideological construct of the projects. Not only was the geographical seclusion of the camps essential for effective indoctrination, but at the very core of these projects was the idea of conquering and taming a previously uncontrollable space, be it static spatial entities (such as marshes on the left bank of the Sava river) or a dynamic reconceptualization of distance and movement (such as in connecting remote and inaccessible parts of the country with highways and railways).

Simultaneously, the performance of the brigadiers (be it at work, in extra-labor activities or interpersonal communication) was carefully scrutinized and evaluated in order to enable the authorities to select the most reliable and promising party cadre for the future. Thus, the social, regional and generational base of party membership and support was expanded and further diversified. The “bond by blood,” which had developed among partisan soldiers during the war, slowly evolved during the early peacetime years into the “bond by labor” among brigadiers who for the most part had been too young to have partaken in the Liberation Struggle. After leaving these “social laboratories,” former brigadiers were supposed to spread the newly acquired skills, knowledge and especially the freshly internalized political and social ideas. The youth also proved a reliable communicator of the “correct” interpretation of Tito’s 1948 conflict with Stalin to other segments of population. Through Tito’s personal visitations and an elaborate ideological homogenization within the camps’ classrooms, the brigades’ Party cells apparently succeeded in alleviating more harmful forms of ideological misgivings among the youth.

The generations involved in the first phase of youth labor actions grew up under wartime conditions, surrounded by destruction and devastating poverty. Most of these youths, even had they been spared a direct contact with the ravages of war, were nevertheless deprived of a proper education, and their economic situation was bleak, with very slow signs of improvement in the immediate postwar years. Labor projects, with their wide variety of extra-labor activities and educational and professional programs, offered a unique opportunity for young people to compensate potentially for these disadvantages and obtain skills that would improve their prospects for social mobility. For the state, these programs also meant improving the educational profile of its citizens. These efforts, which ranged from decreasing rates of illiteracy and “semi-literacy,” creating various literary circles and cultural troupes, and directly preparing rural youth for jobs in industry, were intended to improve the educational structure and diversify the vocational profile of the younger generations in order to overcome the general backwardness of the Yugoslav society. However, the effect of these short-term educational programs should not be overemphasized, since they often produced a workforce that was insufficiently qualified, far too swollen for the needs and capacities of the early period of industrialization, and ultimately unable to fulfill the authorities’ ambitious modernizing agenda, in the long run even burdening economic development itself.

Another important aspect of Yugoslav youth labor projects that was always stressed by the Party was their pan-Yugoslav character. For many youths, especially those living in the mono-ethnic regions (such as Čačak), participation in the projects was the first chance to meet and interact personally with peers from different ethnic, religious and cultural milieus. This element was especially valuable in light of horrifying memories of ethnic cleansing and mass exoduses from just a few years earlier. Thus, the Communist Party’s axiom of “brotherhood and unity” between the Yugoslav peoples could be developed in practice. Moreover, involving foreign youth brigades (or simply inserting foreigners into the domestic ones) helped promote Yugoslav efforts to build a unique type of society, especially in the critical period after the split with the Soviet Union in 1948. Mingling with foreign peers from both the eastern and western side of the Iron Curtain enhanced the desired perception that Yugoslav citizens belonged to a united global working class, despite the country’s diplomatic isolation at a time when conflict with USSR was in full swing but the support of the West had not yet been won.

With their far-sighted emancipatory measures in mind, all reservations of some Party officials concerning the financial viability of organizing and sustaining “mammoth” federally supported youth projects were eventually cast aside, as the projects came to represent the social glue for the up-and-coming generations, deemed able to build an intrinsically socialist and multicultural society (supposedly) from scratch. This was the reason behind the decision to renew grand federal volunteer-based projects in 1958, sustaining this system (with significant modifications during the 1970s) almost until the end of the federation itself.72 Labor actions subsequently moved into the sphere of national mythology, becoming one of the defining symbols of the socialist era, as well as one of the most widespread uncritically cherished nostalgic memories for many former brigadiers in the post-socialist times. On the other end of the political spectrum, they were also used as a notorious example of the communists’ supposedly totalitarian tendencies. Eventually, the projects’ primary political aim of blatant and omnipresent indoctrination of young people with communist ideology proved far more superficial and shorter-lived than their secondary effects, mirrored in a far-reaching (albeit in many aspects incomplete) reconfiguration of the postwar social habitus in Yugoslavia.

Archival Sources

Međuopštinski istorijski arhiv u Čačku [Regional Historical Archives of Čačak], fond Omladinske radne brigade [Youth Labor Brigades Collection] and Lični fond Velimira Cvetića [Personal Collection of Velimir Cvetić].


Published Documents

Krnjajić, Marija, ed. “Spomenar komandanta Čačanske brigade ‘Ratko Mitrović’ Miodraga Obrenovića sa Omladinske pruge Brčko–Banovići” [Diary of the Commander of the Čačak Brigade ‘Ratko Mitrovic’ Miodrag Obrenovic from the Youth Railway Brčko–Banovići]. Izvornik, Građa Međuopštinskog istorijskog arhiva 28 (2013): 203–30.



Slobodni glas (Čačak) [Free Voice].


Secondary Sources

Anastasijević, Predrag M. Voluntary Labour Actions of the Yugoslav Youth. New Delhi: Tanjug, 1952.

Beograd – Grad akcijaša [Belgrade – City of Actions]. Belgrade: Gradska konferencija Saveza socijalističke omladine Beograda, 1985.

Janićijević, Dušan V. Dobrovoljni rad omladine Kraljeva [Voluntary Work of Kraljevo Youth]. Kraljevo: JP PTT Srbija, 1999.

Mihailović, Srećko. Omladinske radne akcije. Rezultati socioloških istraživanja [Youth Labor Actions. Results of Sociological Surveys]. Belgrade: Istraživačko-izdavački centar Saveza socijalističke omladine Srbije, 1985.

Mihailović, Srećko, and Grujica Spasović. Tito, radne akcije. Stvaraoci neodoljivog poleta [Tito, Labor Actions. Creators of Irresistible Vigour]. Belgrade: Istraživačko-izdavački centar Saveza socijalističke omladine Srbije, 1979.

Mitrović, Momčilo. Izgubljene iluzije. Prilozi za društvenu istoriju Srbije 1944–1952 [Lost Illusions. Contributions to the Social History of Serbia 1944–1952]. Belgrade: Institut za noviju istoriju Srbije, 1997.

Radne akcije Narodne omladine Hrvatske [Labor Actions of the People’s Youth of Croatia]. Zagreb: Centralni komitet Narodne omladine Hrvatske, 1949.

Ristanović, Slobodan V. To su naših ruku dela. Herojska i slavna epopeja omladinskih radnih akcija 1941–1990 [Heroic and Glorious Epic of Youth Labor Actions 1941–1990]. Belgrade: Kosmos, 2014.

Selinić, Slobodan. “Život na omladinskim radnim akcijama u Jugoslaviji 1946–1963” [Life at Youth Labor Actions in Yugoslavia 1946–1963]. Arhiv. Časopis Arhiva Srbije i Crne Gore 1–2 (2007): 119–37.

Selinić, Slobodan. “Omladina gradi Jugoslaviju (Savezne omladinske radne akcije u Jugoslaviji 1946–1963),” [Youth Building Yugoslavia (Federal Youth Labor Actions in Yugoslavia 1946–1963)]. Arhiv. Časopis Arhiva Srbije i Crne Gore 1–2 (2005): 87–101.

Selinić, Slobodan. “Počeci Novog Beograda – prva faza izgradnje Novog Beograda 1947–1950.” [Beginnings of New Belgrade. The First Phase of the New Belgrade Construction 1947–1950]. Tokovi istorije 4 (2007): 75–96.

Siegelbaum, Lewis H. Stakhanovism and the Politics of Productivity in the USSR 1935–1941. Cambridge: Cambrige University Press, 1990.

Supek, Rudi. Omladina na putu do bratstva. Psihosociologija radne akcije [Youth on the Path to Brotherhood. Psycho-sociology of a Labor Action]. Beograd: Mladost, 1963.

Vejzagić, Saša. “The Importance of Youth Labor Actions in Socialist Yugoslavia: A Case Study of the Motorway ‘Brotherhood and Unity’.” MA thesis, Central European University, 2013.

Udarnici prve smene graditelja omladinske pruge [Shock-Workers of the Youth Railway’s First Shift]. Belgrade: Novo pokolenje, 1946.

1 See Lewis H. Siegelbaum, Stakhanovism and the Politics of Productivity in the USSR 1935–1941 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).

2 Predrag M. Anastasijević, Voluntary Labour Actions of the Yugoslav Youth (New Delhi: Tanjug, 1952), 6; Srećko Mihailović and Grujica Spasović, Tito, radne akcije. Stvaraoci neodoljivog poleta (Belgrade: Istraživačko-izdavački centar Saveza socijalističke omladine Srbije, 1979), 11–13.

3 This mass organization was renamed the People’s Youth (Narodna omladina) in May 1946.

4 Beograd – Grad akcijaša (Belgrade: Gradska konferencija Saveza socijalističke omladine Beograda, 1985), 18.

5 Mihailović and Srećković, Stvaraoci neodoljivog poleta, 23–27, 29–31, 114.

6 Slobodan Selinić, “Omladina gradi Jugoslaviju (Savezne omladinske radne akcije u Jugoslaviji 1946–1963),” Arhiv, Časopis Arhiva Srbije i Crne Gore 1–2 (2005): 88–89.

7 Slobodan Selinić, “Počeci Novog Beograda – prva faza izgradnje Novog Beograda 1947–1950.” Tokovi istorije 4 (2007): 75.

8 Srećko Mihailović, Omladinske radne akcije. Rezultati socioloških istraživanja (Belgrade: Istraživačko-izdavački centar Saveza socijalističke omladine Srbije, 1985), 9–10.

9 Mihailović and Spasović, Stvaraoci neodoljivog poleta, 21–31.

10 Anastasijević, Voluntary Labour Actions; Beograd – Grad akcijaša; Mihailović and Spasović, Stvaraoci neodoljivog poleta; Radne akcije Narodne omladine Hrvatske (Zagreb: Centralni komitet Narodne omladine Hrvatske, 1949); Udarnici prve smene graditelja omladinske pruge (Belgrade: Novo pokolenje, 1946). In this respect, a recently published monograph containing basic information on all labor actions in socialist Yugoslavia should be mentioned for its anthological comprehensiveness, despite its analytical dearth: Slobodan V. Ristanović, To su naših ruku dela. Herojska i slavna epopeja omladinskih radnih akcija 1941–1990 (Belgrade: Kosmos, 2014).

11 Mihailović, Omladinske radne akcije; Rudi Supek, Omladina na putu do bratstva. Psihosociologija radne akcije (Belgrade: Mladost, 1963).

12 Slobodan Selinić, “Život na omladinskim radnim akcijama u Jugoslaviji 1946–1963,” Arhiv, Časopis Arhiva Srbije i Crne Gore 1–2 (2007): 119–37; Slobodan Selinić, “Omladina gradi Jugoslaviju”; Saša Vejzagić, “The Importance of Youth Labor Actions in Socialist Yugoslavia: A Case Study of the Motorway ‘Brotherhood and Unity,’” (MA thesis, Central European University, 2013).

13Ratko Mitrović” brigades even had a slogan: “We bear his [Ratko Mitrović’s] name, the whole brigade is proud of him!” (Ratka Mitrovića mi nosimo ime, cela brigada ponosi se njime!”), Slobodni glas, August 3, 1946, 2.

14 D.Z., Treća ORB ‘Ratko Mitrović’ otišla na izgradnju Omladinske pruge,” Slobodni glas, September 7, 1946, 6.

15 Dušan V. Janićijević, Dobrovoljni rad omladine Kraljeva (Kraljevo: JP PTT Srbija, 1999), 61.

16 In brigades from other parts of Yugoslavia there were documented cases of brigadiers who were younger than fifteen (even twelve years old), probably due to the desperate insistence of the local organization on fulfilling the prescribed quotas (Selinić, “Omladina gradi Jugoslaviju,” 91; Selinić, “Počeci Novog Beograda,” 93).

17 In 1948, SKOJ and the People’s Youth merged into one youth supra-organization, keeping the latter’s name.

18 Selinić, “Omladina gradi Jugoslaviju,” 91–92, 95.

19 Vejzagić, “Motorway ‘Brotherhood and Unity’,” 53–55. Selinić emphasizes the almost military nature of the recruitment process (not the least because in the sources themselves recruitment is often referred to as “mobilization”) (Selinić, “Počeci Novog Beograda,” 81).

20 Janićijević, Rad omladine Kraljeva, 95.

21 In the villages of Atenica, Katrga and Rošci, the local commanders’ forceful method of agitation was stigmatized as “unpolitical” and “hostile,” but it was also pointed out that “we still need a sufficient number of youths” (“Budući zadaci osnoвnih organizacija ljubićko-trnavskog sreza po pitanju formiranja frontovskih radnih brigada,” Slobodni glas, June 10, 1949, 2). However, a quote from the local newspaper vividly depicts the indirect and informal methods of pressure that were employed to entice youths: “There should be no youngster who would not apply for the Youth Railway construction!” (B. Kostić, “Do 16. aprila treba izvršiti izbor omladinaca,” Slobodni glas, April 12, 1946, 6).

22 Vejzagić, “Motorway ‘Brotherhood and Unity’,” 51. In Čačak, the possibility of being accepted to labor projects was used as a motivational factor for bad students to improve their school marks (D. Grbić, “U našem odeljenju prijavilo se 29 učenika,” Slobodni glas, March 15, 1947, 2).

23 S.A., “Školska omladina Čačka učestvovaće na izgradnji auto-puta Bratstvo-Jedinstvo,” Slobodni glas, May 9, 1948, 4. Every attempt on the part of parents to prevent their children from participating in labor actions (or mass organizations in general) was strongly condemned (I. Pešić, O pogrešnom odnosu roditelja prema svojoj deci i omladinskim organizacijama,” Slobodni glas, October 1, 1948, 3).

24 B. Kostić, “Do 16. aprila treba izvršiti izbor omladinaca za sastav radne brigade koja će uzeti učešća na u radovima na izgradnji omladinske pruge,” Slobodni glas, April 12, 1946, 6; P.Đ., “275 omladinaca našeg okruga gradi omladinsku prugu,” Slobodni glas, May 8, 1946, 6.

25 Milisav Đurić, “Izgradnja nove omladinske pruge Šamac–Sarajevo najveći zadatak omladine u 1947. godini,” Slobodni glas, January 16, 1947, 2; Omladina okruga čačanskog sprema se za omladinsku prugu Šamac–Sarajevo,” Slobodni glas, March 8, 1947, 3.

26Na smotri u Čačku uzelo je učešća preko 4000 omladinaca iz sreza i grada,” Slobodni glas, April 2, 1948, 3; M.D. Rajčević, “Omladina moravičkog sreza u ovoj godini već je dala oko 7000 radnih dana na raznim lokalnim radovima,” Slobodni glas, April 2, 1948, 3.

27 For instance, the 1949 quota was surpassed by 27 percent in Bosnia and Herzegovina and only by 3.7 percent in Slovenia (Vejzagić, “Motorway ‘Brotherhood and Unity’,” 52–53).

28 The term udarniki was widely used in the Soviet Union to designate shock brigades and workers prior to the institutionalization of the Stakhanovite system in 1935. Since the culture of productivity was introduced in Yugoslavia only after World War II, different systems of shock-work were not distinguished in Serbo-Croatian, but were jointly grouped under the label udarništvo.

29 Međuopštinski istorijski arhiv u Čačku (hereafter: MIAČ), fond Omladinske radne brigade (hereafter: ORB), kutija 2, fascikla 3, Udarnička legitimacija Nikolić Nikole iz Donje Trepče, December 5, 1948.

30 Mihailović and Spasović, Stvaraoci neodoljivog poleta, 34. One of the reasons for such excessive toiling was also the authorities’ pragmatic insistence during the period of reconstruction that the work effect of unpaid workers should be five times greater than that of paid workers, see Momčilo Mitrović, Izgubljene iluzije. Prilozi za društvenu istoriju Srbije 1944–1952 (Belgrade: Institut za noviju istoriju Srbije, 1997), 19.

31 B.M., “Orlova Stena, radni logor čačanske brigade,” Slobodni glas, August 30, 1946, 3.

32 MIAČ, ORB, k-3, f-4, Opšta arhiva 1. čačanske srednjoškolske ORB “Rade Azanjac,” Ruma, July–August 1948. This is a somewhat lower percentage compared to the overall average for the whole New Belgrade project, during which every seventh brigadier became a shock-worker (Selinić, “Počeci Novog Beograda,” 86).

33 MIAČ, ORB, k-3, f-4, Karakteristike brigadira 1. čačanske srednjoškolske brigade “Rade Azanjac” (1948).

34 MIAČ, ORB, k-2, f-3, Kratke biografije predloženih.

35 MIAČ, ORB, k-1, f-4, Odluka o zabrani prekovremenog rada, July 23, 1952.

36 MIAČ, ORB, k-2, f-1, Karakteristike brigadira; f-2, Prozivnik 2. ljubićko-trnavske brigade; k-3, f-2, Knjiga karakteristika brigadira 2. ljubićko-trnavske brigade (1948); f-3, Karakteristike brigadira 1. srednjoškolske ORB Rade Azanjac (1948); MIAČ, Lični fond Velimira Cvetića (hereafter: VC), Karakteristike par članova. Particularly interesting is the fact that brigade commanders put a high value on the contribution of brigadiers (or the lack thereof) to overall socialization within the barracks. Thus, the strongest remarks in some evaluations would be: “in crowds, he was closed off and introverted,” “he is many comrades’ favorite character,” “not serious in conversations with other brigadiers,” “he was always moody when among others,” “she was popular for her jolliness and her decent, comradely life and behavior”. MIAČ, ORB, k-2, f-1, Karakteristike brigadira 11. srpske brigade, Železnik (1947).

37 Četnici is the colloquial term for the monarchist Yugoslav Army in the Homeland (Jugoslovenska vojska u otadžbini) that undertook a rebellion against German occupation as early as May 1941, fighting together with partisans until their ideological split in November 1941. They were focused on sparing ethnic Serbs from open confrontations with Nazis, as well as preventing communists from inciting a socialist revolution. Consequently, many četnik units entered into tacit collaboration with the Nazi regime, and some commanders ordered severe reprisals against Muslim civilians in Bosnia and Sandžak.

38 MIAČ, ORB, k-3, f-4, Karakteristike članova 1. srednjoškolske brigade “Rade Azanjac” (1948).

39 To make this case even more bizarre, his brigade commander suspected him of having belonged to četnici during the war (MIAČ, VC, Pismo sreskog komiteta SKOJ Okružnom komitetu u Gornjem Milanovcu, April 29, 1946).

40 The insufficient number of work uniforms, as well as of basic clothing (trousers, shirts and underwear), caused many problems during the 1946 project, but it seems that in later projects these procurements were much better planned, becoming yet another asset with which to attract poor youths to actions. Several brigadiers were strongly criticized for walking to and from the construction site in old and ragged uniforms, although they had received new ones. The commanders reminded them that they would not be allowed to take the new uniforms home, no matter how well they preserved them, whereas walking through the streets of Belgrade in ragged clothes put the brigade in a bad light and only provided malicious reactionaries with additional arguments. MIAČ, ORB, k-2, f-5, Knjiga dnevne zapovesti 1. čačanske srednjoškolske ORB “Rade Azanjac” od 9.6. do 8.7.1949. i 2. čačanske srednjoškolske ORB “Rade Azanjac” od 8.7. do 5.8.1949. In the Highway construction camp, there were cases of brigadiers abandoning the brigade without returning their clothes. SKOJ officials back home were instructed to regulate this issue. MIAČ, ORB, k-3, f-1, Spiskovi brigadira 1. Ljubićko-trnavske brigade (po četama).

41 MIAČ, VC, Pribeleške za sastanke (1947).

42 MIAČ, VC, Poleđina spiska članova SKOJ (1946).

43 MIAČ, ORB, k-1, f-4, Zapažanja dežurnog brigadira (1952); MIAČ, ORB, k-3, f-4, Opšta arhiva 1. čačanske srednjoškolske ORB “Rade Azanjac” (July–August, 1948).

44 MIAČ, ORB, k-3, f-3, Zapisnici sa sastanka štaba i partijske ćelije (1949).

45 Some youths also threatened not to prolong their stay in the camp if there would not be more straw for beds and meat for lunch. The Party cell dismissed such complaints, claiming that there were “opportunists” who were taking two meal portions, thus leaving other comrades without any food. MIAČ, ORB, k-3, f-3, Zapisnici sa sastanka štaba i partijske ćelije 5. Ljubićsko-trnavske brigade (1948).

46 Vejzagić, “Motorway ‘Brotherhood and Unity’,” 66. Military instructors also used their veteran status to transmit their personal experiences of the Liberation Struggle to younger brigadiers (MIAČ, VC, Posetili su nas delegati našeg okruga).

47 MIAČ, ORB, k-2, f-2, Dnevnik zanimanja, June 30, 1949.

48 Ibid., Vejzagić, “Motorway ‘Brotherhood and Unity’,” 68.

49 MIAČ, ORB, k-2, f-5, Knjiga dnevne zapovesti 1. и 2. čačanske srednjoškolske ORB “Rade Azanjac” od 9.6. do 8.7.1949. i od 8.7. do 5.8.1949; MIAČ, ORB, k-2, f-1, Evidencija dnevne zapovesti 1. Ljubićko-trnavkse brigade, 20.4.-16.6.1950.

50 Mihailović and Spasović, Stvaraoci neodoljivog poleta, 29. According to Selinić, at least 185 cases of death can be documentarily proven for the period 1946–1963, most of which occurred at the New Belgrade and Highway projects (Selinić, “Život na radnim akcijama,” 123–124). The only documented case of death in Čačak brigades in this period was that of Radiša Stefanović, who was mortally injured by a truck at the New Belgrade worksite on August 1, 1950. This death was laconically mentioned in the brigade’s official diary, without any further notice or comment (MIAČ, ORB, k-2, f-3, Dnevnik života i rada 3. Ljubićko-trnavske brigade na Novom Beogradu od 1.7. do 28.8.1950).

51 Vejzagić, “Motorway ‘Brotherhood and Unity’,” 79.

52 MIAČ, ORB, k-3, f-3, Zapisnici sa sastanka štaba i partijske ćelije (1948).

53 MIAČ, ORB, k-3, f-3, Zapisnici sa sastanka štaba i partijske ćelije 5. ljubićko-trnavske brigade (1949).

54 Žika Marjanović, “Dopis sa omladinske pruge,” Slobodni glas, May 1, 1947, 3.

55 MIAČ, ORB, k-1, f-1, Izveštaji 2. čačanske ORB “Ratko Mitrović” (Bukinje – Orlova stena, August, 1946).

56 Selinić, “Život na omladinskim radnim akcijama,” 126.

57 MIAČ, ORB, k-2, f-3, Biblioteka logora ‘Jože Vlahović’ and Inventar knjiga 2. Ljubićko-trnavske brigade.

58 Selinić, “Život na omladinskim radnim akcijama,” 125.

59 MIAČ, ORB, k-2, f-3, Zapisnik kulturno-prosvetnog odbora 3. Ljubićko-trnavske brigade, July 9, 1950.

60 Janićijević, Rad omladine Kraljeva, VI–VIII.

61 MIAČ, ORB, k-2, f-3, Zapisnik kulturno-prosvetnog odbora 3. Ljubićko-trnavske brigade, July 9–August 22, 1950.

62 MIAČ, ORB, k-3, f-3, Dnevnik 5. Ljubićko-trnavske brigade od 7.9. do 29.11.1949. In this regard, it should be mentioned that the official discourse frequently accented cinema visits as an advent of modernization. All the more peculiar was the consternation of the 3rd ljubićko-trnavska brigade commander (working at New Belgrade in 1950) at the fact that during film screenings, apart from being very noisy and littering, some male comrades did not even realize that they were not permitted to urinate inside the cinema hall (MIAČ, ORB, k-2, f-3, Knjiga zapovesti 3. Ljubićko-trnavske brigade, 4.7.–29.8.1950).

63 Mihailović and Spasović, Stvaraoci neodoljivog poleta, 78.

64 MIAČ, VC, Dopis Gvozdena Jovanića o pristizanju u Brčko (1946).

65 Ljubiša Lazarević, “Druga dragačevska brigada na autoputu proglašena za dvaput udarnu,” Slobodni glas, July 23, 1948, 3.

66 MIAČ, VC, Karakteristike članova ORB “Ratko Mitrović” (1946).

67 Ljubiša Lazarević, “Druga dragačevska brigada na autoputu proglašena za dvaput udarnu,” Slobodni glas, July 23, 1948, 3; Radisav Pajić, “Čačanska omladinska brigada vratila se triput udarna,” Slobodni glas, July 16, 1949, 4.

68 Mihailović and Spasović, Stvaraoci neodoljivog poleta, 29, 114.

69 Marija Krnjajić, ed. “Spomenar komandanta čačanske brigade ‘Ratko Mitrović’ Miodraga Obrenovića sa omladinske pruge Brčko–Banovići,” Izvornik, građa Međuopštinskog istorijskog arhiva Čačak 28 (2013): 211.

70 MIAČ, ORB, k-1, f-1, Fotografije sa Omladinske pruge Brčko–Banovići (1946).

71 Janićijević, Rad omladine Kraljeva, 313; Udarnici prve smene, 23, 72.

72 Janićijević, Rad omladine Kraljeva, 369.

Volume 4 Issue 1 CONTENTS

pdfSándor Horváth

Life of an Agent: Re-Energizing Stalinism and Learning the Language of Collaboration after 1956 in Hungary


In order for a secret police report to be taken seriously, it had to be lodged in the proper form, according to the discursive styles of the state bureaucracy, and in particular the secret police. Thus, the authors of the reports adopted numerous elements of style and rhetoric in order to ensure that their goals would be achieved. How was this bureaucratic style adopted in Hungary, and how did ordinary citizens decide to accommodate to or cooperate with the authorities under the communist regime after the 1956 Revolution? I argue that the creators and editors of the secret police reports (the “unofficial informants” and their case officers) were “sculpting” the official language as an artefact and mapping their social network in accordance with idealized images of the politico-social body. The first step in the implementation of massive, forceful coercion was to change the narratives and the social categories that were used to depict the social status of a “good citizen” and the local communities. In the early phases of their work, during which they learned what was expected of them and how to meet these expectations, the informants mastered the language of the secret police in order to ensure, in the meantime, that they were able to realize their own personal goals in their local communities by taking advantage of their access to the state security network. Thus the function of the reports on the one hand was rhetorical: they were made in order to feed the bureaucracy. On the other, they served as a means with which their authors won approval among other members of the network of their personal, everyday goals. The authoring of reports, which can be understood as a kind of period of training, thus was not simply a matter of exercising social control, but quite the reverse, it also served as a means of appropriating power by members of society in the interests of specific personal goals that had little or nothing to do directly with the agendas of the regime.

Keywords: communist regime, Kádár regime, bureaucratic language, secret police, cooperation, political participation, Eastern Europe, Hungary


Throughout the entire Kádár regime (the period between 1957 and 1989 in Hungary),1 a man referred to in the records as Gy. wrote reports from a mining village in Nógrád county, which is dotted with small villages nestled in valleys.2 Like a king in disguise, with his reports he dispensed justice in the everyday affairs of the village. Gradually, he mastered the language of the bureaucracy. As the president of the division of the local football team, which played in the second tier of the national championship teams when it was at its best, he traveled through the mining region. He was given his first task because of the figures who prompted a massacre by the Communist police in the city of Salgótarján on December 8, 19563 (a large part of the victims were from the village in which he lived) and because of his father-in-law, a Social Democrat who hailed from a mining family that had emigrated to Hungary from northern Italy. He was given his last task because of the reburial of Imre Nagy, the Prime Minister of the revolutionary government in 1956 who was executed in 1958. The reburial, which took place in 1989, was an event of great symbolic significance.4 Gy. himself was injured at the time of the 1956 massacre (according to his relatives, not in the actual violence of the massacre, but rather in an accident that took place elsewhere), but presumably the police did not use this in order to pressure him to write reports, but rather the fact that in 1948 he had been sentenced to ten years in prison as a war criminal (he had been released after having served 18 months). His refusal to cooperate with the state security forces, his alleged or presumed participation in the events of 1956 (Gy. had been a member of a workers’ council in 1956), and his conviction as a war criminal provided the police with ample material with which to blackmail and recruit him.

National politics repeatedly crisscrossed the life history of the informant referred to in the official documents simply by the letters Gy., in spite of the fact that, having gotten average grades in school, he spent the better part of his life working as a physical laborer or in a low-level office position in the railway service and later the mine. Using his life history, I attempt to make a local interpretation (in other words the “view from the bottom”) of the major events that shaped the twentieth century more understandable.5 In this article, I address, within this larger framework, how Gy. became part of the secret police network and how he mastered the official language with which he was able, on the one hand, to write reports that were considered acceptable by the authorities and, on the other, to achieve his own personal goals, using the network as a means.

According to Michael Shafir, when an official view of history, such as the Marxist–Leninist one, is abolished, memory and historical scholarship become competitors. Shafir makes this observation in connection with the report of the Tismăneanu Committee as the presentation of a kind of conclusive and absolute historical narrative.6 A similar process was underway following the events of 1989 which shaped the “agent-hunting” narrative mode based on the impassioned call to make the files of the secret police and the lists of operatives and agents accessible to the public.

After all, if society consisted exclusively of victims and perpetrators, then not only could the perpetrators be found out, on moral grounds they must be found out, as this would contribute to the consolidation of democracy, at least according to prevailing public opinion. According to this narrative, the denunciation of agents and the “cleansing” of public life of the “perpetrators” of the previous system (lustration) were both demands of civil rights activists and political tools.7 The demand to make the files accessible to the public was a campaign the emotional point of departure of which was the belief that the success of the committees “in search of the truth” depended on society’s fortitude. Thus, the many volumes that have been written on state security forces notwithstanding, as of yet no empirical studies have been done addressing the question of the extent to which the state securities actually constituted an element that stabilized the system. As by now has come to seem almost self-evident on the basis of source criticism on the documents of the state security forces, for the contents of these documents have been understood as reflections not of “reality,” but rather of the expectations of the state security forces and the party, and not only by scholars and researchers, but also by readers at the time.

For these reasons, relatively little attention has been devoted to the fact that the texts that were created and used by the networks were the products of a form of interaction in which the informers became part of the bureaucracy through a distinctive kind of training process. In order to be able to write reports that would meet the needs of the authorities, they had to learn the clichés that they were expected to use. As Katherine Verdery has written in connection with the Securitate on the last period of the era, “the Securitate increasingly became a pedagogical or didactic rather than a punitive institution.”8 As I intend to show in this article, however, the relationship between Gy. and his case officer was similar to the relationship between a teacher and a pupil, at least from their perspective, even from the outset, though in the case of Gy. we are speaking of a “pupil” who learned not only what was expected of him, but also how to achieve his own goals indirectly by making use of the reports.

I argue in this article that the function of the secret police reports on the one hand was rhetorical: they were made in order to feed the bureaucracy. On the other hand, however, they served as a means with which their authors won approval among other members of the network of their personal, everyday goals. The authoring of reports, which can be understood as a kind of period of training, thus was not simply a matter of exercising social control, but quite the reverse, it also served as a means of appropriating power by members of society in the interests of specific personal goals that had little or nothing to do directly with the agendas of the regime.

Towards the end of the 1960s, mining in Nógrád was irrelevant on the national level as the working class policy had become less and less important for the Kádár regime.9 Gy.’s mine was closed in 1968 because it was no longer regarded as economically viable,10 though the sedulous sentries of the state security forces continued to insist on the submission of reports by agents who took a fancy to writing them and who, by then, had provided ample proof of their reliability. More and more frequently, Gy. used the reports as tools with which to promote his own interests. He could enforce “justice” for the “little man” (for instance, in the tavern they were watering down the wine, or cars were being repaired on the black market in the neighboring street). The reports contain not calls for collective action, but rather numerous manners of attempting to further personal interests.

In this article, I seek the answer to the question of how Gy., as the author of texts used by the state security, reinterpreted his own identity and how he created a portrayal of himself as a useful member of society. This was the period in his life when, as the head of the division of the local soccer team, he had a large network of relationships, which he used when writing reports. His collaboration with the local authorities (in comparison with the transformation of the inhabitants of the village) was not striking by any means. The financial positions of his neighbors and relatives (which can be clearly traced in the census records) were closely linked to his cooperation with the regime.11

The Preconditions: A Life Story before the Secret Police

Gy. was born in 1923, the son of a mechanic who worked at the Salgótarján Coal Mine Company, which was sinking into financial ruin because of the new borders of the Treaty of Trianon, which severed the mines from many of the communities they have served. His mother used her mother’s Swabian name.12 Gy.’s mother, like her mother before her, gave birth to her first child at the age of sixteen as an unwed girl. Fortunately for her, one fine day towards the end of World War I she was introduced to a man six years her senior, a locksmith named Aladár whose family was part of the petty nobility and who would later become Gy.’s father. Until the beginning of the Communist era in Hungary, Gy. spelled his family name with the letter “y” on the end, an indication of noble rank, but he then changed it to “i,” which helped spare him the wrath of the authorities. Aladár’s father was a magistrate of an administrative district in Zagyvapálfalva, a village that later was inundated with miners, but according to the recollections of family members, after the war, having been caught embezzling money from the widows’ war relief fund, he shot himself in the head, either out of guilt or shame.13 Aladár had only one flaw: he limped, because during the war he had been shot in the heel while serving on the front by Isonzo. So he was slightly less popular among the women. This may explain why he was willing to marry a woman who had already given birth to an illegitimate child. She would give birth to six more children. The birth registries of her many children allow one to track the wanderings of the family in the mining region relatively easily. Gy. had two older sisters, but following the death of his older brother in childhood he was the oldest boy in the family. (His parents went on to have three more children, all girls.)14

Sociolographer Zoltán Szabó characterized Kisterenye, the village in Nógrád county where Gy. was born, in the 1930s as a community in which, in exchange for their submissiveness and compliance, workers could live a bit better: “they had the best opportunities regarding schooling for their children, they read the most bourgeois newspapers, and most of the radios were playing in their apartments.”15 The village had a public elementary school paid for by the mine, a tavern, a club for balls, a physician’s office and, in the middle of the settlement, a soccer field, which was the center of social life and the marriage market. Girls could gather to socialize near the field without having to fear people gossiping about them. Gy. met his wife by the soccer field, leaning on the fence. In the village, a house with two rooms, like the one in which Gy.’s family lived (with six children), counted as upper middle class in the local community. The careers of Gy.’s surviving brothers are tales of social mobility. One of his younger brothers became a factory director (towards the end of his life he was discharged with a pension after facing accusations of having abused his position as director for personal gain).16 His other brother became an accountant and was later found guilty of embezzlement.17

For Gy.’s family, schooling meant an opportunity to rise in the social hierarchy, and they strove to take advantage of this opportunity. In autumn 1929, Gy. began to attend school, and in the first class of elementary school he was already among the best students in the class. He was given the highest possible marks in every subject with the exception of reading.18 He may have been one of the favorite students of instructor Emil Sümeg. “Old man Emil,” as he was called, was the one-man organizer of the school in the village, and he was passionate about the task. He was regarded as the “voice of the people” in the village. He wrote petitions, as did Gy.’s social democratic father-in-law. For instance, after the occupation of the country by Germany in March 1944, old man Emil denounced the German soldiers in the village to the management of the mine because they had insulted three women and “did not respect the fence, […] in many places simply trampling them down.”19 Later his name was listed in the records of the secret service recruits, but whatever reports he may have made did not survive.20 In the end, Gy. wrote one of his first reports for the communist secret police about Emil.

Because of his excellent grades in school, Gy. was enrolled in the higher elementary school (a kind of middle school, called polgári, which means citizen) in the neighboring agricultural town. Because of his acuity, he was allowed to begin in the second form, where he paid discounted tuition. The pupils from the mining towns went in separate train cars to the school, which was intended to fashion citizens out of them who would be loyal to the state and could later fill positions in the local bureaucracy. In the first semester, Gy. got the highest possible mark in only one subject, religious instruction. In the other subjects he usually got the lowest passing grade, though a few times he got a decent mark. His form-master classified his handwriting as passably legible. This improved considerably with time. The handwritten reports that he submitted to the political police as an adult are written with precise, clearly legible letters, and as a young adult he also worked as a clerk at the mine. As the years passed, Gy. became better and better as a student, though he was never an outstanding talent.21

The representatives of the city of Pásztó were hesitant to vote on the establishment of a school because of the costs. The school commissioner convinced them to give their approval by informing them that if they were to resolve to have the school built, they would be eligible to receive support from the state, which could be a good source of income for local builders. If, however, the state were to order the construction of a school because of the size of the population of the city, then they would lose any possibility of funding. The local farmers continued to look with skepticism on the idea of a school.22

The railway employees, however, saw schooling as an opportunity to rise in the community, as did the miners who in the meantime had immigrated to and colonized the city. Gy.’s class was comprised almost entirely of the children of the local employees and miners.23 All of his siblings attended the higher elementary school, where they were given a patriotic education. As was noted in the school bulletin, the students began and ended the school day with prayer, as was common at the time. They commemorated the heroes of the battle of Limonowa (in late 1914, the troops of the Austro-Hungarian army defeated the army of the Russian Czar near the city of Limonowa in what today is Poland) and discussed the ties between the Hungarians and the Finno-Ugric peoples in Hungarian class (an idea that by then had gained widespread acceptance). In an attempt to support Hungarian industry, careful attention was paid to ensure that the students only used school supplies and materials for handicrafts that had been made in Hungary.24

When Gy. was in the third grade, the schools found themselves obliged to introduce a uniform text for prayer and exclude all other prayers. Religion functioned as an obligatory state and ideological framework in the process of fashioning the ideal citizenry. Gy., who like his father was a Calvinist, was almost alone in the almost entirely Catholic class. There were two Lutheran boys and also three Jews who, while the other students were reciting the text of the uniform prayer, were allowed not to make the sign of the cross.25

In 1937, following visits to the factory, Gy.’s class went on an excursion to Budapest. In Budapest, which to many of the students must have seemed like an enormous metropolis, they watched the military parade that was held in honor of the Italian king and queen on Mussolini Square (as of 1936, this was the name of the square that today is Oktogon). The school yearbook contained the following lines about the event: “They can take everything from us, Trianon can banish planes from the skies, forbid tanks, but there is one thing they cannot take from our souls, cannot kill in our hearts: the Hungarian Soldier.”26 The notion of the Hungarian soldier and the repudiation of the Treaty of Trianon (the post-war treaty according to which Hungary had lost roughly two-thirds of its territory to the surrounding states in the wake of World War I) were two pillars of the cultivation of a patriotic citizenry in the school.

The formal rank of the institution as a grammar school did not guarantee the pupils positions in offices.27 When he left the school, as the oldest male child in the family Gy. pursued the study of a trade in industry at the mine and waited for an opportunity to acquire a position at the railway, where salaries were much higher. In 1942, with his uncle’s help, he was given a position as a trainee at the Hungarian National Railway.28

Because of the program promoting industrialization (the so-called 1938 Győri program), the railway was expanding and needed more and more employees. In 1942, Gy. began to work as an apprentice in the stock room in the train station in Miskolc, a city in northeastern Hungary. However, one evening he was caught rummaging through boxes from the Cikta shoe factory (the Hungarian name for the Bata shoe factory) and also boxes of cigarettes. In the wake of the territorial changes according to which a strip of territory in southern Czechoslovakia became part of Hungary, the Czech company, Bata, founded a Hungarian factory. For Gy., the Cikta shoes were sort of like an entrance ticket into the world of the “middle class”. They did not actually find any shoes on him, but they did find two boxes of so-called Dames cigarettes for women. Dames were the favorite cigarettes of Katalin Karády, a popular actress at the time (the Hungarian Marlene Dietrich, as it were), and they were popular in part because of their elegant, decorative packaging. Gy. may have wanted to use them as part of a romantic conquest, because he smoked a different brand. He was given a reprimand and fired.29

He was nonetheless able to find a position as a traffic assistant at another railway post in Transdanubia, since the records were not coordinated on the national level. In 1944, the frontline reached his station in Fejér County. He served in Seregélyes, a settlement not far from Székesfehérvár, on the front, the so-called Margit-line, which was one of the best fortified defense lines in Hungary and in the winter of 1944 was becoming rigid. According to the locals, towards the end of the war the village went back and forth between the Soviet and the German forces seven times.30 Gy. escaped conscription, but at the time of the second occupation of the village by the Germans (which witnessed the vengeful acts of Arrow Cross men from the area around Székesfehérvár) he committed the act for which he was later convicted of being a war criminal. Indirectly because of him, a Ruthenian railway employee was executed. The man, who was accused of having helped the Soviet soldiers get women in the village and having robbed the official residence of the station agent, was executed. When the German soldiers recaptured the village (in the course of a maneuver called Konrad III), Gy. reported the Ruthenian man to the gendarmerie in Székesfehérvár, which at the time was working together closely with the Arrow Cross. Not once in the records of the people’s tribunal was the man’s name spelled correctly, but thanks to the digitalized documents and records of the Archives of the Hungarian National Railway and the assistance of an archivist (and also a bit of good luck), I was able to identify him and find his descendants. The history of the Ruthenian railway employee offers a pithy encapsulation of the experiences of the inhabitants of Sub-Carpathia between 1939 and 1944, as well as their relationship to Hungary. Without ever having changed places of residence, over the course of his life the man worked for the railway service of three different countries (since in the space of a mere two decades the territory was part first of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, then Czechoslovakia, and then Hungary). Then, like most people from Sub-Carpathia, he was labeled a “politically unreliable Ruthenian” and sent to the western Hungarian border and then the stations near the front.31 The conflict between him and the station agent arose because the station master failed to pay him three months’ salary in advance, which all the other employees had received with the approach of the front.32

After the war, Gy. became one of the targets of the Communist political police, which was beginning to organize in Székesfehérvár.33 In 1949, the officer responsible for his case, a man named Gyögy Székely, emigrated for the West, and the state security forces gathered a significant amount of material on him when he was abroad, because he was accused of collaborating with the English secret service.34 When the case involving Gy. was underway, Székely was not named chief of police in Székesfehérvár, which was a sign of the temporary relegation of the Communist police to the background.35 In 1945, Gy. was acquitted, the confessions that had been extracted from him by the police notwithstanding, as indeed was the overwhelming majority of people facing accusations in front of the people’s court in Székesfehérvár. What factors determined whether someone was convicted of war crimes or not?

The marginalization of the Communists in rural areas towards the end of 1945 made it possible for the accused who stood before the tribunal, which was by no means in the hands of the Communists, to withdraw confessions that had been made (often violently coerced) to the police, which was in the hands of the Communists.36 On the basis of the ruling, if someone helped the gendarmerie commit an act that was regarded as “necessary retribution” or that was in compliance with the laws at the time, this did not constitute a war crime. Since the police had acted in compliance with the laws that were in effect in 1944, according to this logic the deportations and the provision of assistance with the deportations were not illegal unless someone had been excessively “diligent.” The tribunal regarded Gy.s report, which had resulted in a man’s execution, as legal, and the members of the tribunal were able to portray the victim, whose name they could not spell and about whom they knew next to nothing, as guilty without any discussion.37

Having been acquitted, Gy. returned to his village. With the help of his family, he found a position at the mine as a clerk. In 1946, he wrote a few lines in Népsport (“People’s Sports”) about the local miners’ soccer team, which was doing well at the time. Few people knew anything about his case. He married the daughter, a girl sixteen years of age, of a prominent local Social Democratic miner who, as a something of an active agitator, paid visits to prisons between 1917 and 1957, under several different political systems. His father-in-law, furthermore, was an important figure of the Social Democratic party in Nógrád, which to an extent broke from “mainstream” Peyer Social Democratic ideas.38 He was present at strikes that were held in the village of Etes during World War I and in the crowd that gathered before the massacre in Salgótarján in 1956. His political activism made him a symbolic figure in the area. Gy. argued about politics with him more than with anyone else.

In 1948, before he emigrated, Székely, the police captain who had interrogated and beaten Gy. in 1945, traveled to Budapest, where he met with the National Soviet of the People’s Tribunals. Gy.’s case was reopened and he was sentenced to ten years of forced labor, though the sentence was changed to imprisonment.39 He was put in the prison on Kozma Street in Budapest, which at the time was one of the strictest prisons in Hungary. I was allowed by the director of the prison to examine prison files that have not yet been turned over to the archives.40 In 1950, the Hungarian State Security Authorities took over control of the building, and there was greater need for space in the cells, which had once been crowded with the accused who had been convicted by the people’s tribunals.41 In early 1950, Gy. was granted amnesty in order to help address the lack of space. Initially, he worked as a barrowman in the mine, but as he was not accustomed to difficult physical labor and was able to write well, with the help of sympathetic souls who had gathered around him, he was given a position—of no great prominence—in an office.42

In 1956, Nógrád, which was regarded as a county rife with the spirit of rebellion, played an important role in national politics, since lack of coal due to the miners’ strike crippled industrial production.43 This is one of the reasons why the first Kádár government strove to restart production by using workers’ councils.44 Gy. was elected by his coworkers to serve as a member of the workers’ council at his workplace.45 Later, the workers’ councils were cast as enemies of the people in the official discourses of the Kádár era. By the end of 1957, the local Social Democrats had also come to be seen or at least cast by the regime as enemies of the people. Gy.’s first important task was to keep them under close watch, and his father-in-law, an old Social Democrat, was the first person of interest.

The Proper Report: Pedagogy of the Oppressed?

Reports and the bureaucratic forms of the reports (i.e. the written reports) were important elements of the “institutionalized culture of complaint,” as several historians have referred to it.46 It is not irrelevant, however, to consider who obtained the right to lodge complaints and how, and whose complaints were actually taken seriously. Anyone whose complaint was taken seriously unavoidably became part of the state exercise of power, since the complaint functioned as the point of departure for the series of measures that were taken by the state. In order for a complaint to taken seriously, it had to be lodged in the proper form, according to the discursive styles of the state bureaucracy. Thus the authors of the reports adopted numerous elements of style and rhetoric in order to ensure that their complaints would be heard. I analyze how these reports actually gave someone the opportunity “to get as close to a public sphere as one is likely to get” under the Kádár regime.47

In this section of my article I argue that the participants in the secret police network, which included the agents (informants), the case officers (who oversaw the work of the agents), and the people who read the reports, sought solutions to the problems of their private lives by presenting them as if they were communal issues. In part as a consequence of this, they blurred the border between the private and public spheres by divulging the details of their private lives, thereby making communal (and therefore state) control seem more acceptable. By revealing details of their private lives, the authors of the reports let the figures of the state bureaucracy into their bedrooms, which they were not actually obliged to do, making their private lives part of the state bureaucracy by seeking solutions, with their reports, to their personal problems. The decision to blabber about one’s private life was for the most part the result of a personal decision on the part of an author seeking to further his or her own personal interests. One of the goals of the network of informants was thus not simply to ensure knowledge of and control over the circles in which the agents moved, but also to transform the informants themselves into bureaucrats on whom the regime could rely. Moreover, the authors of the reports attempted to veil their personal interests by (over)emphasizing their sense of responsibility to the community. In other words, both sides used the secret police network to achieve their goals: the network was used not only by the regime for purposes of surveillance and control, but also the operatives (the case officers and the unofficial informants), who used it in their interests. Indeed, their personal interests were far more important from their perspectives. This raises an important question, namely, who had the right to lodge a personal complaint, and what was the proper manner of doing so.

Gy. was 34 years old when he was recruited as an agent. He had three small children. His older daughter, who had been born while he was in prison, was 9 and was in school. His son, who was 4, had not been accepted to the kindergarten, and his wife took care of their youngest daughter, who was barely more than one year old and who had been born in 1956, during the miners’ strike.48 Gy., who was not terribly accustomed to hard labor in an underground mine, first worked in an office. As of the beginning of 1957, he worked underground, and not just on paper, but in reality, as a barrowman, in three shifts. Workers were given bonus pay for working on Sundays, but in his case this bonus was withheld as punishment. His youngest daughter, who had been born in September 1956, was a year and a half old at the beginning of 1958, when the family was told she could attend the nursery school, which was a modest dream come true for them.49 She was accepted into the nursery soon after Gy. began writing reports. Gy. had many reasons to submit to the regime and write reports: the hope that he might be reassigned to a position in the office, the possibility that he might be able to find employment for his wife, and later the hope that his children would be given places in the nursery and kindergarten, since his wife had fallen gravely ill. (He even made specific mention of the question of admittance to the kindergarten in one of his reports, and the secret police helped him resolve the problem.)

Gy. and his case officer learned, largely in the course of their collaborative work, how to write a good report, and this enabled them to write numerous reports, and at their own initiative. Gy. found it difficult to imitate the style of the reports, and he had hardly had much instruction. As a mining clerk, he had grown accustomed to beginning a text by addressing its projected audience, but obviously he couldn’t address his first case officer, named Ecsegi, as “esteemed lieutenant, Sir,” or “esteemed comrade” because of the conspiracy, because this might imply collusion. He didn’t know quite how to start. In the end, he began his first report in an official tone: “I respectfully report that Sándor B., a resident of the Kossuth neighborhood of Kisterenye […]” This was followed by a brief description of the man in question, “brown-haired, tall,” and then a reference to his health as an identifying feature (he had a limp). The physical description was followed by an important characterization of his political stance, which later became one of Gy.’s favorite formulas: “he is an enemy of the people’s democracy.” This phrase he borrowed from the contemporary propaganda.50

Gy. had to be sure to write something that would be useful and incriminating, for he must have feared that if he were to submit a useless report, he himself might be dragged off to prison, as he had been in 1948 and as his coworkers had been after 1956. He was very afraid of prison. According to his wife, “he was badly beaten, he did not engage in politics.”51 However, of the members of his family, he engaged in politics more intensively than anyone else at that time.

Gy. provided—probably in response to a specific request—a dramatic description of a dialogue just before the Salgótarján massacre that he had heard more than a year earlier: “the aforementioned went over to the shaft [of the mine] and made the following declaration: ‘everyone out of the engine room and off to [Salgó]Tarján. Your place is there. Anyone who doesn’t come is an enemy of the people.’”52 Then another cliché regarding the enemy, which this time he put in the mouth of the enemy so that it would be understandable. Gy. submitted reports that clearly resembled denunciations. He thereby managed to ensure that his reports would be read and taken seriously, even if he wasn’t able to imitate the styles of the official discourse perfectly, and that he would be praised for his diligence.

Gy. managed to exceed expectations when completing his next task as well. His task, which was intended as a good warm-up for the novice agent, was to provide descriptions of the characters of two Social Democrats who were well-known in the village. The first of these two men was Gy.’s father-in-law himself, who was almost seventy years old, and Gy. provided a detailed characterization indeed. The warm-up task in other cases was also not something unusual, since first he had to learn the bureaucratic rules of the genre and the form of the report. In 1957, every Social Democrat was regarded as an enemy of the party, as they were seen as people who might insight workers to strike. Gy.s’ report on his father-in-law was not restrained. “He is right-wing in his biases, someone who is not pleased by the fact that the Communists are in power,” he wrote, in the precise handwriting he had learned in the higher elementary school. And in order to ensure that his audience appreciated his achievement, he added, “he was never pleased by the fact that in the elections in 1945 and then the next elections, MKP [Hungarian Communist Party] […] won. He was always an agitator of the former Social Democrat party.”53 But alongside the political concerns, Gy. also makes frequent mention of personal tensions: “He is very verbose and quarrelsome.”54

Gy. wrote this report at home. In the modest miner’s residence he seems to have found a corner where he could hide his deeds from his three children. He complained, however, that it was difficult for him to write reports in the tight space of his home. “Back home it was hard to write,” he complained. It was difficult to work, and he had not been given an office. His case officer, Ecsegi, liked his style, but Ecsegi’s superior wanted something different: “we must find out, by using the agents, what kinds of connections there are among the old Social Democrats in Kisterenye, Nagybátony, and Salgótarján. Are there any such people at all? Who are these people?”55 In the end, both Ecsegi and Gy. learned what their task was. They did not have to fumble in the dark. Later, the case officer switched the order of the first two reports in the file precisely for this reason. It became clear for them that the Social Democrats were the topic of interest, not the 1956 massacre in Salgótarján.

The third report was the first to bear this word, “Report,” as its title. They finally told Gy. to write this word at the top of the page. Ecsegi told him other things as well. Gy. begins the text with the “my task was to” formula. One of the first Social Democrats Gy. was instructed to observe was his former instructor, the former director of the elementary school in the miner’s settlement, Emil Sümegi, who had taught Gy. to write. Gy. contacted Sümegi, allegedly in order to request assistance ensuring that his four-and-a-half year old son would be given a place in the kindergarten. In his report, Gy. complains about the difficulty he faced securing a place for his child in the school: “When the enrollments were going on, on September 1, 1957 my son’s application was rejected. I asked him to dictate a petition to the Minister of Education or somewhere. I very much want him to be allowed to attend the school, since he cries about how badly he wants to be a kindergarten pupil. It would be easier for us too, his parents, if the task of caring for one of the children were entrusted to the kindergarten. He replied to my request by saying that we Social Democrats are oppressed.” (underlined in the original) Ecsegi found this last half-sentence of the text important, and he underlined it. The link between the agent’s task, his complaint, and his personal interest is clear.

Gy. wrote down Sümegi’s contention, according to which any petition authored by him would be rejected, no matter where he sent it. (Sümegi was mistaken in this, the secret police may have intervened, since in the end the boy was admitted to the kindergarten.) The question of the boy’s enrollment in the kindergarten became an issue with implications relevant to national politics, since according to their dialogue ultimately the issue depended on whether or not it was worthwhile to submit any petition regarding admittance to the school. According to Gy., Sümegi said the following: “In any event let’s wait for the Bulganin peace proposal.56 If they can reach an agreement, then elections will be held with oversight, and then we Social Democrats will win.” Following their discussion of the question of enrollment, Gy. asked Sümegi about his views of the peace negotiations. The last sentence of the report caught Ecsegi’s attention: “for the moment we must wait.” Clearly, the implication—that the retired Social Democratic instructor had been waiting for the opportune moment to topple Soviet power in a small village in Hungary—was absurd, but also useful to Ecsegi, since Sümegi was also a functionary of the system. Ecsegi found the report on Sümegi so important that he soon told Gy. to pay him another visit. Sümegi’s opinion, however, was not important because the authorities actually feared him, but rather because he too was an “agent of the department of internal affairs,” as Ecsegi wrote in his assessment of the report. So his political reliability and political inclinations were important from the perspective of his reports.57 Gy. and Sümegi were used to keep tabs on each other, while the two of them both used the network of connections to serve their interests (for instance the question of gaining admittance for a child to the kindergarten).

As his next task, Gy. was told to monitor the actions of four Social Democrats. He filled more than five pieces of paper with his observations. The possibility of gaining admittance for his child to the kindergarten made him particularly diligent.58 Like his report on his father-in-law, his report on the four Social Democrats also began with the “my task was to” formula (he only later adopted the practice of writing in the third-person singular in order to mislead the enemy years). Gy. began to think of himself as a person of no small importance. He was less afraid, and sometimes he even tried to save or help others. The more politically passive someone was, the more the network of power liked this. In his reports, Gy. noted someone’s political passiveness if he sought to avoid causing the person grief. According to him, in the depths of the mine “the current session of the National Assembly came up.” This observation regarding what transpired in the mines was seen as particularly significant, in part because it had been made by Gy. at his own initiative. It had not been part of one of his explicit tasks. He was therefore given a different shift in the mine so that he would be able to observe others while they worked. He was also given a raise.

The text of his next report, which was written less than two months after the first one, is testimony to his development as an agent.59 He had something to say. He wrote almost four pages of observations. A good half of his remarks did not directly involve the instructions he had been given and were introduced with the formula, “and in addition I note that…” He provided an account of the ball that was held in the mining community and the profiteering that was allegedly underway involving the sale of wine. In a manner that was thinly veiled at best, Gy. began to use the reports as a forum with which to take steps to improve his life and the lives of those around him. Like a king in disguise, he sought to dispense justice, or at least this is the portrait he paints of himself in the reports.

The detailed description of the costume ball was Gy.’s first carefully thought-out composition in which he himself chose the subject of his report. He wrote a kind of self-standing denunciation within the framework of the report. There are no surviving family pictures of the ball, but there are pictures of the ball that was held the following year. In the pictures, Gy. and the members of his family can be seen wearing their costumes. Gy. is dressed in traditional ceremonial Hungarian attire. His oldest daughter is dressed as one of the odalisque’s of the Turkish pasha. There is a picture of his wife and her younger sister. In his denunciation, Gy. stands up for the crowd at the ball with his contention that Dobrocsi and Ogulin, a miner and a retired miner who were in charge of serving the wine and spirits, were turning a personal profit on the wine. As a conscientious consumer he took a stand and used his connections, though this stance, of course, was little more than a discursive posture that he adopted in order to achieve his personal goals. In fact, Gy. himself could have served the wine, instead of the two “profiteers,” since he and his father-in-law had a good relationship with a wine-grower in the city of Verpelét (a village that was known in the region for its fine wines). The issue at hand was a question of business interests. According to Gy,’s report, “many people say that Dobrocsi and his lot charge as much as they want for wine.” Gy. sometimes also breaks the rule according to which he should use the third-person singular: “On one occasion I asked for a wine spritzer […] Gy. also asked for a wine spritzer, but they didn’t give him one because there was no soda water.” In order to attain his goal, he even adopted a rather underhanded strategy and referred in his report not only to the alleged profiteering, but also to the acts Dobrocsi and Ogulin had (purportedly) committed in 1956 during the Revolution. According to his report, in 1956 they had “transported the drinks, the wine and brandy.”

Gy. wanted to play a central role among the “sport friends” (this was the term that was used for the regular spectators at the soccer games and the people who participated in the organizational work related to the team). After 1956, however, his chances were not good, given his political past. However, years later he became the president of the local soccer division, which was important because at the time as many as 1,000 people might attend a given match, i.e. half of the population of the mining town. The soccer games were the most important social events, after the miners’ balls.60 It’s possible that he accused Dobrocsi of wrongdoing because Dobrocsi, who lived with his family next to the soccer field and across from the sports club, was doing a bit better than he was. He was accused of embezzlement from his workplace, though his daughter and his widow have no recollection of any sanctions or punishment.61 Gy.’s report did not bring about the result he had hoped for, though officer Ecsegi did send it on to the criminal division.

When the threat of a possible strike had been averted, Gy. was given another range of duties. He was charged with the task of observing his old “bird-of-a-feather colleagues,” the former sympathizers of the Arrow Cross. He had to report on people who were regarded as “Arrow Cross” or “gendarmes.” Since he himself was on file as a “bird-of-a-feather” (in spite of the fact that he was also considered a Social Democrat because of his father-in-law), he knew who the authorities were thinking about.

In his reports, Gy. frequently recounts how, in the course of soccer matches, he would begin conversations with the people under observation in order to learn more about their political views. The Salgótarján soccer team was one of the best teams outside of Budapest at the time. As a supporter of the local team, the organizer of the various tasks regarding the its upkeep was able to chat with almost anyone about the games, and he could use these opportunities to discover details about people’s political views, even the people who were the most reluctant to talk on the subject. Gy. sought to cast aspersions on one of the local “petty monarchs,” a man name Racskó, whom he portrayed as someone loyal to the old system.62 Thus, he was able to present himself as a righter of wrongs, who was acting not in his own personal interests, but rather in the interests of the community, even if there was some overlap between the two.


As an examination of the early reports submitted by Gy. reveals, in order to attain his goals he first had to learn the style necessary in order to write reports that would be met with interest among the authorities. Later he attempted to portray his work, which was done primarily in the service of his interests, as a kind of process of dispensing justice, a process that was, according to his depiction, closely tied to the exigencies of the state. But loyalty alone would not have been enough to have enabled him to obtain admittance for his child to the kindergarten with the help of the department of internal affairs, or later, in the 1970s, to get permission for a private enterprise of his son. When he wanted to achieve a specific goal, he began to go into copious detail, and he transformed his reports into denunciations, sometimes using articles in the local newspaper for help. On other occasions, when he submitted reports that were curt and offered little detail, this could be interpreted as a form of political passiveness, and he also helped others avoid the wrath of the authorities by characterizing them as politically passive, which at the time was the kindest thing one could say about someone under observation by the state. He portrayed himself as politically passive as well, though by submitting reports he continuously influenced the lives of those around him, since he often steered their conversations in the direction of politics specifically because he had been charged with the task of doing so. He was a bureaucrat without a desk or office. His “friendships” were little more than official affairs. The details of his reports, which were intended to demonstrate his aptness for the role, were as much a part of the game as the reports written in self-defense, the primary goal of which was to ensure that he himself would not be seen as responsible for anything. An act of vengeance motivated by envy (in the case of alleged profiteering with wine) was written in the style of a petition, however, so that it would be sure to catch the attention of the authorities.

He was as passionate in his denunciations of the local “petty monarchs” (people who played influential local roles because of their access to political power) as he was in his purported role as the defender of the oppressed and defenseless. In the state bureaucracy, which followed characteristically paternalistic traditions, this mode of administration was entirely commonplace and long-standing. In practical affairs, archaic rhetoric that rested on references to supporters and principles that were little more than matters of terminology harmonized perfectly well with Communist ideology because of the inclination of communist thinking in a normative system.

One of the recurring questions historians who deal with the communist era must address is whether or not the “ordinary people” whose cooperation was instrumental to the functioning of the state actually identified with or how far accepted the goals of that state.63 According to the totalitarian paradigm, the state and the citizen were locked in a struggle like David and Goliath, and in the end the weaker but more clever and cunning of the two would triumph. These are stories of oppression and resistance, the stories of perpetrators and victims, stories the in adequacies of which, as narratives of the past, have already been clearly shown time and time again by representatives of the so-called revisionist school of Sovietology. Gy.’s story and the texts he crafted clearly illustrate that the personal decisions of ordinary people and the methods they used in order to achieve their aims influenced the functioning of the state. Furthermore, the self-portrayals and discourses of the people who used the system for personal advantage also changed, since the acceptance of the rules of the game left its mark on them. The Kádár system, which maintained power in part by searching for compromises, nonetheless still rested on essentially Stalinist principles, though it gave the people who took part in the mechanics of the system the impression that they could exert an influence on it. The sense of an open (or at least somewhat open) public sphere contributed to this, as did the (pseudo) debates in the press or the apparent attention that was given to the reports submitted by the informants who helped the state security forces. All of this provided new energies for the everyday workings of the system, which thus enjoyed a significantly greater degree of acceptance and stability by the 1960s than it had before 1956. Ultimately, to the extent that the Kádár regime represented a rupture with the classic Stalinism of the early 1950s, this break lay in its more perceptive grasp of people’s everyday lives and inclinations and the discourses on experience.64 The denunciations bundled into the reports offered an opportunity for an agent to realize personal aims as if he or she were fighting in the interests of the larger community and sought to take part in the functioning of the state by playing an active role in politics. Dispensing justice like a king in disguise, the agent, who was thus a representative of political power, would obtain his goals by alternately pursuing personal aims and playing the necessary bureaucratic roles. This not only strengthened the appearance of the legitimacy of the state, but also made the role of an agent acceptable to people who portrayed themselves as if they were writing reports on the community (including relatives and neighbors) in the very interests of that community.


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Szomszéd, András. Zagyva mentén “egybekelvén”. Bátonyterenye [Married by the River Zagyva. Bátonyterenye]. Bátonyterenye: Önkormányzat, 2002.

Szvircsek, Ferenc. Bányászkönyv [Miner’s Book]. Salgótarján: Nógrád Megyei Múzeum, 2000.

Varga, László Á., ed. 1956 Nógrád megyei kronológiája és személyi adattára: a forradalom eseményei és aktív szereplői a megyében [Chronology and Personal Documentation of 1956 in Nógrád County: the Events and Active Participants of the Revolution in the County]. 2 Vols. Salgótarján: Nógrád Megyei Levéltár, 1996.

Verdery, Katherine. Secrets and Truths: Ethnography in the Archive of Romania’s Secret Police. Budapest: CEU Press, 2014.

Veress D., Csaba. “A II. világháború hadműveletei Fejér megyében (1944. december 3 – 1945. március 23.)” [Military Operations of the WWII in Fejér County, December 3, 1944–March 23, 1945]. In Harcok és bűnök [Fights and Crimes], edited by József Csurgai Horváth, Tamás Tihanyi, and Csaba Veress D., 7–165. Székesfehérvár: Fejér Megyei Önkormányzat, 2002.

1 More on the Kádár regime see János M. Rainer, Bevezetés a kádárizmusba (Budapest: 1956-os Intézet–L’Harmattan Kiadó, 2011); György Majtényi, “What Made the Kádár Era?,” The Hungarian Historical Review 2, no. 3 (2013): 667–75; and Majtényi’s seminal book regarding the social functions of the Kádár cult. György Majtényi, Vezércsel. Kádár János mindennapjai (Budapest: Libri Kiadó, 2012).

2 Állambiztonsági Szolgálatok Történeti Levéltára [Historical Archives of the Hungarian State Security Services, hereafter: ÁSzTL]. M-42230/1-3.

3 More on the local history of 1956: 1956 Nógrád megyei kronológiája és személyi adattára: a forradalom eseményei és aktív szereplői a megyében, ed. László Á. Varga (Salgótarján: Nógrád Megyei Levéltár, 1996).

4 Karl P. Benziger, “The Funeral of Imre Nagy: Contested History and the Power of Memory Culture,” History and Memory 12, no. 2 (Fall/Winter 2000): 142–64; Gábor Ittzés, “Ritual and National Self-Interpretation: The Nagy Imre Funeral,” Religion and Society in Central and Eastern Europe, 1 (November 2005), accessed February 3, 2015, http://www.rascee.net/index.php/rascee/article/view/26/7.

5 This study is a part of a larger monograph based on the life story of Gy. with the support of program number K-104408 of the Hungarian Scientific Research Fund (OTKA).

6 Michael Shafir, “Memory and History in Postcommunism: Preliminary Theoretical Remarks,” Sfera Politicii 120–121–122 (2006), accessed December 15, 2014, http://www.sferapoliticii.ro/sfera/120-121-122/art21-shafir.html.

7 On lustration in Eastern European see: Herman Schwartz, “Lustration in Eastern Europe,” Parker School Journal of East European Law 1 (1994): 141–71; Lavinia Stan, “The Vanishing Truth? Politics and Memory in Post-Communist Europe,” East European Quarterly 40 (2006): 392–410; Maria Lo, “Lustration and Truth Claims: Unfinished Revolutions in Central Europe,” Law and Social Inquiry 20 (1995): 117–61; Alexander Mayer-Rieckh and Pablo de Greiff, eds., Justice as Prevention: Vetting Public Employees in Transitional Societies (New York: Social Science Research Council, 2007); Encyclopedia of Transitional Justice, ed. Lavinia Stan and Nadya Nedelsky (Cambridge–New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

8 Katherine Verdery, Secrets and Truths: Ethnography in the Archive of Romania’s Secret Police (Budapest: CEU Press, 2014), 17.

9 For more on the state policy regarding industrial workers during the 1950s, especially at the beginning of the Kádár era, see: Mark Pittaway, The Workers’ State: Industrial Labor and the Making of Socialist Hungary, 1944–1958 (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012).

10 Ferenc Szvircsek, Bányászkönyv (Salgótarján: Nógrád Megyei Múzeum, 2000), 403.

11 Magyar Nemzeti Levéltár Országos Levéltára [Hungarian National Archives, hereafter: MNL]. XXXII-23-a 1970. évi népszámlálás [National Census Records, 1970]. Nógrád, Kisterenye, 1970. évi. 019 számlálókörzet anyagai.

12 MNL Nógrád Megyei Levéltár [Nógrád County Archive], hereafter: NML. XXXIII. Anyakönyvi kivonatok másodpéldányai. Születési anyakönyvek. [Duplicates of Registration Cerficiates. Birth Certificates]. Zagyvapálfalva. 1915–1924.

13 Most of these details could be reconstructed from the registers of birth and recollections of family members. Interviews with Mrs. Gy., Veronika G., the widow of Gy., and Mrs. M. Ilonka G., his sister-in-law. Interviews were done by the author in October 2011 in Kisterenye.

14 NML. XXXIII. Duplicates of registration certificates. Registers of births. Zagyvapálfalva, Kisterenye.

15 Zoltán Szabó, Cifra nyomorúság [“Poverty in Fine Dress”] (Budapest: Cserépfalvi, 1938), 88–89.

16 As the general manager of the Mátraaljai Coal Mines, he was awarded numerous state distinctions. In 1988, many complaints were lodged against him, and indeed this was even mentioned at sittings of the party committee. MNL. Heves Megyei Levéltár. XXXV. 22/2. Sittings of the Heves County Party Committee of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party. 14. box 187. custody section: Minutes of the Sitting of the Party Committee, March 31, 1988. 129.

17 NML. Balassagyarmati Büntető Törvényszék. XXV. 4 c. B 273/1954.

18 NML. VIII. 287. g. Documents of the Elementary School of the Mining Company of Kisterenye-Chorin. Attendance books.

19 Emil’s Sümegi’s letter quoted in András Szomszéd, Zagyva mentén “egybekelvén”. Bátonyterenye (Bátonyterenye: Önkormányzat, 2002), 134.

20 M-42230/1. 85­–86 and ÁSZTL. 3.1.9. V-150373. Summary report on the armed counter-revolutionary groups and organizations of Nógrád County. March 23, 1959, 81.

21 NML. VIII. 202. A Pásztói Állami Polgári Fiú- és Leányiskola iratai. Anyakönyvek. (=Pásztói Polgári anyakönyvek). 4. d. 1934–1935 második b osztály anyakönyve.

22 Nándor Pintér, Ferenc Vincze, and István Csépány, Pásztó története (Pásztó: a Pásztói Községi Tanács Végrehajtó Bizottsága, 1970), 37–39.

23 Pásztói Polgári Értesítője 1934–1935, 2–3; 34­–35.

24 Ibid., 7–8.

25 NML. VIII. 604. A Pásztói Kereskedelmi Szaktanfolyam iratai, benne a polgári iskolákra is vonatkozó körlevelek 1. d. Körlevél az egységes iskolai imádság bevezetése tárgyában, April 20, 1936.

26 Pásztói Polgári Értesítője, 1936–1937, 5.

27 See Tibor Péter Nagy, A növekvő állam árnyékában. Oktatás, politika 1867–1945 (Budapest: Gondolat, 2011), 312–13.

28 Recollections of his widow. Interview done by the author in October 2011.

29 MÁV Irattár. 7352/1942. Csontos István főraktárnok jelentése, Miskolc, March 2, 1942.

30 For more on the battles near this front line see: Csaba Veress D., “A II. világháború hadműveletei Fejér megyében (1944. december 3 – 1945. március 23.),” in Harcok és bűnök, ed. József Csurgai Horváth, Tamás Tihanyi, and Csaba Veress D. (Székesfehérvár: Fejér Megyei Önkormányzat, 2002), 115–18.

31 MÁV Irattár. Szmolánka László szolgálati aktája; MÁV Irattár. 290/1940. Bánhegyi István. Áthelyezések Kárpátalja területéről. A Magyar Királyi Államvasutak igazgatóságának bizalmas levele valamennyi üzletvezetőségnek. 1940. július 24.

32 Budapest Municipal Archives (=BFL) XXV. 2-b. People’s Prosecutor of Budapest. Criminal Cases. Documents of the Criminal Case of Gy. 689/1948. consolidated with 88425/1949. Confession of the Station Master of Mezősi.

33 MNL. Fejér County Archive (=FML) XXIV. 18. Székesfehérvár Városi Rendőrkapitányság Általános Iratok, 1.d.

34 ÁSzTL. 3.2.5. “Colorado” O-8-018/1. 520. Jelentés Székely György százados ügyéről. Sütöry Lajos áv. ny. alhadgy. Székesfehérvár, 1950. július 10.

35 FML. IV. 402. Fejér Vármegye Törvényhatósági Bizottságának iratai. Közgyűlés. 1945. szeptember 26.

36 FML. XXIV. 18. Székesfehérvár Városi Rendőrfőkapitányság. Általános iratok. 1.d; FML. XVII. 401. Fejér Vármegye Központi és Székesfehérvár Járási 3. sz. Igazoló Bizottság. 1. d. 22/1945. Törvényszéki alkalmazottak. Boda József, a Gy. ügyében tanácsvezető bíró életrajza az igazolási eljáráshoz.

37 BFL. XXV. 2-b. Budapesti Népügyészség. Büntetőügyek. 689/1948. On the functions of people’s courts in Hungary and in Eastern Europe see: The Politics of Retribution in Europe: World War II and Its Aftermath, ed. István Deák, Jan T. Gross, and Tony Judt (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000); and recently Ildikó Barna and Andrea Pető, Political Justice Budapest after World War II (Budapest: CEU Press, 2014).

38 BFL. XXV. 1.a. Budapesti Népbíróság. 1949 – 1081. G. János ügye.

39 BFL. XXV. 2-b. Budapesti Népügyészség. Büntetőügyek. 689/1948. Nb XII. 802/1948/2. Ítélet. 1948. október 15.

40 Budapesti Fegyház és Börtön Irattára. Fegyencnapló 3296-3599. No. 3299.

41 Ibid., Napi parancsok. 1947–1952.

42 The source of his precise position: NML. XXIX. 681. I. A. 16. Nógrádi Szénbányászati Tröszt (NSZB). Újlaki bányaüzem. Csigai lejtősakna. Kisterenye. NSZB. Baleset-jelentőkönyv.

43 László Á. Varga, ed., 1956 Nógrád megyei kronológiája és személyi adattára: a forr. eseményei és aktív szereplői a megyében (Salgótarján: Nógrád Megyei Levéltár, 1996).

44 One of the functions of the worker council’s from the point of view of the government at the end of 1956 was to start industrial production in the wake of several strikes; however, for the most part they did not fulfill this task. For more on this see: Pittaway, The Workers’ State, 230­–56.

45 ÁSzTL. V-141818. Vizsgálati dosszié Filep Lajos ügyében; ÁSzTL. O­–15325. 1a. 487–88.

46 Cf. Joachim Staadt, Eingaben: Die institutionalisierte Meckerkultur in der DDR (Berlin: Forschungsverbund SED-Staat, 1996); Paul Betts, Within Walls: Private Life in the German Democratic Republic (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 173.

47 Sheila Fitzpatrick, “Supplicants and Citizens: Public Letter-Writing in Soviet Russia in the 1930s”, Slavic Review 55, no. 1 (Spring 1996), 78. Fitzpatrick raises this question regarding the Stalinist period of the 1930s.

48 NML. Kisterenyei születési anyakönyvi kivonatok.

49 Recollection of Veronika Gy., Gy.’s widow.

50 ÁSzTL. M-42230. 59–60. Gy.’s report of December 22, 1957.

51 Recollection of Veronika Gy., Gy.’s widow. Interview made by the author October 25, 2011 in Kisterenye.

52 ÁSzTL. M-42230. 59–60. Gy.’s report of December 22, 1957.

53 The 1945 national elections in the village were won by the Hungarian Communist Party (MKP: 46.5%). The Independent Smallholders’ Party (FKgP) got only 28.5% of the vote and the Social Democrats only 21.2%. Szomszéd, Zagyva mentén “egybekelvén”, 140–41.

54 Ibid.

55 Ibid., 54.

56 For more on this conflict (accessed February 15, 2015), see: http://web.stanford.edu/group/tomzgroup/pmwiki/uploads/200-1956-11-KS-f-LIZ.pdf.

57 ÁSzTL. M-42230. 85­–86.

58 Ibid., 64–69. Gy.’s report of January 30, 1958.

59 Ibid., 73–76.

60 Recollections of János V., deputy-president of the local soccer division. Interview done by the author. October 25, 2011 in Kisterenye.

61 Recollections of Dobrocsi’s widow and daughter. Interview done by the author with Mrs. István Dobrocsi (1919) and her daughter, Mrs. Gábor O. (1942), October 21, 2011, Budapest.

62 ÁSzTL. M-42230. 95–96. Report of March 27, 1958.

63 See John Connelly’s inquiry on this matter with regards to Nazi Germany, John Connelly, “The Uses of Volksgemeinschaft,” The Journal of Modern History 68, no. 4. (December 1996): 899–930.

64 Cf. János M. Rainer, Bevezetés a kádárizmusba (Budapest: 1956-os Intézet–L’Harmattan Kiadó, 2011), 144.

Volume 4 Issue 1 CONTENTS

­pdfAlexander Mirescu

A Curious Case of Cooperation and Coexistence: Church–State Engagement and Oppositional Free Spaces in Communist Yugoslavia and East Germany


The communist parties of Eastern Europe sought to organize power relations to preclude potential opposition. While successful in aligning society, the economy, culture, education and politics in party institutions, East Germany and Yugoslavia approached the execution of religious policy from a contrasting perspective. Unable to marginalize religion completely, the party and national churches entered into a vibrant, incentives-based back-and-forth. Over time, Church–state accommodation crystallized, producing Church-based free spaces located outside of the standard communist power structure. However, the ways in which East Germany and Yugoslavia engaged their churches generated different forms of Church-based free space, which, by the late 1980s, produced variegated forms of anti-communist opposition.


Keywords: Eastern Europe, Civil Society, Church, Communism, Religious Policy, Nationalism, Oppositional Movements


Government policy affects the spaces in which social actors work, designates and delineates boundaries and creates distinguishable spheres in which stakeholders act. While laws and legislation demonstrate where the lines of acceptable political behavior lie, often they are subject to negotiation, mutual agreements or contentious dispute. These back-and-forth exchanges produce policies that rarely remain static. Over time, fluid, dynamic relationships evolve between key stakeholders and elites, which further modify the policy’s trajectory, opening doors for new interpretations and new modes of acting.

Even in communist East Germany (GDR) and Yugoslavia, where authority was concentrated in single-party authoritarianism, power relations were neither a one-way street, nor were they monopolistic. There was one policy arena, in which one finds an illustrative example of fluid two-way, agent-to-agent engagement and cooperation: the arena of Church–state relations. Despite times of marginalization and suppression, it was the only policy arena that necessitated negotiation and active quid pro quo.1 This study claims that decision-making processes in East German and Yugoslav Church-state relations led to variegated forms of Church-based oppositional free spaces, in which people were able to plant the seeds of opposition to the legitimacy of communist rule.2 In this essay, I claim that if religious policy allows Churches to influence social issues, it is more likely that free spaces will emerge in which principles of non-violence, peaceful resolution and human rights prevail, and these spaces may play active roles in mediation in times of unrest. If, however, religious policy excludes the Church on issues of social policy, this will lead to the emergence of free spaces, the actors of which will be less loyal and less invested as social stakeholders. Since its intermediary role is thwarted, the Church will be less interested in liberal-democratic reform and will make fewer demands based on non-violence, inclusion and peace.

Religion policy and Church–state engagement under a communist regime was highly unique. The GDR and Yugoslav communist regimes devoted tremendous human and financial resources to the regulation of religious life, entrusting the various tasks to state secretariats, commissions for religious affairs, and security agencies. Despite their monopoly on authority, these regimes were never monolithic and, in turn, Churches were never passive victims. Rather, there arose a pragmatic exchange and vibrant Church-state dialogue based on negotiated responses to incentives: the state needed the Church for popular legitimacy, the consolidation of power and international credibility, while the Church was dependent on the state for material goods, social services and sheer survival. Neither could function properly without the other, so a symbiotic necessity emerged, marked by micro-level discussions, communiqués, backroom deals and public deliberations. This fluid quality was the fundamental mechanism that linked a set of conditions to the outcome of free spaces.3

Categorizing Conditions of Church–State Engagement

The first set of conditions accounts for the initial types of religious policy from 1945 to the early 1950s. The end of the Second World War constituted a clear historical break from the recent past and a new political existence for the GDR and Yugoslavia. Each state approached its Churches in unique ways, while trying to solidify the supremacy of the Communist Party. In the Soviet Zone of Occupation (hereafter, SBZ) that would become East Germany, German communists needed to have a steady hand in navigating the chaotic post-war waters. The Communist Party (hereafter, SED) was institutionally weak and lacked popular support. Hence, it sought to avoid unnecessary challenges from the Church in an effort to build support. As a type of participatory religious policy, the SED extended an olive branch to the Church and publicly supported its participation in the establishment of the new state.

Yugoslav religious policy from 1945 to the mid-1950s can be characterized as extremely repressive. Since Tito’s partisans had secured Western support in their struggle against fascism, their power base required less consolidation in the post-war period. Still, Yugoslav communists viewed religious institutions with trepidation since some segments of the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC) and, more notably, the Catholic Church had aligned themselves with anti-Yugoslav forces. Yugoslav religious policy in this initial period, by virtue of its repressiveness, re-entrenched the Churches in a critical posture vis-à-vis the state, giving them no other options but to embrace nationalism.

The second condition accounts for how the regimes dealt with their national Churches from the mid-1950s to the late-1980s. As public dissent against the regime and repression of the Church became repetitive, party leaders were forced to employ different methods to pacify unrest and suppress challenges to their authority. As a means of restoring order and preserving a good international reputation, the option emerged to engage the Church as the only mediator between the state and protestors. As multiple incidents of protest and unrest occurred and as non-Church oppositional groups sought protection in Church spaces, communicative cooperation between Church and state became more robust.4 Each profited from this back-and-forth relationship: the state was able to re-establish its authority, while the Church received considerable concessions and established its role as chief mediator, thereby becoming useful to the state and indeed almost indispensable.

Within this second typology, my cases bifurcate along two distinct lines: inclusive and exclusionary engagement. Regimes that inclusively engage include their religious groups in ending periods of national unrest make them part of the confidence-building process after periods of violence. Going against Marxist ideology, the East German regimes willingly assigned the Church the role of primary negotiator in mediation. By the late 1980s, as the East German regime reverted to repressive measures against opposition, the Protestant Church carefully articulated liberal-democratic demands, such as respect for human rights, freedom of expression and non-violence, often phrased in masterfully-expressed socialist language. However, since the Protestant Church had experienced significant drops in Church membership, the SED was not constrained to seek out the Church’s good offices for challenges to regime authority. The weak position of the Church meant that inclusive regime engagement was possible. Moreover, East Germany could embrace a more receptive stance to the Church, when its own institutions were unsuccessful in responding to oppositional challenge. This institutional weakness necessitated inclusionary engagement.

Yugoslavia’s exclusionary regime engagement stands in stark contrast. High levels of Church repression from 1945 to 1953 were replaced in the mid-1950s by liberalization and political decentralization within the party and its federal-level and republic-level institutions. After two decades of repression, church life was suddenly allowed to expand, and this opened the door for initial critical expression. Congruent with its refusal to incorporate the Churches into the governance of immediate post-war Yugoslavia, Tito and Yugoslav communists never looked upon Church leaders as mediators in times of unrest. Unable to erase prior repression and having offered a maximum amount of space for Church activity, the regime could neither regain the confidence of the Church, nor could it offer concessions. The regime lost the carrot and the stick. This opened up avenues for Church spaces to embrace critical stances against religious policy by using language and symbols that questioned and ultimately rejected the supra-ethnic Yugoslav mantra of “brotherhood and unity.” Since both the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC) and the Croatian Catholic Church had been thoroughly excluded from statecraft, there was neither significant sympathy nor convincing incentive for them to intervene on behalf of a weakened regime, which they had never viewed as a social partner.

East German Participatory Church–State Engagement: 1945–1953

From its inception, the SED was faced with the daunting task of convincing the public of its socialist mission, while concomitantly discrediting Western democratic legitimacy. Working from such a weakened position in an ideological minefield, it was necessary to concede substantial points from its party platform by acknowledging “a special German road to socialism.”5 SED General-Secretary Erich Honecker reflects:


We calculated that the situation in Germany at that time did not provide the necessary requirements for the immediate establishment of socialism. That’s why the goal of the German Communist Party (KPD) was to create an antifascist, democratic regime, a parliamentary republic with all the democratic rights and freedoms for the people.6


Behind the façade, hardliners altered the party’s institutional core, securing a maximum amount of space in all realms of political, public and private life.7 Religious policy would be the only exception. In July 1946, Central Committee documents demonstrate the policy of the regime of binding the Church to the new state:


Churches have a stake in East Germany’s reconstruction. Their positive cooperation is to be welcomed… Reasonable requests by the Church for the return of occupied Church buildings for religious purposes should receive support from our representatives in administration, in command structures and in the SMAD.8

Spaces for political participation corresponded to physical spaces at the national level. Properties belonging to convicted Nazi party members and estates larger than 100 hectares were summarily brought under governmental administration.9 However, so as not to disturb the delicate Church-state balance, the SED exempted all Church properties from land reforms.10 As a further measure of avoiding confrontation, GDR security organs protected the Church from intervention. In January 1947, Soviet and East German officials established the K-5 security apparatus (a precursor to the Ministry for State Security, or Stasi) under the command of the Soviet–East German Central Administration of the Interior.11 K-5 contained special units for de-Nazification, the elimination of political opponents and monitoring the Evangelical Church.12 To avoid potentially explosive situations, all interaction between K-5 officials and the Church required high-ranking approval from the Ministry of Interior.

Not only were its institutional autonomy and organizational structure left intact, but the Church reclaimed and expanded its pre-war position. Properties confiscated by the Nazis were returned to the Church and theological centers, which had been closed during the war, reassumed full activity.13 The SED granted construction permits for new buildings and provided funding for damaged dioceses.14 With state collection agencies placed at the Church’s disposal, Church coffers were replenished with the reintroduction of Church taxes. Moreover, unlike the other Allied sectors, the Evangelical Church was free to introduce pastoral care service for university students.15 Lastly, Church radio programs, newsletters, periodicals and newspapers further attest to the regime’s desire to avoid conflict with the Church.16

The official founding of the GDR on October 7, 1949 and the period of Stalinization rapidly consolidated party structures and vigorously centralized all state institutions. The SED injected a new ideological moniker in public debate: pacifist policy (Friedenspolitik), upon which it crafted its utopian commitment to the advancement of peace. ‘Peace committees’ and public panel discussions on non-violence were established statewide to disseminate the regime’s pacifist message. Though aimed at external threats, East German pacifism discreetly targeted domestic provocateurs with links to the West.

During this Kirchenkampf period, the repression of the Church became more direct. Seeking to create a cadre of regime-friendly priests, the regime kept them under active surveillance and assessed their attitudes, which were characterized either as progressive or “reactionary” (critical of the regime).17 This would later create fissures among East German bishoprics: Berlin-Brandenburg Bishop Otto Dibelius was a defiant critic of East German communism, while, for example, Bishop of Thüringen, Moritz Mitzenheim, followed a much more conciliatory, less-critical line.18

The 1949 East German constitution guaranteed the separation of Church and state. This afforded the SED a legal justification officially to include Marxist scientific materialism and atheism in all school curricula. This prompted several synods in 1951 to issue letters of protest:


The constitutionally guaranteed right to the freedom of religion is effectively removed, so school lesson plans recognize only historical and dialectical materialism. We realize that belief is not for everyone… but we request that no one be pressured to accept the absence of faith. The freedom of belief in schools can only exist, if instruction in all subjects is carried out in such a way so that Christians and non-Christians can participate with the same amount of personal freedom.19


Still, the SED demonstrated veiled caution by instructing teachers and school directors to “avoid under all circumstances creating the impression of a state-controlled campaign against religion.”20

The SED also pressured the Church to move its headquarters from the British Sector to the territory within GDR borders. Even before the 1949 state declaration, Evangelical leaders refused to recognize inter-zonal borders, since several parishes straddled the frontiers.21 Party leaders demanded a relocation so that

priests in leading positions of the National Front and peace committees will no longer be hindered by restrictions, reprimands and threats from the Church leadership in West Berlin… The ministerial council for the province of Brandenburg is of the opinion that it is no longer tolerable that the West Berlin Church administration threatens its priests, citizens of the GDR, simply because they fight for peace.22

The SED countered with threats of allocating funding only for religious groups that were in SBZ.23 Pastors and theology students from the West were prevented from entering the East.24 While workers easily traveled to their factories in East Berlin, Church employees were singled out as undesirable visitors.

Against this growing tension, high-ranking Evangelical officials agreed on June 6, 1952 to an informal exchange with state representatives in the home of Brandenburg General-Superintendent Braun. Despite the informal nature and the palpable strains, both entities conducted an unexpectedly cordial discussion. The Church emphatically expressed its concerns regarding the wellbeing of its youth, travel restrictions for West Berlin priests and the party-run Free German Youth’s agitation against the Church youth movement (Junge Gemeinde).25 Bishop of Berlin-Brandenburg and chairman of the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany Dibelius unambiguously confirmed the Church’s bond to the Holy Scriptures as its sole source of guidance. He reiterated the independent nature of the Church and its resistance to political manipulation.26 Provincial Vice-Minister Jahn of Brandenburg urged the Church to repeal its 1950 consistorial order blocking priests from joining political groups.27 Though it concluded with little more than a handshake, this micro-level encounter proved that informal agent-to-agent dialogue was not only possible, but would be the necessary mechanism for future interaction and reconciliation.

By 1953, East German mismanagement had produced a struggling, dysfunctional economy that ideologically diverted resources to heavy industry instead of addressing consumer needs, and this in turn created shortages of basic goods and food, as well as prohibitive taxes. Over 330,000 young, educated members of the East German workforce left for the West. Due to overzealous goals, the SED brought the country to near economic collapse. According to an SED document, Ulbricht recognized the possible gains to be won from policy “liberalization”:


It is not necessarily effective to lead a campaign of protest resolutions and demonstrations against Church leadership. Instead of intervening in religious events and Church services, religious policy should publish concrete evidence of the subversive activity of individual priests.”28 We are neither leading a Church conflict, nor do we recognize any such Church conflict. We are simply looking for certain bases of the enemy… And when the Church positions itself in solidarity with such people, well then it’s too bad for the Church.29


Ulbricht and other high-ranking SED officials were ordered to report to Moscow on June 2, 1953. Fearing a collapse of the GDR, the Soviet Council of Ministers demanded a reversal of SED Church-state relations.30 As a result, the SED announced a high-level church-state summit scheduled for June 10, 1953, just days before the June 17, 1953 Berlin Workers Revolt. However, the eleventh-hour implementation of the Council’s orders proved to be insufficient in averting the revolt.31

Leading up to 1953, the Evangelical Church expanded its position and social presence to levels not seen since before the Third Reich and, as the only other significant social stakeholder, it tacitly participated in the formation of the new state. Moreover, the regime’s calculated policy of non-confrontation allowed the Church to maintain institutional autonomy in its decision-making processes, social outreach and public activities. By actively seeking out the Church’s support in crafting a new, socialist German state, the SED’s overarching design of integration produced only low-levels of anxiety among its decision-makers. At the time of Stalin’s death in March 1953, Church-based free spaces were intact and vibrant.

East German Inclusive Engagement from 1953–1989

As part of the SED’s inclusive engagement, two salient features emerged in this period. Firstly, the state sought to elevate socialism above religion by coopting progressive pastors from ones that were critical of the regime. This policy of differentiation gave rise to the second feature of this period: conciliatory, cooperative factions in Church ranks, which led to visible fissures among Church leaders. Inclusive engagement could take place with a weakened Church not only because secularization became an increasingly measurable characteristic of East German society after the mid-1950s, but also because the state had succeeded in changing people’s attitudes toward religion.

State-lead high-level talks of June 10, 1953 signaled the adoption of an approach based more on dialogue. The resulting communiqué codified an agreement, whereby both entities negotiated a halt in all repressive action against Church youth. Imprisoned Church members were released without delay32 and students who had been expelled or blacklisted could resume their studies.33 Teachers, sacked based on religious belief, were reinstated.34 The Central Committee also promised to refrain from intervening in Church institutions.35 In exchange, Church leaders agreed to temper their reproaches of the regime, limit the use of the pulpit and retract their criticisms of economic and political life.36 Leaders from Church and state together released a joint statement celebrating the fruitful discussions, in which the regime had re-instated the Church as a social stakeholder.37

The June talks proved to be nothing more than a stopgap measure. Stasi directives reveal that it maintained its prior characterization of Church leaders as “reactionary, imperialist intelligence agents working in support of criminal activities against the GDR.”38 Open conflict with the Church was to be replaced with a covert, operative approach: publicly demonstrating willingness to engage in dialogue, while remaining inwardly uncompromising.

In 1954, alongside the Ministry of Interior, other state institutions were to craft religious policy. The Department for Church Relations served as the government mediator between the General-Secretary, the politburo, the Central Committee and the Church. The regime then established the Working Group for Church Questions of the SED’s Central Committee (die Arbeitsgruppe für Kirchenfragen or AK), which was to handle Church–state relations, monitor the political activities of religious groups and report their findings directly to the highest levels of government. While the AK set the overall policy tone,39 the Council of Ministers created the State Secretariat for Church Questions (SSCQ) in 1957, which served as the state contact and intermediary for Church leaders.40

By 1960, several theologians began to search for an identity in the now solidified Communist state. Günter Jacob, Evangelical General-Superintendent of Cottbus, introduced the first interpretations of the Scriptures into the Church–state debate. By liberating itself from political manipulation, the Church could create a space for itself in which “the true, apolitical message of the Evangelical scriptures” could find expression.41 At an extraordinary session of the EKD 1956 Synod in Berlin, the Union of Evangelical Priests in the GDR (Bund evangelischer Pfarrer der DDR or BEP-DDR) claimed that “concessions for greater religious freedoms within the realm of dialectical Marxist authority” were only possible if the individual… respected and reciprocally recognized the given borders between public life and the space of pure religion.”42


We are separate from any hyphenated-form of Christianity, unbound from a fantastical, civic-capitalist system, foreign to Evangelicals. We seek neither to be a center of conspiracy, nor a state-run propaganda institute. Rather, we in the BEP-DDR seek to offer brotherly help, to ponder theologically the existential question of the Church in our republic and at the same time to be active as loyal and responsible GDR citizens. This union works for freedom in the world and supports the efforts of the German Democratic Republic towards this end, while being obligated to the social renewal that is taking place in the GDR.43


The Church’s contribution to the new path took form in the first observable expressions of a Kirche im Sozialismus, a position that was neither supportive of the regime, nor ostensibly against the regime, but rather existed parallel to it.

Due to the SED’s initial skepticism, Church leaders sent a delegation led by bishops from Thuringia and Pomerania to participate in discussions with the Ministry of Interior, SSCQ and the Council of Ministers.44 The delegates at the Church–state talks agreed to a monumental joint communiqué on July 21, 1958. Unlike the June 10, 1953 agreement, the church successfully weakened the state. The Church offered its most demonstrative statement yet:


The representatives of the Evangelical Church in the GDR declare that the Church, with all means at its disposal, strives for peace amongst all peoples and hence is principally in agreement with the peaceful efforts of the GDR and its government. In accordance with their conscience, Christians shall fulfill their civic duties based on the legal foundations. They respect the socialist development and shall contribute to the peaceful construction of civic life.45


Short of declaring loyalty, the Church recognized the existing political conditions and Marxist socialism. Regime officials promised only to review certain measures taken in public education and reiterated their constitutional responsibility to protect the rights of religious practice.46 This stood in stark contrast to the 1953 point-by-point retraction of repressive measures against the Church. The policy of differentiation had accomplished its goals. Church membership and congregations fell rapidly throughout the 1950s and 1960s.47 Only one-third of the children from religious households were confirmed in the Church, while the Jugendweihe exploded in popularity from 26 percent of school classes in 1955 to over 80 percent in 1960.48 With the beginning of the construction of the Berlin Wall on August 13, 1961, rather than expand its administrative reach to near totalitarian domination, the regime chose begrudgingly to accommodate the Church.49

Under state expansion, the SED began to militarize society: military service in the People’s National Army (NVA) was mandated for all men in January 1962 without the option of conscientious objection.50 Since the majority of objectors were from Christian households or theology students, the move gave the Churches a new lifeline. Church leaders approached the regime about the negative effects of forcing Christians to carry arms against their will.51 Ulbricht and the National Defense Council, keen on avoiding confrontations, conceded their position to the Church on September 7, 1964 and ordered the creation of unarmed NVA ‘construction units’ that exempted Christians from weapons exercises. The Bausoldaten were tasked with building military installments, housing units and transporting material. With this, the GDR became the only Communist state that allowed for conscientious objection.

By the late 1960s, the Evangelical Churches decided territorially and institutionally to re-organize themselves from the all-German Evangelical Church of Germany (EKD). After much debate, East German bishops in 1969 formally separated themselves from the EKD, establishing the regime-friendly Union of Evangelical Churches in the GDR (BEK-DDR). Despite the BEK’s separation from the EKD, the two entities maintained close lines of communication up to 1989.

In 1971, Walter Ulbricht’s successor, Erich Honecker, sought a more conciliatory approach to Church–state relations. His approach included the establishment of a Church media service,52 construction permits and the expansion of the Church’s presence in religion-free “workers cities.” Moreover, in hopes of improving the GDR’s international image, Evangelical bishops’ were encouraged to participate in international ecumenical conferences.53 Church–state interaction demonstrated the GDR’s new readiness to seek a modus vivendi. For its part, the Church again expressed its readiness to


neither inflate, nor downplay the existing contrasts between Marxist-socialism and theology. Neither option is in our interest. Rather, we need better to understand what occurs in this country, which is also our home. We shall soon discover the real commonalities in our responsibility to man and those social areas, where we are needed. In the past, anti-communism distorted our vision from our real opportunities and true challenges.54


The purpose of the Church was to be firmly located in working within East German society for the good of its citizens.55

On August 18, 1976, Church–state relations were profoundly unsettled by an act of self-immolation. Before pouring petrol over himself, Pastor Oskar Brüsewitz had unrolled a banner with the words “the Church in the GDR condemns communist repression of school children!” While the regime claimed the priest suffered from delusion, it feared a public protest, a damaged international image. Honecker and Church representatives met for another round of talks on March 6, 1978, which introduced conditions that set the stage for the largest expansion of Church space.56 In quid pro quo¸ the Church agreed to respect the SED’s request to halt all political criticism and accept the existing power relations of the GDR. In turn, the SED offered a lengthy list of concessions and policy liberalizations, including more construction permits, 2.2 million Marks for restoration projects, lifelong health care for all Church employees, pastoral care in prisons and retirement homes, pay increases for priests57 and greater access to state media for holy days.58 While Honecker viewed the talks as a “crowning moment and new beginning,” the Church secured a long sought after document that better outlined its legal position in the GDR.59

Despite the March 1978 talks, the SED became increasingly suspicious of Church-based peace initiatives60 and “the serious security concern of broader peace movements solidifying around Church.”61 Indeed, by 1982, a number of students, theologians, Church congregants and veteran Bausoldaten had found a protected space in the Church.62 Ulrike Poppe, founder of “Women for Peace” and the “Initiative for Peace and Human Rights,” recognized that the existence of these groups was best guaranteed under the protective umbrella of the Church.63 Equally, Church leadership was aware of the fate that would await these individuals, if the activism and pacifist message of these groups were to take on stronger contours. The Church’s protective stance assumed a more communicative quality, acting as the mediator and ‘translator’ between the two entities.64 Bishops oversaw cooperation among the groups, warned of risks, advised the opposition and the regime on better forms of communication and diluted their messages in the interest of maintaining public order. Despite this protective cover, oppositional groups had grown skeptical of becoming too compromised by the Church. Poppe was aware that “oppositional groups were at times afraid of the Church’s paternalist role vis-à-vis East German human rights groups.”65 Hence, the relationship between Church and opposition was not without contention. Nevertheless, if peaceful resolutions to conflict and the avoidance of human rights violations were topics for both Church and opposition, they had now become salient issues between Church and state.

The SED’s lack of preparation in adapting to a third, new critical element became apparent. By 1982, Stasi documents warned of Church-based “enemy-negative forces attempting to establish an independent movement for peace under the guise of pacifism.”66 Attempts were made to remove students from schools and universities based on membership in illegal organizations, while other peace activists were taken into police custody. The SED resorted to more extreme measures: the regime quietly offered leading members of oppositional groups travel permits or stipends to study in the West; others were forcefully expatriated.67 But even state security organs feared that overt repressive measures could push the Church to become confrontational. Intelligence reports pressed the SED to engage in another round of talks with the SSCQ and Church leaders to ease tensions. Stasi reports even suggested using the Church leadership to steer the peace movements away from the public sphere.68 The regime desperately resorted to its old Janus-faced playbook: it actively engaged with Church leaders, using their mediation between regime and opposition, while cracking down on those who drifted beyond the accepted boundaries.69 Police and Stasi units increasingly stormed Churches and parish halls and confiscated printing presses and Church libraries. At the Zionskirche in East Berlin, Stasi units arrested members of a Church-based environmental initiative. The regime’s desperate show of force not only made it more dependent on the Church’s communicative role, it also improved the Church’s image and increased the public’s solidarity with it.

By late 1989, Evangelical Churches were ready to channel massive public frustration peacefully and prevent a potential violent state intervention. In Leipzig, Monday prayers for peace at the Nikolaikirche by October 9, 1989 drew 70,000 demonstrators; one week later, over 120,000 gathered before the Church. Trying to stave off unrest, the politburo replaced Honecker with Egon Krenz on October 18. With change evident, over 320,000 called for peaceful reforms in Leipzig. Tensions grew to a fever pitch as rumors spread amongst the peaceful protestors that units of the NVA, riot police and undercover Stasi agents had been given orders to use force to control the growing protest.70 But by now, word had spread throughout the GDR that Church buildings and squares were safe areas for expressing popular frustration and desires for reform.

The GDR reached a point of no return on November 9, 1989, when Party Secretary Krenz ordered the opening of border crossings between East and West Berlin. Upon hearing the news from West German media sources, East Germans gathered at the border crossings by the thousands. Overwhelmed East German border guards, at first unsure how to proceed, yielded to the swelling masses. Once the barriers were raised, West and East Berliners were united in a celebration of peace.

Post-War Yugoslav Religious Policy: More Soviet than Thou

In this section I claim that a unique set of processes stemming from Yugoslavia’s particular Church–state engagement planted the seeds for the exclusionary characteristics of Church-based free spaces that later generated nationalist sentiment. Yugoslav religious policy was not marked by public agreements or joint communiqués resulting from regular high-level Church-state negotiations. Once the country swung from a repressive model to an open, quasi-Western one, freedoms in economics, labor, media and travel undermined the necessity to lodge human rights complaints. By liberalizing religious policy, Yugoslav communists gave up an important bargaining chip: they could not offer concessions to Churches, since the Churches already enjoyed the most open religious atmosphere in the communist world.

From end of the war to the late 1950s, the Yugoslav regime maintained a posture of extreme repression. The decision to take immediate measures against the Catholic and Orthodox Churches was a manifestation of Tito’s distrust and the Yugoslav Communist Party’s (CPY) rapid consolidation of power. Neither the Catholic Church nor the SOC became participants in the reconstruction of the new Yugoslav state. As a result, the regime’s position offered the Churches no other option but to look upon the authorities with suspicion, if not enmity. Such distrust bolstered the Churches’ unwillingness to support the regime, which created a crucial by-product for later periods: the regime could never request the Churches’ mediation in times of unrest.71

Two points are crucial to understanding the post-war phase in Yugoslav Church-state relations. Firstly, the CPY systematically applied the Soviet playbook, which erased the political landscape of subversives and prevented religio-nationalist rhetoric from challenging the state, a type of post-war tabula rasa devoid of opposition.72 The second approach involved state institutions confronting the Churches through nuanced repression that targeted their greatest weakness. This individualized method removed the presence and visibility of Church space from the public sphere. In 1945, the Yugoslav Council of Ministers established the Federal Commission for Church Questions (SKVP), which passed down party directives to republic-level Commissions for Religious Relations (KVP), the purpose of which was to


research all questions concerning life outside the religious communities, their inter-confessional relations and the position of the Churches vis-à-vis the state and the People’s authorities, as well as the preparation for all legislative solutions on relations between religious communities and the state.73

Yugoslav authorities considered religious groups to be a security threat and therefore placed the SKVP under the command of the Ministry for State Security (UDBA). Authorities detained, physically assaulted and murdered hundreds of Orthodox and Catholic bishops, priests, nuns, and laypersons. Judges in politically rigged trials speedily handed down execution sentences and lengthy jail times.74 Grand show trials served as a means of eradicating Church-linked regime-opponents.75 In a politically rigged court in 1946, anti-communist Royalist Četnik commander Draža Mihailović was found guilty of collaborating with Nazi Germany and summarily executed by firing squad. Mihailović’s stature in the SOC was considerable. The SOC leadership perceived the court’s decision as a volley across its bow.

Similarly, the 1946 trial of Catholic Archbishop of Zagreb Aloizije Stepinac for his alignment with German and Croatian fascists highlighted the regime’s intent to silence any opposition. On May 8, 1945, Stepinac publicly demanded an explanation for the maltreatment of Catholic priests,76 which was followed by a pastoral letter slamming the regime’s repression.77 However, he offered no word of atonement to either the regime or the SOC for wartime atrocities perpetrated by Croatian clergy.78 As a result, Tito personally engaged him to consider the possibility of an independent, Yugoslav Church.79 Meeting with Stepinac, Tito states


the Church should be more national, more adapted to the nation: perhaps you are surprised that I approach the subject of nationality with such emphasis. Too much blood flowed, I have seen too much suffering of the people, and I would like the Catholic clergy in Croatia to be more deeply linked in its national feeling with the people than it now is […] We want to create a great community of South Slavs in which there will be both Orthodox and Catholics […] linked with all the other Slavs.80

This effort sought to “yugoslavize” the Church and, as was being done in the GDR, align it with the state’s new identity.81 After such repression, Stepinac refused any such agreement and was placed on trial for collaboration, the dissemination of Fascist ideology in Church media and the forced conversion of Orthodox citizens.82 Stepinac was found guilty on all counts and sentenced to 16 years of hard labor followed by house arrest.

The CPY continued its drastic reduction of Church space. Religious instruction in state-run secondary schools was discontinued in 1945 without negotiation.83 Partisan units physically removed all religious symbols from schools and public buildings and marriage documents were placed under civil code. A 1947 federal law prohibited the public celebration of religious holy days. Instead, the official Socialist calendar replaced holy days with workdays.84 In 1949, the Ministry of Education declared all theological faculties private institutions and removed them from public universities.85

The nationalization of property rounded out the palette of policy instruments. In a move against the Catholic Church, the army and security forces placed all Church-administered hospitals, nursing schools and pension homes under governmental administration. Moreover, chapels, prayer rooms, religious artwork and crosses in hospitals were removed and nuns, though still allowed to work, had to remove their habits and other displays of religious symbolism.86 The regime undertook a similar, nuanced measure against the SOC by targeting its property holdings, one of its sources of income. From 1946 onward, security forces again occupied hundreds of SOC buildings, parish halls, secretariats and residencies.87 In Bosnia, over 140 Churches and offices were placed under rent-free military and police occupation.88 In cases where non-military individuals occupied Church land, the regime refused requests for compensation.89 As the party predicted, critique of this measure remained limited only to protest letters by the synod90 and Patriarch Gavrilo to the federal and the Serbian KVP.91

By 1953, the LCY had neutralized the last forms of domestic opposition and now had a free hand in pursuing socio-economic policies, which anticipated a sharp about-face from centralized resource allocation to one of “workers’ self-managed” production.92 They laid the groundwork for political re-adjustments in Church-state relations. In 1953, the Yugoslav Federal Assembly adopted the Law Concerning the Legal Status of Religious Communities, which formalized the separation of Church and state, guaranteed freedom of conscience and religious belief and stipulated the rights of atheists and the consequences of abusing religion for political purposes.93 By the late 1950s, the regime had increased the number of construction permits and funds for damaged buildings.94 Lastly, the weekly newspapers, the Catholic Glas Koncila and the Orthodox Pravoslavlje were allowed to circulate in larger numbers.95

The Rise of the Churches from 1966 to the Late 1980s

In 1966, the Fourth Plenum of the Central Committee and the six republic Central Committees introduced extensive political liberalizations.96 Centrist factions gave way to decentralist forces that favored devolution of powers to the republics.97 With this came a new stance on Church-state policy: the SKVP and KVPs were removed from UDBA oversight and transformed into independent governmental units, ending the regime’s security and intelligence gathering approach. State institutions were mandated to engage in dialogue, monitor media and manage Church life through quid pro quo, but also to prevent Churches from weighing in on social issues. With this change, the SOC and Croatian Church became less constrained in expanding Church media, holding public masses and criticizing the regime. One could hardly imagine a more comprehensive change.

Although calls for decentralization first came from the Serbian and Slovenian parties, Croatian communists most demonstratively demanded for a loosening, beginning with appeals for a constitutionally recognized Croatian language, separate from its almost identical Serbian counterpart. This peaked with the Croatian Spring or Mass Movement (Masovni Pokret, Maspok) from 1967 to 1972, which took on more alarming contours. Calls were made for the establishment of an independent Croatian national bank, greater autonomy in education and economic policy and territorial defense units.98 Maspok supporters criticized the Yugoslav National Bank’s distribution of federal development funds to poorer regions, while extremist fractions demanded a separate seat at the United Nations and revisions of official Yugoslav history.99

Maspok coincided with the rise of the Catholic Church’s renewed organization of large-scale masses and celebrations. A symbolic start took place with the Marian Congress and the consecration of the holy shrine at Marija Bistrica in August 1971 in front of 150,000 pilgrims.100 At the same time, Glas Koncila profited from limited state censorship by publishing criticisms of Yugoslav socialism, while celebrating the upsurge as solidifying the Croatian nation. As violent Maspok demonstrations in Zagreb threatened to destabilize the regime in 1972, Tito quickly purged leaders en masse and imprisoned activists.101 Under the threat of irredentism, Tito and Executive Bureau Secretary Stane Dolanc cleansed the Croatian League of Communists and other republican leagues.102 Faced with the threat of violence, Yugoslav communists never requested mediation from the Church. Unlike in the GDR, in Yugoslavia there was no rapprochement between Tito and Catholic bishops to restore peace. Despite the regime’s later inclusion of Maspok’s demands in the 1974 constitution, the crackdown shifted outlets for critical expression into the hands of the Church.103

The Church wasted no time in expanding its free space. In September 1974, the episcopate began the Great Novena, celebrating 1,300 years of Christianity. The icon of Our Lady of the Great Croatian Christian Covenant was paraded around the countryside, accompanied by liturgical celebrations, pastoral theater plays and a children’s educational course. Large Eucharistic festivals followed: the 1977 celebration of King Zvonimir, the 1979 declaration of the Year of Prince Branimir and the 1981 National Eucharistic Congresses in Split and Zagreb. The pinnacle was reached in September 1984 at the final celebration of the Great Novena, where over 400,000 convened at Marija Bistrica.

The SOC in this period became equally active with its social presence, organizing numerous public liturgies, jubilees and celebrations. In May 1968, the SOC organized a commemoration of the ancient Serb ruler, Czar Dušan. In September 1969, the SOC celebrated the 750th anniversary of autocephaly before a crowd of nearly 10,000 Orthodox faithful. The jubilee was continued at the Žiča monastery, where the conciliatory Archbishop German stated the following:


All who live with us here in our common home, in our common fatherland of Yugoslavia want to live in concord with all, in brotherhood, in love, in community. We have in our present homeland many different nationalities and religious communities… We want to live with all as with brothers and sisters in one single house.104


Church-organized celebrations continued throughout 1970 as the SOC commemorated the 50th anniversary of the restoration of the Serbian patriarchate (1920–1970) and in 1971 the 300th anniversary of Saint Basil of Ostrog.105

This atmosphere empowered the SOC to articulate grievances vocally. It initiated criticism of the regime’s inability to resolve brewing conflicts in regions considered important to the Church. Since Kosovo’s post-war inclusion in Yugoslavia, ethnic Albanians had long been dissatisfied with its position as a non-Slavic minority without its own republic.106 To ease tensions in 1966, Tito greatly expanded Kosovar rights and obliged the wealthier Northern republics to assist in the economic development of the territory. Nevertheless, Kosovo’s frustration gradually became violent. Orthodox churches, shrines and gravestones were increasingly desecrated and priests, nuns and monks harassed. Tensions exploded in November 1968, when large-scale demonstrations and violent riots broke out.107 Under media suppression, Tito deployed the JNA to quell the unrest. While quick to crackdown, Tito made no attempt to seek other forms of resolution. Despite being one of the targets of the riots, neither the SOC nor Kosovar party representatives were asked to cooperate to reduce the tensions. Again, an opportunity for inclusive Church engagement was missed.

On May 4, 1980, Josip Broz Tito passed away. Millions of shocked Yugoslavs gathered, tearfully laying flowers, holding military memorials and paying their last respects. However, the country would again be rocked by violent demonstrations in Kosovo. The March 1981 riots were fuelled by demands for republic status, only this time, accompanied with violence against Serb symbols and the SOC and rioters demanding “Unification with Albania.”108 Again, the regime answered with force, sending in militia and tank units and arresting hundreds of protestors.109

Less hindered by the 1966 accords, several SOC clerics penned an “Appeal for the Protection of the Serbian Population and their Sacred Monuments in Kosovo” on Orthodox Good Friday 1982 to the Presidency of the Yugoslavia, claiming that Albanian plans for “genocide” were being carried out.110 Using its publication outlets, it published the entire text in Pravoslavlje and other media, as Church spaces increasingly became the only venue where grievances could be expressed. Once again, aside from heavy-handed repression, no efforts were undertaken to bring the major stakeholders together to calm Kosovo.

The final years of the Yugoslav project were characterized by greatly expanded activities of protest. The federal SKVP and the republican KVPs were ineffectual in reeling in the Churches, which began to mobilize their spaces to fill the social vacuum. Tito’s passing and his apparent indifference to grooming a successor left many asking what might become of Yugoslavia. The party’s fear of a situation in which religion would align itself with anti-Yugoslav political forces would come true by the mid-1980s. The SOC Holy Bishop’s assembly began publicly to chronicle criminal acts perpetrated by Kosovar suspects against the Church. Pravoslavlje echoed the Church’s concern in regular columns and articles on the rise of the “Albanian terror,” as well as in seminars and discussions on the topic held by the Church.111 The Church submitted formal complaints to provincial authorities in Kosovo, the Serbian KVP and the republican government, but they were never thoroughly investigated. The continued failure by Yugoslav governmental structures to have at least a cursory review of the legitimacy of such claims and take measures against perpetrators contributed to the SOC’s heightened sense of being placed at an institutional disadvantage. With no credible guarantor, the SOC gradually began to instrumentalize its rich nationalist history of suffering.112

By 1987, Slobodan Milošević had risen through the party ranks to become head of the Serbian Communist Party. His springboard to political power took place at the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo. Flanked by ranking party members from the republics and SOC bishops, Milošević addressed a crowd of nearly one million. Though sanctioned by the Yugoslav federal government and couched in socialist language, the event resembled a Church celebration. As one of the first high-ranking Serb officials to call for a comprehensive change in policy toward Serbia, Milošević found an ally in the SOC. Religion, religious symbolism and politics had now become inextricably intertwined in a self-reinforcing dance.

The Catholic Church also strengthened its social profile. By the mid-1980s, the large-scale Catholic celebrations began to take on more ethno-nationalist symbolism. While grand Church events continued to demonstrate the Church’s organizational ability, Glas Koncila had become the key voice in Church media. With little governmental censure, Glas significantly contributed to creating a distinct Croatian identity. By 1989, the Catholic Church in Croatia had successfully carved out its own space for re-assessing the foundation of Croatian identity within a larger Yugoslavia. The rise of Croat nationalist Franjo Tudjman in the late 1980s corresponded with that of the Church. In 1987, Tudjman and his far-right Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) turned to ultranationalist diaspora Church centers in Western Europe, Australia and North America.113 By 1989, the HDZ’s platform was thoroughly laden with revisionist ideas of historical injustices, Croat nationalism, conservative Catholic values and anti-Yugoslav, anti-Serb populism. Like Milošević, Tudjman received massive support from all elements of the clergy. The marriage of growing political nationalism and a potent religious element gave even more popular credibility to the HDZ.

As the fronts began to harden between Serbia, which was seeking to re-centralize Yugoslavia, and an increasingly independence-minded Croatia, which sought to rid itself of the rest of Yugoslavia, each camp gained political legitimacy from their respective Church. Set in motion by Tito’s liberalizations of the Yugoslav system 1966, the departure from a repressive to a open religious policy channeled Serb and Croat frustrations with the direction of Yugoslavia’s path into the hands of national Churches.

Conclusions: Assessing Church–State Engagement and Free Spaces

Challenges to authoritarian rule can take on different forms, while factors that affect the complex institutional interaction between a regime and its stakeholders can be infinite. Moreover, anti-authoritarian opposition is made increasingly complex by case-specific experiences. Attempts to explain changes in power structures through the scope of elections, voter behavior, civil society, democratization, ethnicity and identity, revolution or violence have yielded endless lists of works from across the landscape of ancient and modern political science. It is a common trait of human behavior and demonstrates one of the most essential pillars of political science: the struggle to attain, maintain and challenge power and accommodate competing ideas.

To try to capture the vastness of this central component is beyond the scope of this article. However, I claim that the uniqueness of this study lies not in explaining the end of East German and Yugoslav communism, although it does contribute to a more nuanced understanding of this. I offer here an alternative explanation to a different question: which set of conditions and types of processes help us to temporally locate, theoretically identify and comparatively explain the variegated forms of Church–state engagement which brought forth Church-based free spaces. The momentous year of 1989 in Eastern Europe is not the point of departure here. Rather, it is the outcome of a near 45-year-long history of debate on religious policy.

The empirical focus of this study seeks to paint a picture in which free spaces are neither the natural outcome of private meetings between small numbers of individuals working in safe havens, nor do I claim that national Churches retained an innate oppositional quality. Contrary to the debate surrounding the development and role of civil society, which tends to overlook the precise policy mechanisms and agent-to-agent interactions at the micro-level, this contribution demonstrates that Church-based free spaces are in fact a constructed social phenomenon, resulting from negotiated, institutional interactions by Church and state elites. To conclude, the complex interaction between Church and state in the execution of religious policy across temporally organized periods offers us an additional tool in explaining the rise of Church-based free spaces in authoritarian societies and the relationships between the rise of these free spaces and end of the European communist project.

Archival Sources

ARHIV JUGOSLAVIJE (= AJ) [Archives of Yugoslavia]

Inventory 144, No. 1-1. The Presidium of the Council of Ministers of the Democratic Federal Yugoslavia brings forth the decree on the establishment of a federal commission for religious questions. September 21, 1945.

Inventory 144, Nr. 1-4a. Executive of the Bishops’ Conference in Zagreb No. 64. May 8, 1945.

Inventory 144, Nr. 1-3. Improving and renewing the Church – authorization for the collection of necessary resources, Letter from Stepinac to the Vlada and the republic-level Commission for Religious Affairs of Croatia. August 14, 1945.

Inventory 144, Nr. 1-4. Pastoral Letter of the Catholic Bishoprics of Yugoslavia, Publication of the Bishop’s Conferece in Zagreb. September 20, 1945.

Inventory 144. No. 2-46. Briefing for the head of the Federal Commission for Religious Questions on the current state of Orthodox Faculty. July 7, 1949.

Inventory 144, 1-9. List of Church Buildings Occupied or Used by State Authorities.February 1947.

Inventory 144, 1-9. Synod of the Serbian Orthodox Church. No. 346. Letter of protest from the synod of the SOC to the republican-level KPV of Serbia with a request to reverse the decrees. February 11, 1947.

Inventory 144, 1-9. Synod of the Serbian Orthodox Church. No. 1147. Letter of protest to the Executive of the Federal Government. March 31, 1947.



Repository 203, Nr. 144. Positive zur Nationalen Front eingestellte Pfarrer des Landes Brandenburg.

Repository 202A, Nr. 531. Letter from the Brandenburg Provincial Prime Minister to Evangelical Superintendents, Priests and Parish Commissioners. Pg 2. January 26, 1951.

Repository 530, Nr. 2188. SED Provincial Secretariat’s Report entitled “On the Activity of the Church after the Communique from 10 June 1953 and Suggestions for Improvements in the Arena of Religious Policy,” Potsdam. January 8, 1954.

Repository 530, Nr. 2187. Bishop Otto Dibelius’ pastoral letter entitled “To all Parishes in Germany,” Berlin. June 12, 1953.

Repository 530, Nr. 2188. SED Provincial Secretariat’s Report entitled “On the Activity of the Church after the Communique from 10 June 1953 and Suggestions for Improvements in the Arena of Religious Policy,” Potsdam. January 8, 1954.

Repository 202G, Nr. 45. Special Report on the meeting between state representatives and those of the Church on 06.06.1952 in the home of Superintendent-General Braun, Potsdam. June 10, 1952.



Protocol from a speech held by Bishop Albrecht Schönherr on the importance of the 6 March 1978 talks. MfS Document 8103. October 10, 1986.

Internal document from Ministry of State Security to all working units of the Stasi. MfS Document 7604. March 17, 1982.

Suggestions of talks with the State Secretary for Church Questions, Comrade Gysi, with the bishops of the provincial Evangelical Churches in the DDR. MfS Document 7605.

Quarterly Report – Church and Religious Communities in the GDR – Excerpts of an interview with Berlin-Brandenburg Bishop Albrecht Schönherr. MfS Document 8103. April 1985.



Repository 4, Nr. 666. Newsletter Nr. 1 from BEP-DDR in the German Democratic Republic to all Pastors. June 19–20, 1958.

Repository 4, Nr. 304. Letters between the Berlin Church Council and Reinhard Henkys of the Berlin Arbeitsgemeinschaft für kirchliche Publizistik. July 12, 1973.



Nr. 002071. Establishment of Division E in Department V, 1947.

Sensitive Information – Directive from the Central Committee of the SED and the Department of People’s Education to regional SED party offices and Departments of People’s Education. January 7, 1950.

Repository IV 2/3/380. “Opinion of the Schwerin District Administration Report and the Gera District Administration on the Reactionary Activity of Priests.” Protocol of the SEC Central Committee. May 4, 1953.

Repository DY 30/J IV 2/2/516. Protocol Nr. 62/56 of the Meeting of the Politburo of the Central Committee. November 27, 1956.

Repository IV 2/3/380. “Opinion of the Schwerin District Administration Report and the Gera District Administration on the Reactionary Activity of Priests,” Protocol of the SEC Central Committee. May 4, 1953.

Repository DO4/320. State Committee for Radio Services – Department of Monitoring. July 2, 1971.

Repository DY IV 2/2036/49. Our Approach to the Talks with Representatives of the Evangelical Church of the GDR. May 10, 1977.

Repository DY 30 IV 2/2/1740. Decision of the Politburo supporting an increase in basic wages of Evangelical regional Churches. August 22, 1978.

Internal Party Document – Information on the Relationship between State and the Evangelical Church in the GDR. DY 2/3/119. December 2, 1980.


“Belgrade Sends Tanks to Rebellious Region.” The New York Times, April 4, 1981, 21.

“Hohe DDR-Kirchenvertreter besuchen Genf – Ökumenische Verbindungen sollen ausgebaut werden, Werben für Anerkennung.” Frankfurter Rundschau, March 22, 1972, 1.

“Kirchen entstehen neu!” Die Kirche, October 30, 1949, 1.

“Kirchenleitung gehört in das Land Brandenburg!” Märkische Volksstimme, December 6, 1950, 2.

“Kirche will in der Gesellschaft der DDR künftig mitreden.” Der Tagesspiegel, July 6, 1971, 45.

“Statistical Report on Exiting the Church – 1950 to 1956.” Amtsblatt der Evangelischen Kirche in Deutschland 19 (1958): 17.

“Tätigkeit des Evangelischen Konsistoriums Berlin-Brandenburg.” In Provinzialsynode Berlin-Brandenburg 1951. Berlin: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt 1951.

Alexander, Stella. The Triple Myth: A Life of Archbishop Alojzije Stepinac. Columbia University Press: New York, 1987.

Altenhof, Ralf. Die Enquetekommission des deutschen Bundestages. Wiesbaden: Westdeutscher Verlag, 1993.

Bekich, Darko. “Soviet Goals in Yugoslavia and the Balkans.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 481 (1985): 81–91.

Bauerkämper, Arnd. “Bodenreform und Kollektivierung.” In Handwörterbuch zur ländlichen Gesellschaft in Deutschland, ed. Stephan Beetz, Kai Brauer, and Claudia Neu, 16–24. Berlin: VS Verlag, 2005.

Bremer, Thomas. Kleine Geschichte der Religionen in Jugoslawien: Königreich-Kommunismus-Krieg. Freiburg: Herder Verlag, 2003.

Bruce, Steve. Politics and Religion. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2003.

Beach, Derek and Rasmus Brun Pedersen. “Taking Process Tracing Seriously – The ‘Mechanismic’ Understanding and Tracing Causal Mechanisms.” Paper presented at the Southern Political Science Association, New Orleans, Louisiana, January 5–8, 2011.

Besier, Gerhard. Der SED-Staat und die Kirche: Der Weg in die Anpassung. Munich: Bertelmann Verlag, 1993.

Binder, David. “Marko Nikežić – Liberal Forced to Quit by Tito, Dies at 69.” New York Times, January 9, 1991, 20.

Despot, Zvonimir. Vrijeme Zločina: Novi Prilozi za Povijest Koprivničke Podravine 1941–1948. Zagreb: Hrvatski Institut za Povijest, 2007.

Djilas, Milovan. Jahre der Macht: Im Jugoslawischen Kräftespiel – Memoiren 1945–1966. Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1992.

Duijzings, Ger. Religion and the Politics of Identity in Kosovo. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.

Goerner, Martin Georg. Die Kirche als Problem der SED: Strukturen kommunistischer Herrschaftausübung gegenüber der evangelischen Kirche 1945 bis 1958. Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1997.

Heise, Joachim. “Kirchenpolitik von SED und Staat: Versuch einer Annäherung.” In Kirchen in der Diktatur: Drittes Reich und SED-Staat, edited by Günther Heydemann and Lothar Kettenacker, 129. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht Verlag, 1993.

Honecker, Erich. Aus meinem Leben. Berlin: Dietz Verlag, 1988.

Hockenoos, Paul. Homeland Calling: Exile Patriotism and the Balkan Wars. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003.

Jacob, Günter. Der Christ und die Mächte. Stuttgart: Lettner Verlag, 1960.

Jacob, Günter. “Der Raum für das Evangelium in Ost und West.” In Kirchliches Jahrbuch 1956, 13. Gütersloh: Verlagshaus Gerd Mohn, 1956.

Kaiser, Monika. “Change and Continuity in the Development of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany.” Journal of Contemporary History 30 (1995): 687–703.

Kaiser, Monika. “Die Zentrale der Diktatur – organisatorische Weichenstellung, Strukturen und Kompetenzen der SED-Führung in der SBZ/DDR.” In Historische DDR-Forschung: Aufsätze und Studien, edited by Jürgen Kocka, 78–79. Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1993.

Madeley, John T.S. Church and State in Contemporary Europe: The Chimera of Neutrality. London: Cass Publishers, 2003.

Malcolm, Noel. Kosovo: A Short History. New York: New York University Press, 1998.

Matijević, Margareta. “Religious Communities in Croatia from 1945 to 1991: Social Casualty of the Dissent Between Communist Authorities and Religious Communities’ Leadership.” Časopis sa Suvremenu Povijest 2, no. 1 (2006): 117–40.

Marschak, Thomas A. “Centralized versus Decentralized Resource Allocation: The Yugoslav Laboratory.” The Quarterly Journal of Economics 82 (1968): 561–87.

Melčić, Dunja. “Abrechnungen mit den politischen Gegnern und die kommunistischen Nachkriegsverbrechen.” Der Jugoslawien-Krieg: Handbuch zu Vorgeschichte, Verlauf und Konsequenzen, edited by Dunja Melčić, 201–09. Opladen: Westdeutsche Verlag, 1999.

Neubert, Ehrhart. Geschichte der Opposition in der DDR, 1949–1989. Berlin: Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung, 1998.

Ostermann, Christian F. “Keeping the Pot Simmering: the United States and the East German Uprising of 1953.” German Studies Review 19 (1996): 61–89.

Palmer, Peter. “The Churches and the Conflict in the Former Yugoslavia.” In Religion and International Relations, edited by Ken R. Dark, 83–99. MacMillan: Basingstoke, 2000.

Perica, Vjekoslav. Balkan Idols: Religion and Nationalism in Yugoslav States. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Perica, Vjekoslav. “The Catholic Church and the Making of the Croatian Nation, 1970–1984.” Eastern European Politics and Societies 14 (2000): 532–64.

Pollack, Detlef. Kirche in der Organisationsgesellschaft: zum Wandel der gesellschaftlichen Lage der evangelischen Kirchen in der DDR. Berlin: Kohlhammer Verlag, 1994.

Poulton, Hugh. “Macedonians and Albanians as Yugoslavs.” In Yugoslavism: Histories of a Failed State, 1918–1992, edited by Dejan Djokić, 115–35. London: Hurst & Company, 2003.

Radić, Radmila. Država i Verske Zajednice, 1945–1970: Prvi Deo 1945–1953. Beograd: Institut za Novu Istoriju Srbije, 2002.

Radio Free Europe. “Central Commitee Plenums of Yugoslavia’s Six Republics Approve Purge of Ranković and Party Reforms.” October 2, 1966.

Ramet, Sabrina. Nihil Obstat: Religion, Politics and Social Change in East-Central Europe and Russia. Durham: Duke University Press, 1998.

Sozialistische Einheitspartei. “Kommuniqué der Sitzung des SED-Politbüros vom 9 Juni 1953.” Dokumente der Sozialistischen Einheitspartei Deutschlands: Beschlüsse und Erklärungen des Zentralkommittees sowie seines Politbüros und seines Sekretariats 4. Berlin: SED, 1953.

Sozialistische Einheitspartei. “Kommunique der Sitzung des SED-Politbüros.” 9 Juni 1953.

Sozialistische Einheitspartei. “Entschließung der 15 Tagung des SED-Zentralkomitees vom 24. bis. 26. Juli 1953 – Der neue Kurs und die Aufgaben der Partei.” Dokumente der Sozialistischen Einheitspartei Deutschlands: Beschlüsse und Erklärungen des Zentralkomitees sowie seines Politbüros und seines Sekretariats 4. Berlin: SED, 1953.

Spehnjak, Katarina. Javnost i Propaganda Narodna Fronta u Politici i Kulturi Hrvatske 1945–1952. Zagreb: Institut za suvremenu Povijest, 2002.

Sundhausen, Holm. Geschichte Serbiens: 19–21. Jahrhundert. Cologne: Böhlau, 2007.

Tanner, Marcus. Croatia: A Nation Forged in War. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997.

Tanztscher, Monika. “In der Ostzone wird ein neuer Apparat aufgebaut: Die Gründung des DDR-Staatssicherheitsdienstes.” Deutschland Archiv 31, no. 1 (1998): 48–56.

Tomasevich, Jozo. War and Revolution in Yugoslavia, 1941–1945: Occupation and Collaboration. Stanford University Press: Stanford, 2001.

Velikonja, Mitja. “In Hoc Signo Vinces: Religious Symbols in the Balkan Wars 1991–1995.” International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society 17 (2003): 8–25.

Vollnhals, Clemens.“Zwischen Kooperation und Konfrontation: Zur Kirchenpolitik von KPD/SED und SMAD in der Sowjetischen Besatzungszone.” Deutschland Archiv 27 (1994): 478–90.

1 Steve Bruce, Politics and Religion (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2003), 172.

2 Free spaces are an integral pillar for oppositional groups working in authoritarian societies, without which the chances of success in challenging, reforming or toppling illiberal regimes may be significantly lessened. The ability to organize, cultivate and articulate critical expression, free of governmental intervention or violent crackdown, are the very heart of what makes oppositional movements successful. While they may not be necessary for every movement and while each authoritarian regime may deal with its undesired, unsanctioned oppositional agents in different ways, the growing number of successful regime-critical groups which have demonstrated or currently demonstrate the usage of similar forms of free space, from Africa to Latin America, North America to Arab states, can no longer be ignored by social scientists.

3 Derek Beach and Rasmus Brun Pedersen, “Taking Process Tracing Seriously – The ‘Mechanismic’ Understanding and Tracing Causal Mechanisms,” paper presented at the Southern Political Science Association, New Orleans, Louisiana, January 5–8, 2011.

4 John T.S. Madeley, Church and State in Contemporary Europe: The Chimera of Neutrality (London: Cass Publishers, 2003), 13.

5 Monika Kaiser, “Change and Continuity in the Development of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany,” Journal of Contemporary History 30 (1995): 688.

6 Erich Honecker, Aus meinem Leben (Berlin: Dietz Verlag, 1988), 181.

7 Monika Kaiser, “Die Zentrale der Diktatur – organisatorische Weichenstellung, Strukturen und Kompetenzen der SED-Führung in der SBZ/DDR,” in Historische DDR-Forschung: Aufsätze und Studien, ed. Jürgen Kocka (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1993), 78–79.

8 Gerhard Besier, Der SED-Staat und die Kirche: Der Weg in die Anpassung (Munich: Bertelsmann Verlag, 1993), 55.

9 Arnd Bauerkämper, “Bodenreform und Kollektivierung,” in Handwörterbuch zur ländlichen Gesellschaft in Deutschland, ed. Stephan Beetz, Kai Brauer, and Claudia Neu (Berlin: VS Verlag, 2005), 17–18.

10 Clemens Vollnhals, “Zwischen Kooperation und Konfrontation: Zur Kirchenpolitik von KPD/SED und SMAD in der Sowjetischen Besatzungszone,” Deutschland Archiv 27 (1994): 486.

11 Monika Tanztscher, “In der Ostzone wird ein neuer Apparat aufgebaut: Die Gründung des DDR-Staatssicherheitsdienstes,” Deutschland Archiv 31, no. 1 (1998): 48–49.

12 Stiftung Archiv der Parteien und Maasenorganisationen der DDR im Bundesarchiv/SAPMO-BArch, nr. 002071, Establishment of Division E in Department V, 1947.

13 Detlef Pollack, Kirche in der Organisationsgesellschaft: zum Wandel der gesellschaftlichen Lage der evangelischen Kirchen in der DDR (Berlin: Kohlhammer Verlag, 1994), 95.

14 “Kirchen entstehen neu!” Die Kirche, October 30, 1949, 1.

15 “Tätigkeit des Evangelischen Konsistoriums Berlin-Brandenburg,” Provinzialsynode Berlin-Brandenburg 1951 (Berlin: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, 1951), 27.

16 Pollack, Kirche in der Organisationsgesellschaft, 96.

17 Brandenburgisches Landeshauptarchiv (BLA), Repository 203, nr. 144, Positive zur Nationalen Front eingestellte Pfarrer des Landes Brandenburg.

18 Pollack, Kirche in der Organizationsgesellschaft, 131.

19 Ralf Altenhof, “Aufarbeitung von Geschichte und Folgen der SED-Diktatur in Deutschland,” Die Enquetekommission des deutschen Bundestages (Wiesbaden: Westdeutscher Verlag, 1993): 164.

20 SAPMO-BArch, Sensitive Information – Directive from the Central Committee of the SED and the Department of People’s Education to regional SED party offices and Departments of People’s Education, January 7, 1950.

21 Ehrhart Neubert, Geschichte der Opposition in der DDR, 1949–1989 (Berlin: Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung, 1998), 76.

22 “Kirchenleitung gehört in das Land Brandenburg!” Märkische Volksstimme December 6, 1950, 2.

23 BLA, Repository 202A, nr. 531, Letter from the Brandenburg Provincial Prime Minister to Evangelical Superintendents, Priests and Parish Commissioners, Pg 2. January 26, 1951.

24 BLA, Repository 202G, nr. 45, Special Report on the meeting between state representatives and those of the Church on 06.06.1952 in the home of Superintendent-General Braun, Potsdam, June 10, 1952.

25 Ibid.

26 Ibid.

27 Ibid.

28 SAPMO-BArch, Repository IV 2/3/380, “Opinion of the Schwerin District Administration Report and the Gera District Administration on the Reactionary Activity of Priests,” Protocol of the SEC Central Committee, May 4, 1953.

29 Martin Georg Goerner, Die Kirche als Problem der SED: Strukturen kommunistischer Herrschaftausübung gegenüber der evangelischen Kirche 1945 bis 1958 (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1997), 109.

30 Christian F. Ostermann, “Keeping the Pot Simmering: the United States and the East German Uprising of 1953,” German Studies Review 19, no. 1 (1996): 63.

31 “Kommuniqué der Sitzung des SED-Politbüros vom 9 Juni 1953,” Dokumente der Sozialistischen Einheitspartei Deutschlands: Beschlüsse und Erklärungen des Zentralkommittees sowie seines Politbüros und seines Sekretariats 4 (Berlin: Berlin, 1953), 428.

32 Kommunique der Sitzung des SED-Politbüros, Juni 9, 1953, 428.

33 Ibid.

34 Ibid.

35 “Entschließung der 15 Tagung des SED-Zentralkomitees vom 24. bis. 26. Juli 1953 – Der neue Kurs und die Aufgaben der Partei,” Dokumente der Sozialistischen Einheitspartei Deutschlands: Beschlüsse und Erklärungen des Zentralkommittees sowie seines Politbüros und seines Sekretariats 4 (Berlin: SED, 1953), 449.

36 BLA, Repository 530, nr. 2188, SED Provincial Secretariat’s Report entitled “On the Activity of the Church after the Communique from June 10, 1953 and Suggestions for Improvements in the Arena of Religious Policy” Potsdam, January 8, 1954.

37 BLA, Repository 530, nr. 2187, Bishop Otto Dibelius’ pastoral letter entitled “To all Parishes in Germany,” Berlin, June 12, 1953.

38 BLA, Repository 530, nr. 2188, SED Provincial Secretariat’s Report entitled “On the Activity of the Church after the Communique from June 10, 1953 and Suggestions for Improvements in the Arena of Religious Policy” Potsdam, January 8, 1954.

39 SAPMO-BArch, Repository DY 30/J IV 2/2/516, Protocol nr. 62/56 of the Meeting of the Politburo of the Central Committee, November 27, 1956.

40 SAPMO-BArch, Repository DC 20/4/228, Decision 53/14 of the Council of Ministers for the Appointment of a State Secretariat for Church Questions, February 21, 1957.

41 Günter Jacob, Der Christ und die Mächte (Stuttgart: Lettner Verlag, 1960), 330.

42 Günter Jacob, “Der Raum für das Evangelium in Ost und West,” Kirchliches Jahrbuch 1956 (Gütersloh: Verlagshaus Gerd Mohn, 1956): 13.

43 Evangelisches Zentralarchiv Berlin (EZB), Repository 4, nr. 666, Newsletter nr. 1 from BEP-DDR in the German Democratic Republic to all Pastors, June 19–20, 1958.

44 Besier, Der SED-Staat und die Kirche, 71.

45 Kirchliches Jahrbuch 1958, 241.

46 Ibid.

47 “Statistical Report on Exiting the Church – 1950 to 1956,” Amtsblatt der Evangelischen Kirche in Deutschland 19. no. 6 (1958): 17.

48 Pollack, Kirche in der Organizationsgesellschaft, 150.

49 “Programm der SED,” Neues Deutschland January 25, 1963, 1.

50 Neubert, Geschichte der Opposition in der DDR, 1949–1989, 187.

51 Ibid.

52 EZB, Repository 4, nr. 304, Letters between the Berlin Church Council and Reinhard Henkys of the Berlin Arbeitsgemeinschaft für kirchliche Publizistik, July 12, 1973.

53 “Hohe DDR-Kirchenvertreter besuchen Genf – Ökumenische Verbindungen sollen ausgebaut werden, Werben für Anerkennung,” Frankfurter Rundschau March 22, 1972, 1.

54 SAPMO-BArch, Repository DO4/320, State Committee for Radio Services – Department of Monitoring, July 2, 1971.

55 “Kirche will in der Gesellschaft der DDR künftig mitreden,” Der Tagesspiegel July 6, 1971, 45.

56 SAPMO-BArch, Repository DY IV 2/2036/49, Our Approach to the Talks with Representatives of the Evangelical Church of the GDR, May 10, 1977.

57 SAPMO-BArch, Repository DY 30 IV 2/2/1740, Decision of the Politburo supporting an increase in basic wages of Evangelical regional Churches, August 22, 1978.

58 Ibid., Addendum 1 on the Commitments to Concerns Brought by the Union of Evangelical Churches in the German Democratic Republic.

59 Bundesbeauftrage für die Unterlagen des Staatssicherheitsdienstes der ehemaligen Deutschen Demokratischen Republik, (BStU), Protocol from a speech held by Bishop Albrecht Schönherr on the importance of the March 6, 1978 talks, MfS Document 8103, October 10, 1986.

60 SAPMO-BArch, Internal Party Document – Information on the Relationship between State and the Evangelical Church in the GDR, DY 2/3/119, December 2, 1980.

61 Ibid.

62 Interview with Manfred Stolpe and Joachim Heise, July 14, 2008.

63 Interviews with Ulrike Poppe, December 2008 and January 2009.

64 Interview with Manfred Stolpe, July 14, 2008.

65 Interviews with Ulrike Poppe, December 2008 and January 2009.

66 BStU, Internal document from Ministry of State Security to all working units of the Stasi, MfS Document 7604, March 17, 1982.

67 Interviews with Ulrike Poppe, December 2008 and January 2009.

68 BStU, Suggestions of talks with the State Secretary for Church Questions, Comrade Gysi, with the bishops of the provincial Evangelical Churches in the DDR, MfS Document 7605.

69 BStU, Quarterly Report – Church and Religious Communities in the GDR – Excerpts of an interview with Berlin-Brandenburg Bishop Albrecht Schönherr, MfS Document 8103, April 1985.

70 Interview with Hans Modrow, September 2008.

71 Interviews with Bishop of Australia and New Zealand of the Serbian Orthodox Church, Irinej Dobrijevic, April 2007 and the Vicar General of the Catholic Archdiocese of Sarajevo, Monsignor Mato Zovkić, September 2010.

72 Darko Bekich, “Soviet Goals in Yugoslavia and the Balkans,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 481 (1985), 2.

73 Arhiv Jugoslavije (AJ), Repository 144, no. 1-1, The Presidium of the Council of Ministers of the Democratic Federal Yugoslavia brings forth the decree on the establishment of a federal commission for religious questions – Article 1 (Pretsedništvo Ministarskog Saveta Demokratske Federativne Jugoslavije donosi uredbu o osnivanja držvane komisje za verska pitanja – Član 1), September 21, 1945.

74 AJ, Inventory 144, nr. 1-4a, Executive of the Bishops’ Conference in Zagreb (Predsjedništvo Biskupih Konferencija u Zagrebu), no. 64, May 8, 1945.

75 Dunja Melčić, “Abrechnungen mit den politischen Gegnern und die kommunistischen Nachkriegsverbrechen,” in Der Jugoslawien-Krieg: Handbuch zu Vorgeschichte, Verlauf und Konsequenzen, ed. idem (Opladen: Westdeutsche Verlag, 1999), 198.

76 AJ, Inventory 144, nr. 1–3, Improving and renewing the Church – authorization for the collection of necessary resources (Predmet: Popravk i obnova crkvi – dozvola sabiranja portrebnih sretstava), Letter from Stepinac to the Vlada and the republic-level Commission for Religious Affairs of Croatia, August 14, 1945.

77 AJ, Inventory 144, nr. 1–4, Pastoral Letter of the Catholic Bishoprics of Yugoslavia, Publication of the Bishop’s Conference in Zagreb (Pastirsko Pismo Katoličkih Biskupa Jugoslavije, Izdano s Općih Biskupskih Konferencija u Zagrebu), September 20, 1945. Also see, Zvonimir Despot, Vrijeme Zločina: Novi Prilozi za Povijest Koprivničke Podravine 1941 – 1948 (Zagreb: Hrvatski Institut za Povijest, 2007), 258.

78 Milovan Djilas, Jahre der Macht: Im Jugoslawischen Kräftespiel – Memoiren 1945–1966 (Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1992), 56.

79 Jozo Tomasevich, War and Revolution in Yugoslavia, 1941–1945: Occupation and Collaboration (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001), 562–63.

80 Stella Alexander, The Triple Myth: A Life of Archbishop Alojzije Stepinac (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987), 117.

81 Margareta Matijević, “Religious Communities in Croatia from 1945 to 1991: Social Casualty of the Dissent Between Communist Authorities and Religious Communities’ Leadership,” Časopis sa Suvremenu Povijest 2, no. 1 (2006): 122.

82 Alexander, The Triple Myth, 146.

83 Katarina Spehnjak, Javnost i Propaganda Narodna Fronta u Politici i Kulturi Hrvatske 1945–1952 (Zagreb, 2002), 187–90.

84 Thomas Bremer, Kleine Geschichte der Religionen in Jugoslawien: Königreich-Kommunismus-Krieg (Freiburg: Herder Verlag), 86.

85 AJ, Inventory 144, no. 2-46, Briefing for the head of the Federal Commission for Religious Questions on the current state of Orthodox Faculty (Kratak referat o današnjem zalošnim stanju na našem Pravoslavnom Bogoslovskom Fakultetu), July 7, 1949.

86 Matijević, Religious Communities in Croatia from 1945 to 1991, 125.

87 AJ, Inventory 144, Decrees from SKVP no. 534 and no. 68 of 1946 identified these measures.

88 AJ, Inventory 144, 1-9, List of Church Buildings Occupied or Used by State Authorities (Spisak Crkvenih Zgrada Zauzetih i Upotreblijvih od Strane Gradjanskih Vlasti), February 1947.

89 Ibid.

90 AJ, Inventory 144, 1-9, Synod of the Serbian Orthodox Church, no. 346, Letter of protest from the synod of the SOC to the republican-level KPV of Serbia with a request to reverse the decrees, February 11, 1947.

91 AJ, Inventory 144, 1-9, Synod of the Serbian Orthodox Church, no. 1147, Letter of protest to the Executive of the Federal Government, March 31, 1947.

92 Thomas A. Marschak, “Centralized versus Decentralized Resource Allocation: The Yugoslav Laboratory,” The Quarterly Journal of Economics 82 (1968): 566.

93 Radić, Država i Verske Zajednice, 1945–1970: Prvi Deo 1945–1953 (Belgrade: Institut za Novu Istoriju Srbije, 2002), 385–400.

94 Vjekoslav Perica, Balkan Idols: Religion and Nationalism in Yugoslav States (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 121.

95 Marcus Tanner, Croatia: A Nation Forged in War (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), 194.

96 Radio Free Europe, Internal Affairs, Central Committee Plenums of Yugoslavia’s Six Republics Approve Purge of Ranković and Party Reforms, October 3, 1966: 1.

97 Sabrina Ramet, Nihil Obstat: Religion, Politics, and Social Change in East-Central Europe and Russia (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998), 41.

98 Vjekoslav Perica, “The Catholic Church and the Making of the Croatian Nation, 1970–1984,” Eastern European Politics and Societies 14, no. 3 (2000): 532.

99 Viktor Meier, “Der Titostaat in der Krise: Jugoslawien nach 1966,” in Der Jugoslawien-Krieg: Handbuch zu Vorgeschichte, Verlauf und Konsequenzen, ed. Dunja Melčić (Opladen: Westdeutsche Verlag, 1999), 202.

100 Perica, “The Catholic Church and Making of the Croatian Nation,” 540–41.

101 Holm Sundhausen, Geschichte Serbiens: 19.–21. Jahrhundert (Cologne: Böhlau Verlag, 2007), 375.

102 David Binder, “Marko Nikežic, Yugoslav Liberal Forced to Quit by Tito, Dies at 69,” New York Times, January 9, 1991, 20.

103 Peter Palmer, “The Churches and the Conflict in the Former Yugoslavia,” in Religion and International Relations, ed. Ken R. Dark (Basingstoke: MacMillan, 2000), 87.

104 Perica, Balkan Idols, 51.

105 Ibid., 52.

106 Ger Duijzings, Religion and the Politics of Identity in Kosovo (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), 38–45.

107 Hugh Poulton, “Macedonians and Albanians as Yugoslavs,” in Yugoslavism: Histories of a Failed Idea, 1918–1992, ed. Dejan Djokić (London: Hurst & Company, 2003), 129.

108 Noel Malcolm, Kosovo: A Short History (New York: New York University Press, 1998), 334–35.

109 “Belgrade Sends Tanks to Rebellious Region,” The New York Times, April 4, 1981, 21.

110 Perica, Balkan Idols, 123–24.

111 Ibid., 124–25.

112 Mitja Velikonja, “In Hoc Signo Vinces: Religious Symbolism in the Balkan Wars 1991–1995,” International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society 17, no. 1 (2003): 30–32.

113 Paul Hockenoos, Homeland Calling: Exile Patriotism and the Balkan Wars (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003), 76.

Volume 4 Issue 1 CONTENTS

pdfMarie Černá

From “Occupation” to “Friendly Assistance”: The “Presence” of Soviet Troops in Czechoslovakia after August 19681

The Warsaw pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968 was without doubt a milestone in the history of Czechoslovakia. In the beginning, it mobilized and unified almost the whole nation against the enemy, whose status as enemy was quite apparent. But unified resistance to the occupation did not last long. It began to crumble as steps were taken to present a reinterpretation of the “occupation” as an act of “friendly assistance.” A shift in the image of the Soviet Army became a prerequisite of the normalization policy of the regime. This article identifies and explains the most important aspects of the changing image of the Soviet troops in Czechoslovakia in the late 1960s and early 1970s and some of the consequences of these changes for Czechoslovak society. These changes occurred mainly at the level of official presentation. Nevertheless, the official politics of friendship had tangible consequences, reflected both in everyday life and the overall social and political climate.

Keywords: Soviet Troops, Czechoslovakia, occupation, normalization, friendship


The Warsaw Pact military intervention in August 1968 and the subsequent presence of Soviet troops in Czechoslovakia2 unquestionably played an essential role in Czechoslovakia’s history. It is generally known that important changes took place in Czechoslovakia after August 1968. The regime came down hard on the population and limited civil rights and freedoms. These acts of interference ended the previous process of gradual relaxation, which had been accelerated mainly by the Prague Spring, which began in January 1968.3 In this process, called, in the jargon of the period, “consolidation” or “normalization,” the intervention played the key role. In this respect, various observers of and actors in the events of the past have pointed to, first and foremost, the reconfirmation of the limited autonomy of the Czechoslovak political elites in decision-making and their dependence on the Soviet leaders.4 In more general works about the normalization of Czechoslovak society, however, Soviet political and local military representatives are largely absent. Whereas the military and political aspects of the intervention5 and the numbers of victims6 are on the whole well charted, the impact in practice of the subsequent presence of the Soviet troops on Czechoslovak society and on its normalization has been neglected. This is surely also linked to the fact that we recall mostly the times during which most of Czechoslovak society, officially and unofficially, perceived the Soviet Army as an occupying force, that is, the period which began in the wake of the intervention and came to an end with the withdrawal of the Soviet troops in 1990–91.7 “Occupation” has thus become the lens through which the presence of the Soviet Army has usually been seen since 1989. Nevertheless, the term actually had a very short life in the post-August history of Czechoslovakia, and its gradual vanishing of the term “occupation” from the political scene, the mass media, and public life was of key importance for Czechoslovak society in this period. Just as significant is the fact that the term, with all its practical implications, did not officially return until the collapse of the Communist regime in late 1989.

If we want to consider the more complex question of the presence of the Soviet Army and its impact on Czechoslovak society and normalization, it is necessary first to identify the gradual essential change in the perception of the Soviet Army since the intervention. A shift in the image of the Soviet Army became a prerequisite of the normalization policy of the regime, which was based on discrediting the Prague Spring by describing it as an attempted counterrevolution. Only if the image of the Soviet Army as an occupying force were transformed into the image of a savior would it be possible to reinterpret the Prague Spring as an attempt at counterrevolution and condemn and discredit its leading actors. The social and political changes that took place in Czechoslovakia after 1968 would have been impossible or at the very least meaningless if the image of the Soviet Army as the occupier had not changed considerably. Other contemporaneous terms, such as “right-wing opportunism” and “anti-socialist elements,” acquired meaning only if the occupation by the Soviet forces was perceived as friendly assistance, and terms such as “occupation,” “collaboration,” and “democratization process” lost their meaning. Considering that the main shift in the official perception of the Soviet Army occurred in the first two years after the beginning of the intervention, it is obvious that a lot must have happened in this period. A great deal of effort at various levels must have been expended in order for a spontaneously shared image of the occupier and enemy to change into its complete opposite in this short period. It was mainly change at the level of official presentation. Nevertheless, even that had tangible consequences, reflected both at the level of everyday life and the overall social and political climate. With the gradual change of the official image of the Soviet Army, the declared attitude toward it necessarily had to change, too. Friendship became an integral part of state policy, and as part of policy rhetoric it was implemented across society. As the pressure demanding a reinterpretation of the August 1968 events increased, opinions about different forms of contact with the Soviet Army changed as well, from despised collaboration to valued cooperation. The initial covert cooperation of politically radical and socially ostracized individuals with Soviet officers gradually developed into an officially endorsed norm. In this article, I endeavor to identify and explain the most important aspects of the changing image of the Soviet troops in Czechoslovakia in the late 1960s and early 1970s and some of the consequences of this change for Czechoslovak society.

The sources that I use in my research are of various provenances. A special source of information, particularly for the early stage of the presence of Soviet troops in Czechoslovakia, is the collection of documents of the Government Commission of the Czech and Slovak Federative Republic for Analysis of the Events of 1967–1970, which was established in the early 1990s. The collection is held at the Institute of Contemporary History in Prague. It contains records from various regions of the Czech Republic, which help the historian understand the problem at the local level in the very places where Soviet troops were based. Among the other local materials I have used are town chronicles, regional newspapers, and archive records from two former garrison towns, Vysoké Mýto, a town of several thousand people in east Bohemia, and Trutnov, a regional capital in northeast Bohemia.

The Occupation and the Community of Non-violent Resistance

When troops from the Soviet Union, Hungary, East Germany, Poland, and Bulgaria poured into Czechoslovakia on August 21, 1968,8 most of the inhabitants of the country were shocked. The trauma that this event caused ranked with that of the other national tragedies, such as the annexation of the Sudetenland to the Third Reich in autumn 1938 and the German occupation that began in mid-March 1939. Today, it is recalled in respectful commemorations and written about in history books. The explanation for the significance of this trauma lies not only in the number of dead and wounded civilians,9 but also, perhaps mainly, in the great wave of non-violent national resistance that followed in its wake. What is essential, however, is that slogans in Czech and Russian10 and resolutions and declarations condemning the occupation as an illegitimate and violent intervention in the internal affairs of the state were written by almost everyone. Open political conflict with the Soviet Union was unthinkable for the Czechoslovak political leadership; nevertheless, among them, tendencies to condemn the military intervention triumphed. Thus, members of the top party and government bodies at first joined together with journalists and editors, employees of all kinds of institutions and enterprises, and students, school children, and other individuals in the nationwide protest. For having done this, they received extraordinary support. This unity experienced immediately after the August military intervention went beyond the political protests, which were ultimately doomed to failure. One finds signs of solidarity that resemble what the political scientist James Krapfl referred to, when examining Czechoslovak society in 1989, as a “sacred sense of community.”11 Both in 1968 and in 1989, in addition to protesting and referring to the occupiers as the enemy, people expressed solidarity with one another, and they identified common values and basic principles of community, creatively ascribing special meaning to the August events by doing so. In parallel with the everyday danger, frustration, humiliation, and sense of powerlessness when face to face with tanks, a wave of expression welled up, which was a celebration of national solidarity and declarations of shared values. Those values were not just values of resistance, but also, and indeed mainly, prudence and non-violence. The general sharing of these values became a further source of pride at the time.12 At this level, the actual impossibility of effectively preventing the military intervention could be recast into the positive value of non-violence, from which society could draw a sense of moral superiority. The basic principle upon which solidarity was being formed after August 21, 1968 was, apart from prudence and non-violence, rejection of the military intervention. And the intervention was considered chiefly a Soviet affair.


Any community threatened by an external enemy seeks to defend certain values, prescribing appropriate conduct with regards to the enemy and, by contrast, condemning inappropriate conduct. This code was embodied in a number of ceremonial commitments incorporated into numerous statements, such as “We shall not be traitors,” and also in the slogans that surfaced on occasion, such as “Not a slice of bread or drop of water for the occupier!” and “Shame on collaborators!” It would be wrong to think that everyone was of the same opinion on that point, for had there been unanimity, there would have been no “letter of invitation.”13 There were definitely many people who were nervous about the developments leading towards the democratization of Czechoslovakia, and they felt that things were getting out of hand and moving in the wrong direction. There were also people who were afraid, insulted, and abused by developments in the weeks and months before the August intervention.14 One would be better off assuming that the voices of these people were not really heard in the turmoil of late August, and that when they were heard, these people faced threats of revenge from others.

For example, the general manager of Dioptra, a state-owned business in the town of Turnov in northern Bohemia, was with his apprentices on an excursion in Hungary when the Soviet-led troops arrived, and he openly praised the intervention. At a Communist party meeting of the factory after he returned, he was called a collaborator and was subsequently dismissed from his post as general manager.15 Today, of course, it is hard to ascertain the exact motives and facts of such stories. We will never learn what the Dioptra general manager said in Hungary or who said what about him or to him. We do not know what resentments, interests, and passions played a role. What is important, however, is that the accusations of collaboration, of improper conduct with regards to the occupiers and inappropriate opinions, could have real power and lead to tough and often officially approved sanctions. That, however, could only have been the case under circumstances in which the generally shared norm of rejecting the “occupation” was expressed by a wide range of more or less practical or symbolic acts of protest.


Unified resistance to the occupation did not last long, in spite of the fact that the resistance found significant support in all of the social strata of the country. The pressure exerted by the Soviets in their power politics was relentless. The physical presence of armed Soviet soldiers, who often crudely intervened in local events, was combined with systematic pressure by Soviet politicians on their Czechoslovak counterparts.16 This pressure began immediately after the military intervention with the Soviet “abduction” of the Czechoslovak state and party leaders to Moscow. During the talks with the Soviets, the Czechoslovak delegation was forced to accept a number of compromises, including the invalidation of the Extraordinary Party Congress (Mimořádný sjezd KSČ) on August 22, 1968, and all of its resolutions. They also had to accept limitations on the freedom of speech and association, the withdrawal of Czechoslovak demands to have the crisis put on the agenda of the UN Security Council, and mainly the de facto legitimation of the “temporary presence” of Warsaw Pact troops in Czechoslovakia.17 These compromises were confirmed by the signing of the “Moscow Protocol.”18 Of all the generally known facts, I would emphasize that among the basic demands of Moscow was a reinterpretation of the Warsaw Pact intervention and the establishment of “friendly” relations. It is clear that the designation “occupier” profoundly upset and offended the Soviet politicians. At the end of August, General Nikolai Ogarkov (1917–1994), a plenipotentiary of the Soviet Minister of Defense, in a conversation with Josef Smrkovský (1911–1974), the Chairman of the Czechoslovak Federal Assembly, demanded that in their speeches the representatives of the Czechoslovak state should “speak a normal language” and not use words like “occupier,” because it prevented “normalization.”19

This was definitely not merely the reaction of a jilted partner, who jealously seeks to compel a rebel to return to his or her former devotion and compliance. The continuous push for Soviet interests in “twinning” (družba) and cooperation between the Soviet troops and various institutions (including factories, schools) and in personal contacts between Soviet officers and Czechoslovak citizens, officials, and institutions was mostly strategic. Not merely a matter of ceremony, it was an effective means of gathering intelligence and gaining control over otherwise unpredictable events. It is therefore no surprise that the planning of “friendly” relations became the subject of official reports of leading Soviet ideologues. For example, as early as September 4, 1968, the Chief of the Main Political Directorate, General Alexei Yepishev, was proposing ways for the Soviet Army to contribute to the “normalization” of Czechoslovakia to the Central Committee of the CPSU. Part of his proposal was a broadly conceived “buttressing of twinning and comradely relations with the population and members of the Czechoslovak People’s Army,” including military and political contacts with local party and state bodies, the Czechoslovak Armed Forces, social organizations, industrial and agricultural enterprises, and schools. These contacts entailed, among other things, “twinning evenings” (večery družby), participation of members of the local population in cultural events organized by Soviet soldiers, performances by music and dance troupes of the Soviet Army in Czechoslovak milieus, and even assistance by Soviet soldiers in farming. Yepishev recommended in particular using the Soviet fight against fascism for propaganda purposes, therefore to invite soldiers who had participated in the liberation of Czechoslovakia in 1945, and to emphasize the “fighting friendship” (bojové přátelství) between the Soviet and Czechoslovak armed forces.20 In a similar spirit, during the Moscow talks in October 1968, Brezhnev offered the Czechoslovak delegation a detailed description of his vision of comradely friendship.21

A turnaround in relations between Czechoslovaks and the Soviet army may have seemed unthinkable in August 1968, because any such move would have been condemned as treason and collaboration.22 Nevertheless, the fundamental consequence of signing the “Moscow Protocol” was that the united resistance began to crumble and the first step was taken in the reinterpretation of the “occupation” as an act of “friendly assistance.”

It’s Better Not To Write Anything about Them

In the Moscow Protocol, the representatives of the Czechoslovak party and government committed themselves to taking power back from the mass media “so that they fully serve the cause of Socialism” and to taking measures that “would prevent the publishing in the press and broadcasting on radio and television of speeches that could cause conflict and tension between the population and the allied troops on Czechoslovak territory.”23

In order for the Soviets to withdraw their troops from the streets and government offices to garrisons and then eventually from the country altogether, the Czechoslovaks were expected to fulfil these terms and conditions, as well as a number of others. Shortly after the Czechoslovak leadership returned from Moscow, measures were taken to suppress the hitherto spontaneous expressions of resistance to Soviet troops. Among the most important was a government decree of August 30, 1968, which created the Press and Information Office (Úřad pro tisk, rozhlas a televizi). Upon its establishment, the office immediately issued orders that brought freedom of expression in line with the Moscow Protocol.24 According to the instructions that were issued, one was forbidden to use the word “occupier” or “occupation,” criticize the Warsaw pact countries or their Communist parties, attack their troops based on Czechoslovak territory, or write about victims or damages caused by the military intervention.25 These orders were subsequently implemented in all editorial offices throughout the country.

At a press conference, Oldřich Černík (1921–1994), the Czechoslovak premier, met with the editors-in-chief of Czech periodicals to explain the situation and called on them to heed the new restrictions. When asked what journalists were allowed to write with regards to the Soviet Union and other Warsaw Pact countries, he replied, “It’s better not to write anything about them.”26

During the process of normalization, in the most basic sense of the word (in other words the withdrawal of the allied forces from public spaces and government offices and the restoration of the usual administration of the country), this legislation assigned the main responsibility to Czechoslovak society. How the situation developed would allegedly be up to the people of Czechoslovakia. The message that the Czechoslovak political leaders took back home from Moscow in August 1968 was essentially that they should act with discipline and avoid any measures or steps that Moscow might perceive as provocative. Only this would make a return to normality possible. It was in this spirit, as an expression of the required self-discipline, that the Czechoslovak political leaders, upon their return, also presented the re-imposition of censorship and restrictions on the freedom of association. Normalization began to be the mantra to which everything was supposed to be subordinated, although the term gradually went from meaning the restoration of the basic operations of the state to meaning the shoring-up of the authoritarian regime and the imposition of limitations on civil rights and freedoms. We can clearly see that politicians thus stopped unanimously saying “No, to occupation,” and a considerable number of them soon began pointing out other threats to order and unity. Henceforth, those who were to be considered dangerous were those who rebelled too openly against the occupation. These voices against rebellion gradually gained strength. And the essential thing is that one of the two fundamental principles of national solidarity that had been so solemnly proclaimed after August 21, 1968 began to thrive at the expense of the other. Resistance to the occupation began to give way to prudence, non-violence, and self-discipline. The national solidarity that had been created by everyday politics thus gradually, but increasingly, became a caricature of the national solidarity that had grown out the August events. Nevertheless, it provided the opportunity for some continuity and, last but not least, for continuous support for the political leaders who in the eyes of the public represented the liberalization that had begun in January 1968.

A Rift

In a resolution of the November 1968 plenum of the CPCz Central Committee, the top party leadership called the rightwing, anti-Socialist forces the foremost enemies of the state and more or less officially abolished the term “collaborator,” or, rather, logically came to the conclusion that where there is no occupation, there is no collaboration: “The Central Committee and its officials will also come out against all attempts to discredit Czechoslovak comrades who honorably promote party policy principles against any bullying they face for their openly internationalist relations with the USSR.”27

With these statements, the Czechoslovak politicians quickly defined themselves as being in opposition to the rebelliously minded part of society, and they took their primary task to be the quelling of expressions of defiance. In November 1968, when university students and some secondary-school students went on strike in support of the November plenum of the CPCz Central Committee, to encourage the Committee to stay the course of democratization and maintain the gains that had been made in civil rights, the party leadership rejected their support. The student activities were condemned as “ill-considered” and the public was called upon “not to allow this dangerous situation to grow.”28

Open resistance to the occupation and to the concessions made by the Czechoslovak politicians began to be politically undesirable and, as such, gradually became the target of police surveillance and repression. During the spontaneous demonstrations that were held in Prague on October 28, 1968 (the fiftieth anniversary of the establishment of the Czechoslovak Republic) and November 7, 1968 (the fifty-first anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution; both occasions were state holidays), the police intervened and took some demonstrators into custody. The events were closely observed and assessed by the secretariat of the Ministry of Interior.29 The First Secretary of the CPCz Central Committee, Alexander Dubček (1921–1992), the icon of the reform process, spoke out clearly on this point: “The greatest pitfalls of the consolidation process are [...] attitudes that directly accuse the political leaders of capitulatory behavior and treason, causing an anti-Soviet psychosis.”30 The political leaders thus made it clear who had to be excluded from the national community.

The Treaty on the “Temporary Presence” of Soviet Troops

Dubček’s mention of capitulatory behavior and treason was undoubtedly related to other political events: as set out in the Moscow Protocol, the Treaty on the Temporary Presence of Troops was signed in October 1968.31 That meant an important change in developments. Under the terms of the treaty, most of the Warsaw Pact troops were withdrawn from Czechoslovakia, but, on the other hand, the “temporary presence” of Soviet troops was made legal; the secret codicil to the treaty mentions 75,000 Soviet soldiers.32 The treaty was concerned with matters such as what the Czechoslovaks were meant to provide for the Soviet soldiers, who would bear the costs for their basing, how foodstuffs, goods, and services would be supplied to the Soviet garrisons, and who would pay for them. Once adopted, the treaty shifted the problem of the basing of Soviet troops considerably towards practical matters. In the 33 locations where the garrisons were stationed throughout the country, many problems had to be dealt with, including housing, rent, administration, supplies, the movement of soldiers and military equipment, the determining of jurisdictions, and the use of energy and water.33 For local governments, working together became an unavoidable technical necessity. And the better such collaboration took place, the easier it was to find a solution acceptable to both sides, or to obtain redress if the Soviets in some way flagrantly breached agreements. At a meeting of the chairmen of the national committees, held at the Presidium of the Government on October 29, 1968, to discuss the adopted treaty, the question was also raised by the Deputy Minister of Defense, General Václav Dvořák: “Regular matter-of-fact relations with the Soviet commanders are proving to be fruitful and are thus helping to prevent conflicts.”34 The minutes of the meeting include the opinions and local experiences that contributed to good relations with Soviet soldiers. A representative of the Municipal National Committee of Mladá Boleslav, for example, “talked about his three-week experience of the presence of Soviet troops there, with whom a detailed regimen was agreed on in the interests of the citizens and the operation of the town. He pointed out that the expansion of good relations between the Czech authorities, collective farms, and factories on the one hand and the Soviet command on the other facilitated the work and improved the status of the national-committee officials dealing with daily problems.”35

Clearly, cooperation and twinning, politically required and practically necessary, could be put to practical use at the garrison bases in the service of the interests of locals as well. The fact that using Soviet soldiers for various part-time jobs gradually became quite common practice is demonstrated by an October 1970 entry in the Vysoké Mýto town chronicle: “Relations with the local Red Army garrison should no longer be unrestricted and accessible to all. Enterprises, including collective farms, have begun to use the services of the garrisons at all workplaces where they are behind schedule. Relations will henceforth be possible only by means of the local committee for garrison relations […].”36

We Want Friendly and Comradely Relations

In the Treaty on the Temporary Presence of Soviet Troops, the Czechoslovak Republic also committed itself “to endeavor to buttress friendship and collaboration” with the Soviet Union. In practice, this turned out to be no mere formality; it was a commitment that the Czechoslovak politicians were determined to keep and to demand of others.

In November 1968, the Presidium of the CPCz Central Committee received a letter for approval the contents of which were to be passed on to district and regional party committees. The letter includes the following passage: “it is fully in our interests to normalize relations with the USSR and to establish and develop social relations with Soviet troops. These relations can also significantly contribute to the gradual overcoming of problems and misunderstandings […] [W]e want these relations to be friendly and comradely.” The letter also emphasized that “Communists in particular should actively endeavor to achieve the normalization of our relations with Soviet troops.”37 Such instructions gave considerable impetus to efforts to ensure that comradely friendship with Soviet soldiers where they were stationed would become one of the important tasks for party units and organizations at all levels. It was therefore a task that could not easily be avoided. Considering that basic party organizations existed in practically all institutions, offices, and enterprises and that these organizations regularly had to provide evidence and accounts of the work they had done and the tasks they had fulfilled, the space for working together was thrown wide open.

Soviet officers and agents oversaw the fulfillment of obligations stemming from the Treaty, and they did not hesitate to protest if they felt that Czechs were hampering the development of friendly relations.38 Clearly, the Czechoslovak side could not turn a deaf ear to such complaints and demands for the simple reason that it had to deal with them at the highest party and government levels. The measures were not long in coming. In 1969, for example, in the north-east Bohemian district of Semily alone the state police sent nineteen people to court for the production and dissemination of printed matter, including leaflets, and for writing anti-Soviet slogans.39

The Local Press

Places where Soviet garrisons were based had to find a way to deal with their presence and the associated pressures. The local press found itself in a strange position. To a large extent, it continued to obey the premier’s instructions that it was “better not to write anything about them.” The official district weekly, Jiskra Orlicka (The Orlice District Spark), mentioned only in passing that Soviet soldiers would be stationed in the Ústí nad Orlicí district.40 The Soviet soldiers were not mentioned again until November 5, 1968, about a month after they had been stationed in the area. The fact that the weekly completely omitted the massive troop movements that accompanied the deployment41 is an indication of how Soviet soldiers would be reported on in future. In an interview held on November 5, the chairman of the District National Committee assured a reader that Soviet troops would not “make claims to flats” or other housing, that they would be provided only with surplus local foodstuffs, that the soldiers’ representatives would hold talks about complying with local rules and regulations, and that the movement of common soldiers would be restricted to joint leave in closed units.42 By not discussing certain problems in the newspaper, the chairman of the National Committee was endeavoring to forestall fear and panic caused by the unchecked movement and behavior of Soviet troops in garrison towns. Not admitting a problem, or veiling it in impersonal administrative terms, was the general approach used in this weekly. From this local periodical we therefore learn little about the various aspects of the coexistence of Soviet garrisons and local populations. We do, however, learn how the official image of unproblematic and mutually beneficial coexistence was gradually formed in part with the use of the local press. When, on rare occasions, local newspapers did report on conflicts or incidents between Soviet soldiers and Czech civilians, it was with the aim of “scolding” undesirable Czech excesses. In the garrison town of Česká Třebová in eastern Bohemia, some panic was caused among Soviet soldiers when a young man, identified only as Mr H., fired a toy pistol near their patrol. The Jiskra Orlicka journalist commented:


Most of the people with whom I have discussed this case condemn the behavior of Mr H., because it does not help to calm already stormy waters. [...] Similar acts, which lead to such conclusions, should disappear from daily life. They are no solution to the complicated problems of contemporary life.43

In a similar spirit, the weekly paper briefly reported in May 1969 that ten young men in Vysoké Mýto had attacked a Soviet major and that “young men” had torn down a red flag from the secondary school. The mention of these cases in the crime and accident column ranks them with other small crimes, and in a similarly dry tone concludes, “All the culprits have been taken into police custody.”44 A June issue of the weekly published an interview with the chairman of the District National Committee about the “consolidation” of the country and the “principles of the consolidation of public order.” The chairman said that it was unthinkable that “we would not intervene decisively against disorderly conduct [...], rowdyism, [...] and vandalism.”45

The attacks against Soviet soldiers came under the category of “rowdyism” (výtržnictví) and “vandalism” (vandalství). The local press thus communicated the idea that those who protest in any way against the basing of the Soviet soldiers are a dangerous element that is disturbing the peace. The press was helping the Czechoslovak and Soviet representatives remove public references to the fact that many people perceived the Soviet military intervention as an act of political aggression. The delicate topic of the coexistence of Soviet garrisons and Czechoslovak civilians, with all the possible problems that it really entailed, was more or less avoided by the local press. Gradually, it was depicted mainly with conflict-free images and reports about friendly, comradely relations and joint ceremonies. For example, the district press devoted much more space to the peace celebrations in the garrison town of Česká Třebová to commemorate the 1944 Slovak National Uprising than it did to the first anniversary of the August intervention:


A procession of local citizens, members of the Soviet Army, and units of the People’s Militia, which had participated in operations against anti-Socialist elements in Prague, passed through the town. [...] To shouts of approval and the thunderous applause of the participants in the celebrations, the secretary of the District Committee of the Czechoslovak–Soviet Friendship Association thanked members of the People’s Militia, the police, and the Czechoslovak Army, who had come out decisively against the rowdies and anti-Socialist forces in Czechoslovakia.46


The rift between the official Czechoslovak representatives and opponents to the military intervention probably came to a peak in August 1969. The demonstrations during the first anniversary of the Warsaw Pact intervention47 were suppressed by the Czechoslovak Army, the People’s Militia, and the police, without the Soviet Army having to move in.48 The official press stood fully behind the crackdown, crudely denigrated the demonstrators, and offered readers a picture of peaceful coexistence with the Soviet Army.49


Obviously, not everything was as the press presented it at the time. The Vysoké Mýto Chronicler was not afraid to take the position of an ordinary citizen and to enumerate the difficulties Soviet soldiers were causing in the town. Foremost among those difficulties was the movement of heavy military equipment, the buying-up of goods, small incidents caused by drunken soldiers, occasional acts of petty theft, the illegal requisitioning of land by the Soviet Army, and the using up of drinking water.50

After the resolution and official proclamation of the party and government representatives about the need to foster friendly relations with the Soviet Union and its army, it took some time before the idea was fully accepted among the locals with all of its consequences. People did not easily abandon the idea that the Soviet soldiers who were settling in their towns were occupiers. The Vysoké Mýto chronicler also recorded local attempts to boycott this comradeship and to resist or protest the presence of the Soviet Army. This protest was of a highly diverse nature. No Soviet films were shown in the local cinema; by contrast, admission to a newsreel about the August events in Prague was free of charge. Even the town councilors were writing protests against the establishment of Soviet garrisons in Vysoké Mýto. A separate, especially creative part of the story involves the leaflets, pamphlets, slogans, and jokes made at the expense of Soviet soldiers. Information about various social events, such as parties and balls, were not publicly advertised in the town; sometimes they were by invitation only, so that the Soviet garrison would not find out about them and would not attend. Proposals for twinning were rejected by the institutions that were put forward for this. There were even occasional scuffles between young civilians and Soviet soldiers, particularly in pubs, when Czechs, for example, took soldiers’ caps or cut off their buttons or insignia,51 verbally attacked soldiers, and shouted out protest slogans in front of the barracks.52

Similar behavior, however, led to condemnation not only in the local press but also, indeed mainly, from the local political representatives, who were held responsible for the implementation of commitments stemming from the signing of the Czechoslovak–Soviet agreements. They saw the public protests as disloyalty in a situation complicated by the presence of Soviet soldiers and various, often contradictory pressures. As the chairman of the Trutnov national committee said:


Normalization in our town is being impaired by various incidents that are being provoked by irresponsible individuals from the ranks both of adults and of the youth. [...] The scenes they are making do not attest to the cultural quality of our nation, and truly discredit us. […] Nor, however, can we passively look on forever at the gross disregard shown for commitments that our representatives accepted by signing the Moscow and Prague agreements.53

The local representatives considered any protest against the presence of Soviet troops to be irresponsible because it harmed the interests of the community as a whole, for instance the eventual return to normal life in the town and the resolution of everyday problems; moreover, the protests were in opposition to views and decisions that were made at the highest levels of the state and party. As such, any protest had to be systematically made illegitimate and practically wiped out.

Influenced by these circumstances, open individualized protest against the presence of Soviet troops became increasingly risky, and thus moved to the anonymous level. It mainly took the form of anecdotes and jokes, which mocked the growing cooperation and comradely friendship with Soviet troops and reacted to developments in politics and society in general.54

Breaking the Ice

The mounting pressure was also linked to gradual personnel changes in senior positions. This first took place at the state-wide level and eventually, from mid-1969 onwards, also at the regional level. They included the usual exchanges of regional and district party secretaries, which led to a series of other personnel changes in the leadership of the national committees and important industrial and agricultural enterprises. An integral part of these changes was the reassessment of the recent past, including the recanting of previous statements of support for the Dubček leadership and of disagreement with the occupation. In the “break” with the past before August 1968 and shortly afterwards, the Soviet Army played a key role. The declared attitude towards the Soviet Army became an index of the more general attitude towards political developments. It was by means of comradely friendship that the new and old established local notables demonstrated their political loyalty. For example, the new mayor of Trutnov, in a speech about the activity of the city council in February 1970, distanced himself from the pre-August 1968 political developments by criticizing the previous leadership of the district national committee for having been politically reckless (avanturismus), for having failed to respect the Moscow Protocol, and for having refused to “enter into relations” with Soviet Army representatives. He characterized the tearing down of a Soviet tank from a pedestal in August 1968 as an “anti-Soviet and counterrevolutionary act,” for which the erstwhile representatives of the district national committee were also responsible.55

With similar speeches, functionaries made it clear whose side they were on, and in general they distanced themselves from the displays that were perceived negatively and proscribed, now called, for example, anti-Socialist, anti-Soviet, and rightwing opportunist. They thereby accepted the interpretation of the Prague Spring as an attempt at counterrevolution and the Soviet-led intervention as an operation to deliver the country from chaos.

The willingness to establish and develop comradely friendly relations, which had only recently met with resentment and thus been socially degraded, was gradually transformed at the official level into a positive expression of loyalty in unfavorable circumstances. This loyalty, however, now ceased to be pilloried as deviant conduct by obstinate oddballs, hardline dogmatists, and jilted individuals. Owing to gradually changing circumstances, it began to be increasingly rewarded. Together with this, the people who were previously punished for their “collaborationist attitude” were exonerated. That is also reflected in the minutes of the June 1969 plenum of the Ústí nad Orlicí District Committee of the CPCz. The minutes state that the District Committee of the CPCz “has made amends for mistakes and errors; it has restored the honor of people who were smeared and attacked for having defended international alliances.”56 The Soviet command, the exonerated conservatives and collaborators, including the leadership of the new course, strengthened one another’s positions. Under these circumstances, the Soviet soldiers were increasingly admitted into Czech enterprises and schools and were invited to participate in the founding meetings of branches of the Czechoslovak–Soviet Friendship Association.

Furthermore, the Czechoslovak–Soviet Friendship Association provides a convenient illustration of changes in the perception of the USSR and the Soviet Army in Czechoslovak society more broadly during the relatively short period since August 1968. At first, it may have seemed that the August intervention would be fatal to an organization with a pre-war tradition and a mass grass-roots membership. A number of local chapters did indeed close down, people en masse cancelled their memberships, which, anyway, they had been called upon to do by slogans chanted in the streets and on posters.57 The Association was eventually discredited in the eyes of the public by the contacts between several of its members and the Soviet Army soon after the intervention. In the course of 1969, when popular protest against the occupation was petering out, new chapters of the Czechoslovak–Soviet Friendship Association were founded, but considering the general atmosphere this was usually done privately, almost clandestinely. Nevertheless, the change in the official course of the uppermost level of politics, which, in its attitude to the USSR and Soviet Army, was gradually projected into the mass media, as well as into local politics, also brought about a fundamental transformation in the perception of the Czechoslovak–Soviet Friendship Association. The sudden growth in membership over the course of the 1970s58 demonstrates that the Association had freed itself of the reputation of being a collaborationist organization for a handful of conservative dregs. Although its proclaimed mission was the “buttressing” of relations with the Soviet Union and also the establishment of contacts with the Soviet Army,59 it became for many people an acceptable variant of the required public involvement and loyalty towards the political regime. One’s attitude to the Soviet Union became part of the assessment of anyone who aspired to hold a job other than manual laborer.

The fact that one registered at one’s workplace (instead of one’s home) to join a branch of the Czechoslovak–Soviet Friendship Association had a fundamental impact on the growth in membership, because it became part of how one was assessed politically and occupationally by one’s employer. Comradely friendship was thus incorporated in the generally implemented cadre system, which included the regular political assessment of employees.60 This was of course most strikingly reflected during the political vetting of party and non-party members in 1969–70. One’s attitude to the presence of the Soviet Army in Czechoslovakia or to the Soviet Union in general became a key topic on the basis of which the vetted employees and party members were assessed.61 This also contributed to the official reassessment of the basing of Soviet troops in Czechoslovakia.

Official Images of Friendship

Contacts between Soviet soldiers (mainly officers) and the local population occurred mostly at the workplace, schools, national committees and social organizations. A delegation of soldiers, for example, was received by a factory organization of the CPCz and a branch of the Soviet–Czechoslovak Friendship Association; it was shown around these institutions, given refreshments, and then took part in a friendly discussion. Also publicized in the press were other, less formal meetings and contacts, including social gatherings of women, visits by Soviet teachers to local schools, joint programs for Soviet and Czechoslovak children, visits by Pioneers (a Communist organization for children) to garrisons, sports matches, performances by the Soviet garrison band at various social and arts events, and New Year’s Eve celebrations together. Official and unofficial events occasionally overlapped. Sometimes, certain natural, spontaneous tendencies and interests could be intentionally used for similar “twinning” or “comradely friendship” ends.62 And it was the “informal” component of meetings, such as concerts, dances,63 sports matches, and gatherings for children, which were meant to play an important role in the creation of a positive image of the Soviet Army as an ardent friend.

An important way of initiating mutual contacts was to hold public political and ritualized events, which, since May 1945, had been a tradition for more than twenty years. And though the tradition was sometimes interrupted under the influence of the Thaw in the 1960s, it offered something on which to build. One could cyclically return to the regular commemorations of events such as the birth of Lenin, May Day (1 May), the Liberation (9 May), Soviet Armed Forces Day, and the October Revolution. (Indeed, since the date of the Revolution by the New Style calendar was 7 November, rather than 25 October, the whole month of November was devoted to Czechoslovak–Soviet friendship.) Many holidays and other important days were one way or another linked with the Soviet Union. The public events that accompanied them, which included parades, the laying of wreaths, demonstrations, concerts, and exhibitions, became a natural platform for public appearances by Soviet soldiers as well. Such ceremonies also contributed to the rapid change in the official image of the Soviet Army. This was perhaps most strikingly manifested during the celebrations in May 1970 to mark the Red Army’s liberation of Czechoslovakia 25 years earlier. The speeches, public appearances, and articles that appeared to mark the occasion reflect the symbolic linking of the Red Army liberators of 1945 and the Soviet soldiers of 1968. The events of August 1968 thus officially became another milestone in the history of Czechoslovak–Soviet friendship. As the newspaper of the Karosa bus manufacturer in Vysoké Mýto put it,


the friendship between the common people of Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union is sprinkled with blood [...]. Do those 144,000 Soviet citizens who had to die in our country during the Second World War mean nothing? [...] In August [1968] they did not leave us in danger either; they came [...].64

Soviet ideologues also recommended linking the Red Army soldiers of 1945 with the Soviet soldiers of 1968. With this copiously employed symbolic fusion there emerged an image of the timeless Soviet soldier-liberator and benefactor, who could not be opposed, because that would mean trampling on the memory of the anti-fascist fighters. The presence of the Soviet Army also brought repeated exaltation of the Soviet struggle against fascism.

The official reception of the Soviet Army as a savior was accompanied by a renewed wave of idealization and the promotion of the Soviet Union, Soviet culture, the land of the Soviets, and the Soviet people. Rudé právo journalists reported on a two-week visit to the USSR in August 1969: “The striking production successes of the Soviet workers and technicians were visible everywhere […] Many of us did not hide our admiration for the all-round progress, especially technical progress, to which we were witnesses.”65

The rhetorical style of this official confirmation of the indestructible bond was openly inspired by the Communist culture of the pre-war period and the Stalinist post-war period,66 which expressed love for and devotion to everything Soviet.67 At a somewhat less lyrical level, the reestablished friendship was expressed by an emphasis on the teaching of Russian, the promotion of courses in Russian, the increased importation of Soviet arts, including film, the establishment of comradely friendship and twinning at the district, town, enterprise, and school levels, organized excursions to the Soviet Union, and many competitions in poetry recitation and knowledge about the Soviet Union, just as Brezhnev and his ideologues had wanted.


Every political intervention carried out by military means also involves questions of resistance, conformity, and collaboration. In this sense, the turnaround in the official image of the Soviet Army from occupier to savior is probably not exceptional in history. We might today be surprised by the speed with which it occurred. This is undoubtedly connected to certain characteristics of the system that made such a quick change possible. It may seem that in the 1960s the authoritarian regime experienced a thaw. The events after August 1968, however, clearly show that the centralist principle of government remained essentially unchanged: censorship was immediately re-imposed, a number of civil rights and freedoms were revoked, personnel changes were quickly made according to the rules of promoting nomenclature cadres and keeping an eye on them, and mass vetting and purges were carried out. Open resistance to the intervention was quickly made illegal, and it was turned into a matter of investigation and prosecution by a strong secret police force. As soon as the political leadership of the country committed itself to the terms of the Moscow Protocol and the subsequent agreement on the temporary presence of Soviet troops, it had at its disposal a number of traditional instruments to pacify majority society and to foist responsibility on it for meeting its commitments. Since part of the agreements involved nurturing, fostering, or at least creating a semblance of friendly Czechoslovak–Soviet relations, active and public maintenance of a negative image of the Soviet Army as an occupying force was practically unsustainable in the long run.

The question of resistance, conformity, and collaboration is doubtlessly always partly a matter of personal choice. In this article, I explained mainly the wider structural or systemic aspects, which to a large extent created the framework for personal choices. In addition to informal, spontaneous, and private relations (which are more difficult to research), there were organized and official contacts. Above all, comradely friendship with Soviet soldiers or, more generally, a positive attitude towards the Soviet Union as a political commitment was integrated into the existing political and cadre system. This enabled control of the mass media, as well as supervision by the highest bodies of the state and party over the activity of subordinate bodies to ensure that they would not deviate from the centrally determined political line. Friendship became one of the criteria of the political assessment of individuals, groups, and institutions. One of the most common ways to meet such a commitment was to become a member of the Czechoslovak–Soviet Friendship Association. What membership actually entailed was determined by local conditions, as was the social inclusion of an individual. Clearly, the most frequent direct contacts with the Soviet officers took place at the level of the local and regional political élites and nomenclature cadres. An important aspect of the change in the official image of the Soviet Army was the experience of long-fostered friendship with the Soviet Union, both at the level of politics and politicians and of various institutions, as well as specific individuals. This tradition could be renewed by the usual tried and tested political rituals and by incorporating a new circumstance—the 1968 intervention—into it. This tradition included the systematic promotion and idealization of the Soviet Union and everything connected to it. The Soviet Army was then made an inconspicuous but important part of the image of the Soviet Union as benefactor, an image that had been created in a wide variety of ways.

The political consequences of the 1968 military intervention were undoubtedly far-reaching. Nevertheless, at the official level, one of the consequences of the subsequent political measures was the transformation of the image of the Soviet soldiers from the henchmen of an occupying force to saviors who brought deliverance. In the eyes of the public, their political importance was gradually but increasingly trivialized, and this shift was reflected in everyday life. They were incorporated into public political rituals, celebrations, social gatherings, and cultural events, and they became part of both the official and also the unofficial economy. In the mass media, they were often depicted in contexts and roles that were apparently not connected to politics, such as musicians in concerts, sportsmen in matches, people attending friendly discussions, volunteer workers helping out in factories and on cooperative farms. Similarly, contacts between Czechoslovak organizations and citizens and Soviet garrisons gradually lost their negative political associations of collaboration and betrayal. They became part of ceremonial acts and expressions of loyalty, which the citizens of the communist state were regularly forced to perform. These acts were judged positively by the regime, but were often considered a formality, devoid of meaning (including political meaning). The Soviet Army was thus gradually stripped of the meaning of occupier and important political actor, not only because of the ways in which it was presented in official propaganda, but also because of people’s real-life experiences.

Archival Sources

Ústav pro soudobé dějiny [Institute of Contemporary History, Prague], sbírka Komise vlády ČSFR pro analýzu událostí 1967–1970 [Collection of the Government Commission of the Czech and Slovak Federal Republic for Analysis of the Events of 1967–1970].

Státní okresní archiv Trutnov [State District Archive Trutnov], fond Městský národní výbor Trutnov [fond Trutnov National Committee].


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Translated by Derek and Marzia Paton

1 This article was supported by the grant-funded project no. DF11P01OVV030, “Stories from the History of the Czechoslovak State: Research and Experimental Development of Software Simulations for the Teaching of the History of the Bohemian Lands in the Twentieth Century,” funded by the Czech Ministry of Culture and carried out at the Faculty of Arts and the Faculty of Mathematics and Physics, Charles University, Prague, and the Institute of Contemporary History, Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, from 2011 to 2014.

2 Historians have estimated the number of Soviet soldiers who remained in Czechoslovakia after the signing of the agreement in October 1968, according to the initial agreements, at about 75,000. Antonín Benčík, Jan Paulík, and Jindřich Pecka, Vojenské otázky československé reformy 1967–1970: Srpen 1968–květen 1971 (Brno: Doplněk, 1999), 79. The exact number was not reported by the Soviet side until the numbers for 1990–91 were made public, according to which there were 73,500 soldiers and 56,832 family members on Czechoslovak territory. Jindřich Pecka, Odsun sovětských vojsk z Československa 1989–1991 (Prague: Ústav pro soudobé dějiny, 1996), 288. The number of garrison sites has been estimated at 33, to which one should add four airports, three military hospitals, nineteen depots, and five training grounds, though these numbers could in the course of time also change somewhat. Jindřich Pecka et al., Sovětská armáda v Československu 1968–1991: Chronologický přehled (Prague: Ústav pro soudobé dějiny, 1996), 198–206; Benčík, Paulík, and Pecka, Vojenské otázky československé reformy, 51.

3 The Prague Spring and subsequent intervention of Warsaw Pact armies rank among the most significant topics of Czech history and historiography. See Věra Břeňová, Pražské jaro ’68: Bibliografie, Prague: Ústav pro soudobé dějiny, 2013. Of the vast amount of research on this period, I would mention at least some of the English-language works: H. Gordon Skilling, Czechoslovakia’s Interrupted Revolution (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976); Kieran Williams, The Prague Spring and Its Aftermath: Czechoslovak Politics, 1968–1970 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997); and Fred H. Eidlin, The Logic of ‘Normalization’: The Soviet Intervention in Czechoslovakia of 21 August 1968 and the Czechoslovak Response (New York: Columbia University Press, 1980); Miklós Kun, Prague Spring – Prague Fall: Blank Spots of 1968 (Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 1996).

4 Jindřich Madry, Sovětská okupace Československa, jeho normalizace v letech 1969–1970 a role ozbrojených sil (Prague: Ústav pro soudobé dějiny AV ČR, 1994); Ondřej Felcman, Invaze a okupace: K úloze SSSR a sovětských vojsk ve vývoji Československa v letech 1968–1991 (Prague: Ústav pro soudobé dějiny AV ČR, 1995). Zdeněk Doskočil, Duben 1969: Anatomie jednoho mocenského zvratu (Prague: Ústav pro soudobé dějiny AV ČR, 2006).

5 Benčík, Paulík, and Pecka, Vojenské otázky československé reformy; Antonín Benčík, Operace Dunaj aneb Internacionální vražda Pražského jara (Prague: Krutina Jiří–Vacek, 2013); Daniel Povolný, Vojenské řešení Pražského jara 1968, vol. II: Československá lidová armáda v srpnu 1968 (Prague: Ministerstvo obrany ČR, 2010); Jiří Fidler, 21.8.1968 – okupace Československa (Prague: Havran, 2003); Jan Pauer, Prag 1968: Der Einmarsch des Warschauer Paktes. Hintergründe – Planung – Durchführung (Bremen: Temmen, 1995).

6 Milan Bárta et al., Victims of the Occupation: Warsaw Pact Invasion of Czechoslovakia: 21 August–31 December 1968 (Prague: Ústav pro studium totalitních režimů, 2008); Hynek Fajmon, Sovětská okupace Československa a její oběti (Brno: Centrum pro studium demokracie a kultury, 2005).

7 This has been occurring in the mass media during the annual commemoration of the August intervention and of the withdrawal of Soviet troops, as well as in academic writing. The most significant work undertaken thus far, which charts the presence of Soviet troops in Czechoslovakia from the beginning to the end and thus captures the changes in the attitudes of Czechoslovak politicians and society towards the Soviet Army, is Jindřich Pecka et al., Sovětská armáda v Československu 1968–1991. It provides a brief summary of events, negotiations, and meetings, together with articles related to the presence of Soviet troops and excerpts from a variety of archival records or periodicals.

8 More precisely: the East German army remained on alert in their own country and, except for a few specialists, ultimately did not even cross the frontier into Czechoslovakia. The total number of soldiers could never even be precisely determined. Estimates range from 200,000 to 500,000.

9 By mid-December 1968, the records show 94 dead and 345 seriously wounded Czechoslovak citizens. For more on this, see Bárta et al., Victims of the Occupation.

10 “Pochemu?” (Why?), “Sovetskie okupanty” (Soviet occupiers!), “Sovetskie fashisty” (Soviet fascists!), “Idite domoi” (Go home!), “Lenine, probuď se, Brežněv se zbláznil” (Lenin, wake up! Brezhnev’s gone mad!), “Mnichov 1938, Bratislava 1968” (Munich 1938, Bratislava 1968), “Eto nashe delo” (It’s our affair), “Ať žije Rudá armáda, ale někde jinde” (Long live the Red Army! But somewhere else), “Proletáři všech zemí, odejděte” (Proletarians of all countries, go away!), and thousands of others.

11 James Krapfl, Revolúcia s ľudskou tvárou: Politika, kultúra a spoločenstvo v československu po 17. novembri 1989 (Bratislava: Kalligram, 2009); idem, Revolution with a Human Face: Politics, Culture, and Community in Czechoslovakia 1989–1992 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2013.)

12 “It turned out, however, that [the occupation] did not crush the good qualities of our nations; rather, it galvanized them. The whole world now admires our nations,” Zemědělské noviny, August 27, 1968, quoted in Sedm pražských dnů: Dokumentace (1968), ed. Milan Otáhal, Vilém Prečan et al (Prague: Academia, 1990), 286; published in English as Robert Littell, ed., The Czech Black Book (London: Pall Mall Press, 1969); the Czech is now published online January 20, 2014, http://www.68.usd.cas.cz/cz/sedm-prazskych-dnu.html.

13 The so-called “letter of invitation” was signed by five high-ranking party and state functionaries, mostly members of the Presidium of the Central Committee of the Czechoslovak Communist Party: Alois Indra, Drahomír Kolder, Vasil Biľak, Oldřich Švestka, and Antonín Kapek. In the letter, they point to the danger of counterrevolution in the country and urge the Soviet side “to provide effective support and aid by all means.” Concerning the fate and importance of this letter, see František Janáček and Marie Michálková, “Příběh zvacího dopisu,” Soudobé dějiny 1 (1993), 87–101; “The ‘Letter of Invitation’ from the Anti-Reformist Faction of the CPCz Leadership,” in The Prague Spring 68: A National Security Archive Documents Reader, ed. Jaromír Navrátil (Budapest: CEU Press, 1998), 324–25.

14 It is probably impossible to quantify in any objective way the proportion of these people in society at the time. The sources mention various instances of people who rejected the general protest against the occupation or soon welcomed it, to a more than usual extent, as friendly assistance, or directly established contact with military representatives. The behavior of these people is often explained away as their having been members of organizations such as the People’s Militia, the Czechoslovak–Soviet Friendship Association, and local or workplace Communist Party organizations. In this connection, the Prague meeting of about 400 “old Communists,” on October 9, 1968, and the meeting held by two district chapters of the Czechoslovak–Soviet Friendship Association, in the Lucerna building, Prague, to mark the anniversary of the October Revolution in Russia, are well known. Soviet delegations were present at both, and the military intervention was assessed there as having been friendly assistance.

15 Ústav pro soudobé dějiny [Institute of Contemporary History, Prague – ÚSD], sbírka Komise vlády ČSFR pro analýzu událostí 1967–1970 [Collection of the Government Commission of the Czech and Slovak Federal Republic for Analysis of the events of 1967–1970], Okresní zmocněnec Semily [Authorized district archivist]. The astute reader certainly already suspects that the sanctions did not last long.

16 For a summary, see Ondřej Felcman, Invaze a okupace: K úloze SSSR a Sovětských vojsk ve vývoji Československa v letech 1968–1991 (Prague: Ústav pro soudobé dějiny, 1995), or Antonín Benčík, “Intervence,” in Sovětská vojska v Československém vývoji 1968–1991, ed. Jindřich Pecka (Prague: Ústav pro soudobé dějiny, 1998), 9–23.

17 In addition to the main actors of the Prague Spring, such as First Secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party Alexander Dubček, Speaker of the National Assembly Josef Smrkovský, Premier Oldřich Černík, and a member of the CPCz Presidium, František Kriegel, and the delegation of Czechoslovak President Ludvík Svoboda, on the Czechoslovak side some of the authors of the letter of invitation also participated in the dramatic negotiations, such as Vasil Biľak, Oldřich Švestka, and Alois Indra. For a personal recollection of participants in the Moscow talks in August, see Zdeněk Mlynář, Mráz přichází z Kremlu (Cologne: Index, 1988), 267–314; published in English as Night Frost in Prague: The End of Humane Socialism (London: C. Hurst, 1980). For the minutes of the talks, see Jitka Vondrová, Mezinárodní souvislosti Československé krize 1967–1970: Dokumenty ÚV KSSS 1966–1969 (Brno: Doplněk, 2011), 213–66. For an English translation of excerpts of these negotiations, see Navrátil ed., The Prague Spring 68, 465–73.

18 For the “Protokol z jednání delegací SSSR a ČSSR 23.–26. srpna v Moskvě,” see Jitka Vondrová and Jaromír Navrátil, Mezinárodní souvislosti československé krize 1967–1970. Červenec–srpen 1968 (Prague–Brno: Ústav pro soudobé dějiny AV ČR and Doplněk, 1996), 271–74 and, “The Moscow Protocol, August 26, 1968,” in Navrátil (ed.) The Prague Spring 1968, 477.

19 Jindřich Pecka, “Rozhovor Josefa Smrkovského s generálem N. V. Ogarkovem 30.8.1968,” Soudobé dějiny 1 (1997): 158–66.

20 “Náčelník hlavní politické správy SA generál A. Jepišev ústřednímu výboru KSSS. Návrhy na činnost sovětských vojsk při zajišťování ‘normalizace’ v Československu” [Chief of the Main Political Directorate, General Alexei Yepishev, to the Central Committee of the CPSU. Proposals for Activity by Soviet Soldiers to Implement “Normalization” in Czechoslovakia], ÚSD, Sbírka KV ČSFR, Z/S, 4. 9. 1968.

21 Apart from contacts between local politicians and local governmental bodies on the one hand and Soviet soldiers on the other, this was also meant to include exchanges between folklore troupes and the promotion of Soviet culture in general, twinning at the regional, district, and town levels, and the exchange of delegations of workers and scholars. Záznam z jednání delegace KSČ s vedením KSSS v Moskvě 3.-4. října 1968, in Jitka Vondrová, Mezinárodní souvislosti československé krize: září 1968–květen 1970 (Brno: Doplněk, 1997), 116–35.

22 The author of the article “Bez kolaborantů jsou vyřízeni” [Without Collaborators, They Wouldn’t Stand a Chance], boasts in the Communist Party daily Rudé právo, on August 27, 1968, that even by the sixth day after the arrival of the troops the occupiers had not managed to create “collaborationist bodies and institutions,” with which they had hoped to create the impression that the intervention had been legal. That is not to say that no one was willing to collaborate; there were such people, but they stood aside because of the “astonishing spontaneous unity, the huge activity of the absolute majority of the nation, the unconcealed contempt and hatred.” “One can have no doubt therefore that collaboration with the occupiers is the worst treason […].”

23 “Protokol z jednání delegací SSSR a ČSSR 23.–26. srpna v Moskvě.”

24 Jiří Hoppe, Pražské jaro v médiích: Výběr z dobové publicistiky (Brno: Doplněk, 2004), 16–17.

25 Ibid.

26 ÚSD, sb. KV ČSFR, A3, “Zpráva z tiskové konference šéfredaktorů s předsedou vlády O. Černíkem dne 28.8.1968.”

27 “Hlavní úkoly strany v nejbližším období: Rezoluce plenárního zasedání ÚV KSČ” [The Main Tasks of the Party in the Near Future: A Resolution of the Plenary Session of the Central Committee of the CPCz], Rok šedesátý osmý v usneseních a dokumentech ÚV KSČ (Prague: Svoboda, 1969), 383.

28 “Provolání představitelů strany a státu” [Proclamation of the party and state representatives], ibid., 393–94.

29 The turnaround in the public perception of people protesting openly against Soviet troops is graphically illustrated by a document from the Ministry of the Interior. Originally, it summarized serious cases of Soviet soldiers who had restricted the personal freedom of some Czechoslovaks, mainly by reacting with excessive force to an imagined or real protest, such as the shouting of abuse, the posting or distribution of leaflets, and the writing of slogans. The fact that what was originally a list of victims of Soviet military aggression could also serve as a list of potential rabble-rousers is illustrated by the names and acts of protest later being carefully and thoroughly underlined. See the report about the detention of Czechoslovak citizens by foreign soldiers, dated August 21, 1968, accessed October 14, 2013, http://www.ustrcr.cz/data/pdf/projekty/srpen1968/srpen-zpravy-014.pdf.

30 “Z projevu soudruha Alexandra Dubčeka Hlavní úkoly strany v nejbližším období,” Rudé právo, November 15, 1968, 1, 3.

31 The full name of the treaty is the “Smlouva mezi vládou Československé socialistické republiky a vládou Svazu sovětských socialistických republik o podmínkách dočasného pobytu sovětských vojsk na území Československé socialistické republiky.” It was signed in Prague on October 16, 1968. For an English translation, see “Bilateral Treaty on the ‘Temporary Presence of Soviet Forces on Czechoslovak Territory’, October 16, 1968,” in Navratil, The Prague Spring 1968, 533–36.

32 Benčík, Paulík, and Pecka, Vojenské otázky československé reformy, 79.

33 These practical matters led to the signing of other, more detailed treaties, ratified in early 1969, concerning specific aspects of the basing of troops.

34 ÚSD, KV ČSFR CI/9, “Záznam o poradě konané 29. října 1968 na předsednictvu vlády.”

35 Ibid.

36 “Pamětní kniha Vysokého Mýta 1961–1973,” entry from October 1970, accessed October 14, 2013, http://vychodoceskearchivy.cz/ebadatelna/zobrazeni-publikace-usti/?adresar=CZ_225204010_0381_x00002&nadpis=CZ_225204010_0381_x00002&strana=1.

37 Návrh dopisu předsednictva ÚV KSČ krajským výborům strany o vzájemných stycích se sovětskými vojsky, ÚSD, sb. KV ČSFR, DII/121.

38 “Protest vládního zmocněnce SSSR pro záležitosti sovětských vojsk dočasně umístěných na území ČSSR,” ÚSD, sb. KV ČSFR, DII/122.

39 ÚSD, sb. KV ČSFR, OZ Semily.

40 “Události těchto dnů,” Jiskra Orlicka, September 24, 1968.

41 This included the withdrawal of Polish troops who had been based in the district since August, the clearing out of barracks and military areas by Czechoslovak garrisons, and the redeployment of Soviet troops and all their military vehicles.

42 “S předsedou okresního národního výboru: O pobytu sovětských vojsk v okrese,” Jiskra Orlicka, November 5, 1968.

43 “Proč se střílelo?,” Ibid.

44 “Černá kronika,” Jiskra Orlicka, May 13, 1969.

45 „Pro konsolidaci života země,” Jiskra Orlicka, June 3, 1969.

46 “Slavnost míru a přátelství,” Jiskra Orlicka, August 26, 1969.

47 It was for a long time the last mass demonstration against the occupation and the regime that had approved the occupation.

48 The preparations for August, however, were carefully supervised by the Soviet side, as is attested to by the numerous visits by Soviet politicians and Soviet army officers at the state and the local level during the summer of 1969. Nothing was to be left to chance. At the local level, special teams were assembled consisting of functionaries of the national committees and commanding officers of the security forces, who were responsible for maintaining order in their town. SOkA Trutnov, f. MěNV Trutnov, i.č. 20, kart. 3, Zápisy z plenárního zasedání, 20. dubna 1969 [Minutes from the Plenary Session, April 20, 1969].

49 In an article entitled “Reakční síly otevřeně proti republice” [Reactionary forces openly against the republic], the national daily newspaper Rudé právo described the Prague demonstrations as the “rioting of hooligans and déclassé elements.” This effort to discredit the participants in the demonstrations intensifies later in the article: “Most of the participants in the acts of provocation were young people, the kind about whom one immediately sees that they are not fond of work or soap, not to mention order.” Rudé právo, August 22, 1969.

50 Pamětní kniha Vysokého Mýta. 1961–1973.

51 Ibid.

52 Státní okresní archiv [State District Archive] Trutnov, fond MěNV Trutnov [fond Trutnov National Committee], inventární číslo 57 [Inventory number], karton 18 [box 18], Zápisy ze schůzí rady, 10.12.1968 [Minutes of a council meeting], December 10, 1968.

53 SOkA Trutnov, f. MěNV Trutnov, k. 3, i.č. 19, Zápisy z plenárního zasedání, 3. prosince 1968 [Minutes of the Plenary Session, December 3, 1968].

54 For example, the Vysoké Mýto chronicler recorded an anecdote in May 1969, which appeared after Gustáv Husák had taken Alexander Dubček’s place as First Secretary of the CPCz Central Committee in April: “We built socialism with a human face; now we are building socialism with the hide of a hippo [i.e. insensitivity].” Pamětní kniha Vysokého Mýta 1961–1973, entry from May 1969.

55 SOkA Trutnov, f. MěNV Trutnov, k. 3, i.č. 21, Zápisy z plenárního zasedání, 11.2.1970 [Minutes of the Plenary Session, February 11, 1970].

56 ÚSD, sb. KV ČSFR, OZ Ústí nad Orlicí. The former managing director of Dioptra, who was dismissed in 1968 because of his “collaborationist” statements, was fully exonerated in the early 1970s. By contrast, those who had dismissed him were punished. ÚSD, sb. KV ČSFR, OZ Semily.

57 For example, “The Czechoslovak–Soviet Friendship Association asks its members to pay any outstanding membership dues, because this friendship is now ending.” Jindřich Pecka, Spontánní projevy Pražského jara 1968–1969 (Brno: Doplněk, 1993), 98.

58 In early 1972, the Czechoslovak–Soviet Friendship Association had, according to its own information, 1,021,407 members in a total of 17,617 chapters. See VII. Sjezd Svazu Československo-sovětského přátelství: Dokumenty z jednání sjezdu Praha, 16.-17. června 1972 (Prague: Lidové nakladatelství, 1972). Although this source does not state the numbers of members in 1968–69, it does mention the “intense pressure” to which the Association was subjected on all sides. The course it entered on to achieve the widest membership base turned out to be effective. At the next congress, in 1977, its central secretary stated that the Association had 2,241,617 members in 28,574 chapters. 8. Sjezd Svazu Československo-sovětského přátelství: Dokumenty z jednání sjezdu Praha, 12.-13. Prosince 1977 (Prague: Lidové nakladatelství, 1978), 22.

59 “It would certainly be useful if the Soviet Army representatives gave speeches more often at our meetings, gatherings, and seminars. […] Such meetings will have to be attended by increasingly larger numbers of members of the Czechoslovak–Soviet Friendship Association and of other citizens of our towns and villages.” “Zpráva ústředního tajemníka SČSP,” in VII sjezd Svazu, 24.

60 Marie Černá, “Cadre Policy, Cadre Work and Screening in Communist Czechoslovakia: Simple Ideas, Complicated Practice,” Studia Territorialia 11 (2011): 9–28.

61 For the meaning of the mass vettings in the so-called consolidation process, see Marie Černá, “Comprendre le processus de consolidation: Les campagnes de vérification de 1970 en Tchécoslovaquie,” Cahiers du CEFRES 32 (2012): 199–233.

62 A graphic example is a sixteen-year-old girl from a secondary school in the town of Česká Třebová, who appeared as a singer with a local Soviet army band. See “Děvče v uniformě,” Jiskra Orlicka, March 16, 1971.

63 Music ensembles of various styles, playing for the “listening and dancing pleasure” of their audiences, were an important asset of the Soviet Army, and often were part of social events.

64 “Přátelství je věčné,” Karosář, May 8, 1970.

65 Rudé právo, August 12, 1969.

66 Again, for example, the 1948 words of the first Communist President of Czechoslovakia, Klement Gottwald, were recalled about how Czechoslovak bonds with the Soviet Union were “inviolable” and how the state was “moving side by side with the Soviet Union in everything and will never do otherwise.” According to Gottwald, “the common Czechoslovak people will not put up with anti-Soviet witch-hunts and intrigues.” Zpráva ústředního tajemníka SČSP, VII sjezd Svazu, 13–14. With renewed force, therefore, terms such as “historical necessity,” “inseparability,” and “longevity” appeared in the political vocabulary in connection with the Soviet Union.

67 At the celebrations to mark the anniversary of the liberation of Czechoslovakia by the Red Army, which were held in the district capital, Ústí nad Orlicí, in the presence of Soviet war veterans in May 1970, a poem by the Communist writer S. K. Neumann (1875–1947) was recited, which had first been published in the collection Srdce a mračna in 1935. It included the line: “Vám poděkování a lásku vám” [To you, thanks, and love to you]. The same title is used for the article about the events, Jiskra Orlicka, May 12, 1970.

Volume 4 Issue 1 CONTENTS

pdfTibor Takács

Them and Us: Narratives of Agents from the Kádár Era1

Today a good deal of scholarly work has been published the authors of which use, as their primary sources, the documents that were created by the state security services of the communist dictatorships of East Central Europe. These documents reveal a great deal concerning the primary characteristics of the mechanisms of state security and, more specifically, the network of agents. Most of the inquiries that have been published so far have been of a moralizing nature, in that they seem to have been motivated at least in part by the desire to pass judgment on those who cooperated in an organized way with the state security services of the dictatorial states or, in some cases, to find justifications for the conduct of the people involved by offering explanations according to which they were compelled to collaborate. I have set a very different goal in this article. I examine how the people in the network interpreted their cooperation with the state. I draw on recollections that were written not after the fall of the Kádár regime, but rather in its early stages. These texts offer different perspectives on the identity of the agent and shed some light on how the collaborator him or herself understood his or her acts of collaboration with the dictatorship.


Keywords: collaboration, recollections, state security, agent network, Kádár era, communist regime, Hungary


A few years ago, in his reflections on the moralizing narrative mode of the assertions that have been made in Hungary regarding the network of the state security services of the fallen regime, Balázs Berkovits raised the essential question: “Can one speak of agents in any other tone than that of moral outrage, victimhood, and forgiveness? Can one escape the moral defining terms that infer one another, the vicious cycle of sin—confession—forgiveness? How can we avoid the ethical and psychological/sociological conjectures and aims that already determine, before we have begun our examination, where we will end up?”2

The moralizing that seems to prevail in discussions of the topic seems to be tied to the tendency in public opinion to identify the people who were in the network as “denouncers,” i.e. people whose endeavors are almost always deleterious, whatever the culture or society in question, and even more so in the case of a dictatorship. The foundation of this discourse is the assumption according to which the simple citizen (as the agent seems to be) owes his loyalties first and foremost to his own community, in other words to the society that has been subjugated by the dictatorial power. Thus, if someone cooperates with power, for instance by providing information concerning his fellow sufferers, he or she merits the label traitor.3 This “transgression” seems more damnable in retrospect than it did at the time because at the time of the dictatorial regime it was “invisible,” as it was committed in secret and only came to light after the fall of the regime. As Hungarian historian Gábor Gyáni has observed, however, with this disappearance of the world of the dictatorship, “denouncing lost any ethical justification and its ‘usefulness’ also frayed.” Consequently, “this form of cooperation with the oppressive power of yore is simply stamped as immorality or futility.”4

The moralizing approach is also dominant in the scholarly research on the network of agents who worked together with the state security services. Practically, this means that the historian cannot completely avoid or ignore entirely the influence of the interpretive models that prevail in public opinion and thus is inevitably compelled to orient him or herself to this narrative mode. The practice of historical scholarship involves a series of ethical and moral choices, from the selection of a subject of focus to the manner in which findings are put in writing, and even if a historian is cautious to avoid making explicit judgments, his or her use of language nevertheless bears certain (inherent) values.5 This problem lies more in the fact that (as the citation from Berkovits’ work suggests) the moralizing approach results in methodological and thematic narrowing in the research on the network of agents used by the state security, essentially as if the only genuine goal of an inquiry into this history were to “name” the “guilty” with the intention, whether admitted or not, of denouncing and pillorying them.

The foundation of moralizing in the case of scholarly inquiries is the use of the top-down model based on a sharp distinction between “power” and “society.”6 Accordingly, historians tend (retrospectively) to present the period between 1945 and 1990 as a struggle between the “good” and the “bad,” the “oppressed” and the “oppressors.” The picture, however, is hardly this black-and-white. For instance, even research on “informants” (both people who only occasionally provided reports and those who regularly worked as part of the established system) shows that this distinction does not hold up under scrutiny. There were innumerable links and relationships between the system and Hungarian society. Indeed, this is logical. In order to ensure that their subjects remain submissive, disciplined, and “normal,” first and foremost modern states must be able to keep the citizenry under observation and keep records of its acts. In addition to the various techniques and institutions that are used to enforce discipline, power cannot do without the cooperation its citizens, whether we are speaking of casual informers of those who violate its rules, deviants or non-conformists, or members of the more or less structured informers’ network of the (political) police.7 It is quite clear that in authoritarian systems, which wish to exercise more than usual supervision over society, there is an even greater desire for this kind of participation on the part of the citizenry in the maintenance of power. This is true in part simply because, since any potentially critical organ of the press has essentially been silenced and the freedom of speech denied, the people in power have more difficulty obtaining reliable information about those “underneath” them.8 From the perspective of the regime, this means that the much-feared Stasi, for instance, would not have been nearly as effective without the active participation of tens of thousands of citizens.9 From the perspective of society, this means essentially that people were coopted and made part of the mechanisms of their own surveillance.10 As Corey Ross noted with regards to the GDR, “the state did not so much rule over society as through it.”11

If we wish to further a more nuanced understanding of the phenomenon at hand (rather than pass judgment on the people involved), we would definitely do better to regard the network of agents as a tool of the everyday exercise of power and a medium of communication. There are innumerable ways of studying the acts of agents, from examination of contemporary documents produced about and by the agents to interviews with agents themselves. Naturally, active informants did not reflect in their reports on their endeavors. In general, functionaries of the state security offices assessed and interpreted the work of the people who were members of the network. The interviews gave the former agents a chance to speak about how they remembered their activities, though of course one must keep in mind that whatever statements they made were products of memory acts, retrospective constructions that were to a large extent determined by the circumstances under which they were recollected, the attitude of the person retelling his or her memories at the time, and so on. Furthermore, in this case the gap12 between the narrating subject and the narrated subject in the memoires or autobiographies is inevitably much more emphatic, since the former agent (who is, in other words, no longer an agent) is the person conjuring the figure of the agent from the past.

In this essay I examine recollections that active members of the agent network wrote at the request or order of the state security (auxiliary materials that the operational officers used in training). Among the documents of the secret police of the period of state socialism in Hungary there are four such texts: two reports found in a dossier entitled “A network man’s recollections of his own secret work,” one dated May 27, 1958, the other dated May 28, 1958;13 a text entitled “Dear Friend! The recollections of an agent,” which bears the initials T. M. and was written sometime around 1960;14 and a recollection entitled “How I saw it. Anonymous notes from an abandoned apartment,” written in 1969–70 by an agent who went by the code-name “Koroknai.”15

Us and Them

The texts in question here constitute only one possible world16 of the network of the state security, though this is perhaps their principal merit: they shed light on the functioning of this world from a perspective that one does not find in other documents. They contain the remarks of agents who had been working in the service of the state for a long time and who reflect explicitly on their work as agents. Thus, the narrators provide narratives only they could provide, narratives that are, given the circumstances of the narrators, genuine and are not found, or are found only in an implicit and highly embedded form, in the reports they and other agents submitted. These narratives can offer some understanding of the stresses and demands involved in the execution by the agents of the tasks they were assigned, tasks that were considered simple by the case officers (“tartótiszt”, the state security officers who were responsible for the reports of an informant) who assigned them, whether we are speaking of obtaining a manuscript, coming to a meeting, or authoring a report. In addition to providing insights into the everyday workings of the network and the ways in which agents themselves experienced life as part of this network (i.e. the construction of the aforementioned “possible world”), the recollections also help further our understanding of collaboration with the secret police and in general the dictatorial system. In this article I examine the documents in question primarily from the latter perspective. 17

For T. M., the author of “Dear Friend,” his recruitment must have been a decisive experience, since the description of it comprises almost half of the text of his recollections. This description sheds light on how the “candidate” experienced his apprehension by the authorities, the interrogation (which was like a prelude to his recruitment), and, finally, his recruitment. For some time, he did not actually know what was happening to him, and when he finally did begin to understand what they were asking of him, he was not particularly opposed. Indeed, on the contrary he was eager to bring the whole process to an end. (The fact that he was in a hurry to meet with the ambulance in order to be able to take his sick children to the hospital played a role in this.) Later, however, he recounts the “troubled and unpleasant months” following his recruitment, when for a long time he felt like an “ethical corpse.”

There are signs in the other recollections that initially having accepted the role of denouncer left the agents with a feeling of moral trepidation and they were troubled by doubts concerning the ethics of their work as “snoops.” As one reads in the report of May 28, 1958, “when a beginner starts to work, he is full of inhibitions, fears, and ethical scruples. He thinks that what he is doing in his work is the most scandalous act one could commit. He does not trust his contact, and he ponders how to free himself from the ‘burden’ that ‘weighs him down.’” The most effective means of doing this was “de-conspiring,” i.e. the person who had been enlisted would inform the people around him that he had been enlisted. “There is a decisive moment at the beginning of the position: the first inner impulse of someone who becomes a secret employee is the thought that he can only free himself from ‘ethical slavery’ if everyone discovers his secret—he drives away anyone who is burdened with sin in order to avoid causing him harm. This is a kind of obsession with the protection of one’s integrity, and it is coupled with a compulsion to speak, which the beginner hopes will liberate him from his inhibitions.” The case officer who maintained ties with the author of the report, however, made him understand “that every word spoken, every bit of chatter would destroy me ethically, for no matter where I went to complain, they would cast me out with the greatest disgust.”

As a means of assuaging their ethical anxieties and mollifying their inner fears, the agents could create new identities for themselves, separate from their former selves, a kind of informer “I,” who in their minds would not entirely displace their former, ethical selves. This was made a bit easier by the use of a code-name, which would allow an informer to perform his or her tasks as a member of the network of the security services almost as if in secret from him or herself. From this perspective, the fact that, as of the 1950s, agents were not designated with numbers or letters, but rather with actual code-names was of tremendous significance. We cannot know whether this was one of the purposes of this change, but it unquestionably made it easier for the people involved to accept roles as informers and regard their informing selves as separate identities. We also cannot know whether it was thanks to this psychological strategy or not, but whatever the explanation, in time the agents managed to get over their initial concerns and at least by the time they were recording their recollections the conflict between the person referred to by the code-name and the citizen designated by his or her actual name did not seem to cause any problem. The doubts and ethical concerns they initially had had were distant memories, which they could recall, but which, by the time they were writing them down, clearly no longer bothered them too terribly. Instead, they felt that their “normal” lives came into conflict with the roles they played when they went by their actual names, which they did in the interests of being able to perform tasks as part of the state security services. In other words, the principal problem for the agents was not the activities in which they had engaged as denouncers, but rather the fact that—in order to perform these activities—they had had to appear to be enemies of the system.

The author of the report dated May 28, 1958 complained that he had to show two faces to the world: “One was the face presented to the bosses at the offices, whose complete trust I had to have in order to be able to do my work properly. They regard me as an individual with a progressive spirit. But there is another layer at the establishment whose ‘favor’ I cannot lose, because they will spread the rumor that one must be suspicious of me, because I am a communist who has gone wild. This fraternization, however, must be superficial. I must make them think that because of my position I fear and avoid committing any and all unguarded statements or acts. Then I can count on their well-intentioned sympathies.” This duplicity caused problems in the informers’ private lives as well: “My wife was very perturbed when an enemy element came to the apartment and, right in front of her, alas, what a flavorful reactionary speech I held, how fiery my ‘counter-revolutionary’ mood was! And then, again among colleagues, on another occasion I resembled a good, honest, conscientious worker.” T. M. complained at length to his “dear friend” of how, because of his work as an agent, he again had to become part of a social life that had already dispersed: “I had to learn about the interests of many people and understand the spirit of their thoughts, which at times were obsessive, so that we would be able to converse coherently and in a manner that was interesting to me.” Similarly, “Koroknai” only met, whether regularly or sporadically, with former associates from the Independent Smallholders’ Party and people with whom they shared a similar mentality when it was in the interests of the work he did in the defense of the state. After 1956, the only change that took place was that he was able to represent the politics of the Communist Party openly and was not compelled to dissemble (“I found myself in a political stance in which there was no chance of misunderstanding between my official work and my tasks in the defense of the state,” as he wrote).

Complaints about tedious socializing or having to play the part of an enemy of the system can be also understood as tools with which the people in question freed themselves of moral reservations. The authors of these narratives seem to have striven to distance the target individuals from them: clearly it was much easier for them to perform their tasks if they observed not normal, honest people (as they fancied themselves), but rather the enemy. This stance was necessary if they were not going to regard the work they were performing for the state as snooping or denunciation, in short as betrayal. After all, one can only betray people with whom one shares an allegiance, people with whom one forms an “us,” but as far as the agents were concerned, the people they had observed or informed against were not part of this “us,” but rather were members of a “them.” This attitude was common among agents, as indeed the case of László Borsányi also shows. One of Borsányi’s principal tasks as an agent who later became a successful ethnographer and anthropologist was to keep the participants in the “Indian camps” under observation (it is ironic that later, as a scholar, Borsányi dealt with the culture of North American Indians). Although he himself was a regular participant in the camps, in his reports he does not refer to himself as one of the camp members, but rather recreates himself as a university student of ethnography, thereby creating a kind of textual world (at least) in which he was not betraying his “own.” In his case, the agent and the camp member should not be conflated, while “the position of the agent and the role of the scholar can be reconciled—at least according to the logic of power [at the time]—and indeed the role of Indian, free of contradictions, emerges as the only possible variation to the parallel life of the scholar and the agent.”18

One could reformulate this more explicitly by saying that the authors of the recollections did not regard themselves as snoops or denouncers, but rather as spies. What is the difference? According to Karol Sauerland, the denouncer is someone who passes on information about someone to an institution of power and in doing so may well bring grief to the person on whom he or she informs. The denouncer may act out of personal motives or in response to an assignment. Among the latter one finds those who worked as part of the network employed by the state security (for whom a number of colloquial terms were invented, such as snoop or brick). The reports they submitted, of course, were only cases of “denunciation” if they caused injury or harm to others. In contrast, the spy arrives as an outsider among people who represent the enemy in order to gather information that is important to the people with whom he shares an allegiance. In order to infiltrate this group, he must wear a figural mask. He must pretend to be one of “them,” and this requires considerable preparation and involves significant risk. While the terms denouncer and snoop bear negative connotations, in general the spy is presented and regarded a figure worthy of admiration, even a genuine hero. According to Sauerland, the person who was member of the network of the state security can hardly be considered a spy, for even if he did wear a guise, he did not arrive from the outside, but, on the contrary, moved from the inside towards the outside, and however much he may identify with those who give him his tasks, he will never become a stranger who was accepted from the outside.19 Of course, from the perspective of the agents who were looking back on their careers, this last contention is irrelevant, since the question of how outsiders regarded the work of the people who had been part of the network was not the issue. The question, rather, was how the agents looked back on the work they had performed. It is not hard to understand that they preferred to regard themselves as spies who had been exposed to manifold dangers among the enemy instead of snoops who had skulked around in the wake of their friends and acquaintances in search of secrets.

There are innumerable signs in the recollections indicating which “side” the narrators put themselves on and the perspective from which they interpreted their lives as informers. For instance, in the report of May 27, 1958 one finds the following remark: “I regard the current tasks as good. Accomplishable, the details can also be thoroughly elucidated, because the active enemy stands opposite us.” The author of the report dated May 28 made a list of people who spoke in a striking manner of “denouncers” and “snoops,” noting, “I found that in almost 100 percent of the cases anyone who spoke like this was one of our agents!” T. M. wrote the following to the addressee of his letter: “I trust you to decide how much you make use of it, how much you use in the interests of attaining our common goals.” Elsewhere, he wrote, “I am not a genius, but perhaps I can determine whether someone whom I have known for more than ten years and an essay that I heard and read are useful to us or not.” While in the previous citations, the emphasis is mine, in this case the agent himself felt that it was important to underline the word “nekünk” (to us), thereby drawing emphasis to his perception that he was one of the people who worked in the defense of the state. “Koroknai” referred to the example set by two journalists in order to demonstrate that the motivations for the people who worked as part of the network were at times very different. For one of them, secret collaboration was just a tool, the price he had to pay, as it were, in order to be able to travel abroad and work as a reporter in the West. The other, in contrast, genuinely devoted himself to the defense of the state (and the system in general). The first “works for us,” “Koroknai” wrote, while the second “is our man.”

Thus, the people who worked as part of the network saw themselves as devoted followers of the socialist system who had become close to the communist party independently of their recruitment. This is perhaps the most striking in the case of “Koroknai.” For him, recruitment was only a stage on his path to the Communist Party, a path he had set out on of his own free will. Though he had been one of the local leaders of the Smallholders’ Party, he had approached the secretary of the Hungarian Workers’ Party in Debrecen at his own initiative, informed him that he wanted to work together with the party, and sought his assistance. It was not important to him how or where he would serve. If, for instance, he were asked to work as an informer, in the service of the secret police, then so be it. He did not even go into detail concerning the process of recruitment. His description suggests that it was little more than a simple conversation with the political police, who had asked him whether he wanted to work for them, and he had replied yes. Whether this description is accurate or not we cannot know. We can only be certain that after having worked as member of the network for some ten or twenty years, “Koroknai” and his associates saw themselves, the work they had performed, and the people on whom they had informed according to the outlines sketched above. When we conjure our past, we do so in a manner that ensures that it will be consistent with our knowledge, sentiments, attitudes, etc. at the moment of recollection, and this helps sooth and even extinguish the sense of discomfort (what is referred to as cognitive dissonance) that we may feel because of the conflict or tension between thoughts or ideas we may once have had and thoughts or ideas we have now. In simple terms, we have a tendency, when looking back on the past, to think of ourselves as having always had ideas and views similar to the ideas and views we have at the retrospective moment. This is not necessarily a deliberate form of dishonesty so much as it is a mental effort that helps us interpret our lives as a coherent whole.20

In the texts under discussion, in any case, one finds many indications that existence as an informer helped the narrators deepen and strengthen their commitment to the system. The author of the report dated May 27, 1958 writes expressly of his development in the ten years that he spent working for the state security, in the course of which, “coming from the borderlands of a worldview with a different direction,” he came so close to “the socialist ideology” that he was willing to put the needs of the party before the interests of family. (In 1954, for instance, because of his work as agent he left his family for three months. As he noted, he would not have been willing to do this in 1949.) One does not find the same kind of continuity in T. M.’s narrative, but according to the methodological introduction added as an afterthought, the narrative provided a good “mirror of the thoughts and feelings that arise in someone in the wake of our work. It is also proof of how, in the maintenance of the network, proper guidance can bring the agent—mistakes he has committed notwithstanding—closer politically, and in the end the agent becomes one of the enduring supporters of our people’s democratic system.”

This comment calls our attention to an essential fact, namely that the network was not merely a tool with which information was gathered, it was also a tool with which people were indoctrinated, since the conversion, as it were, in the course of his work as an informer (or even as a consequence of this work) of someone who was regarded as an enemy of the system into someone who supported the system was a significant achievement. According to the internal affairs commands regarding the network, the case officer was supposed to indoctrinate the agent.21 The officer was charged not simply with the tasks of training and guiding the agent, but also with his or her political indoctrination. According to one study written for state security officers in the case of an agent who hailed from enemy circles and against whom compromising or incriminating evidence had been used in order to leave him or her little choice but to enlist, “the ultimate goal was to change their worldview and make them understand and accept Marxist-Leninist ideology.” This of course was the most ambitious goal, but the officer at the very least had to manage to make the informer grasp that “the people’s democracy is the only system and the dictatorship of the proletariat the only just form of social life that ensures the welfare of the majority. One must nurture love of the socialist homeland in him, which is the most elevated and most righteous form of patriotism.”22

Me and Us

As is apparent, for the people who were recalling their lives as agents, the fact that they had had to inform on people was not a source of displeasure. Rather, it was the fact that their bosses had not regarded them as people who were on their side and therefore had not trusted them. The author of the report dated May 27, 1958 was very upset when at a meeting his case officer’s superior said the following about the information he had provided: “This is something. Get information like this, then we’ll be alright. But if you don’t get information like this, then you can lie down at our feet and swear that you are our man, but we won’t believe you.” “Koroknai” also complained a great deal about how for a long time the case officers treated him as an enemy, “like someone who had been accused, though the accusation remained unspoken.” This explains in part why he was also displeased by the warning he was given by the member of the secret police who recruited him: “do not let anyone learn of your conspiring, for it would bring great shame on you if people were to know of our relationship.” The agent envisioned the development of a “principled” relationship, since he regarded himself as someone who stood on the side of the defense of the state, while the officer saw him as an enemy who had been compelled to serve as an informer. Yet, as he put it, “by the time the counter-revolution broke out I looked on the authorities like Endre Ady looked on God: my concern is your concern…”23 He regarded his private life and the work he did in the service of the state security as a unified whole: “The nature of my work so closely resembled the nature of my secret tasks, they intersected at so many points that I was able to understand the whole thing as a single unified progression. I likened myself to streams part of which flows underground, as some subterranean streams do.”

The signs suggest that this was a general problem, and in time the internal affairs leadership noticed this too. According to a 1968 summary on the agent network of the state security services, “in general it can be stated that we do not know well enough the people who are among the first whom we expect to uncover and bring an end to enemy activities. In practice, this means, for instance, that often we entertain doubts in our assessments of the reliability and trustworthiness of the agents who maintain direct relationships with the enemy.”24 We do not know how much the situation changed after this.

The use of terminology by the narrators also clearly indicates that they saw themselves as soldiers who served in defense of the system, since they referred to themselves not as “members of the network” or “agents,” but rather as secret (in some cases external) employee. As of 1972, the term “secret employee” („titkos munkatárs”) served as a designation for one of the categories of people who were active as part of the network, though all of the texts in question here were written well before this, thus clearly the authors were not using the term in this sense. Towards the end of the 1960s, the suggestion was made to use the term secret colleague instead of network member, since the relationship of the agents to the state security services “was decisively founded on patriotic conviction.”25 It is perhaps not coincidental that in 1968 (i.e. at roughly the same time) the state security of the German Democratic Republic also changed the official term that was used for informers from “Geheimer Informator” (secret informer) and “Geheimer Mitarbeiter” (secret colleague) to “Inoffizieller Mitarbeiter,” or unofficial colleague. This change was motivated by the realization that people did not like to identify themselves as denouncers, but they were able to interpret cooperation in the defense of the state and the social order as responsible and respectable work. Also, the term “colleague” implied that the officers and the informers worked together as (almost) equal partners.26 Clearly, the members of the state security services in Hungary also would have like to have thought this.

The narrators of the retrospectives regularly referred to the state security employees designated in the official phraseology as case officers as their (higher) associates, or contacts. Presumably, the operatives did not use the expression case officer in front of the agents, since the term in Hungarian (“tartótiszt” ) would have been associated with keeping animals, and the agents would have found this less than flattering. (One can imagine how unflattering they would have found it had they learned that the officers often used the term “gopher” to refer to them.)27

Essentially, the agents regarded the state security officers as colleagues (T. M. referred to them as colleagues many times in his letter). The only difference between them, according to the agents, was that the officers openly served the state, while the agents did so undercover. This, however, did not mean that the relationship between them was always harmonious. Almost all of the agents complained that the case officers did not obey the basic rules of conspiratorial work. Clearly the agents were more sensitive to this because they were the ones at risk. The principal source of potential danger was the arrangement of meetings, especially if a meeting was held in a public place and not a private apartment. In the case of the latter, if the superior did not arrive in time this could be a source of trouble. “Many times I waited for hours, and it was particularly difficult not to draw attention to myself and watch and wait for the possible arrival of my contact,” writes the author of the report dated May 28, 1958. He added, “I had to take the stairs around our apartments many times before the contact arrived. In particular, before October 23, 1956 almost every apartment was on the fourth or fifth floor.” Reading the agents’ dossiers, one realizes how little one appreciates the trials and tribulations endured by the informers…

In the case of T. M., it is particularly clear that he regarded himself as significantly more important and more intelligent than the people who had engineered his recruitment and his later contacts. (Even the person to whom he addressed his letter was not an exception.) This occasionally gave rise to comic contradictions in his recollections. For instance, before 1953 he had still been angered by the fact that he had to deal with insignificant trivialities, but after 1953 he was angry because the case officers had warned him not to insist on grappling with so many things at once. Before 1953, he was grieved by the fact that he had to write reports on the public mood, whereas in 1956 it bothered him that his superiors did not heed his reports on the general mood. But T. M. was not the only agent who from many perspectives was more Catholic than the pope (or more communist than Lenin, as it were). All of the retrospective narratives contain episodes in which the agents allegedly knew better than their superiors what they should do and how they should do it. In the report dated May 28, 1958, for instance, one finds the following contention: “sometimes, in unusual cases I had to work according to a preplanned method. If something didn’t go according to the plan, my contact was always angry at me. When I told him that if he was going to get so angry when things didn’t go according to plan it would be more expedient to familiarize the enemy with the plan and hold a rehearsal, well, he delivered such a strident philippic that for some time I could hardly stand on my own two feet. And I lost my critical ‘bravery.’”

The agents drew a distinction between themselves and their contacts on the basis of how they had held their ground during the 1956 Revolution, as well. As T. M. wrote when reflecting on how he had seen the man who had recruited him on a bus during the tumultuous days of the uprising, “outside all kinds of kids armed with pistols were taking the law into their own hands, but I still had to be at my post, indeed then more so than ever, but there were no tanks protecting me, nor did I have the sense of security created by knowing you have the possibility of retreat.” In other words, he was superior to the members of the secret police, who fled and left him on his own with no instructions or guidance. As he noted, “after 23 October no one with whom I could have spoken rationally or answered my telephone calls […] in 1952 it was easy to give orders, but in the fall of 1956 at least they should have given some information regarding the circumstances. They didn’t.” The members of the secret police took flight, while he had to stay, the difficult circumstances notwithstanding, to save what could be salvaged. It is quite clear who he was thinking of when he asked the question, “and 1956. Who stood their ground better?”

“Koroknai’s” narrative also reveals that even in the most trying times he continued to submit reports, though for him this represented the community of fate and common stance he shared with the officers. According to his account, though he did not know exactly where they were, he maintained continuous contact with his connections, speaking with them three times a day on the phone. “I also knew that the leaders had fled. I knew that they too were afraid, though we never spoke of this.” In other words, even surrounded by danger, the agents knew their duties and saw to their tasks, which made their leaders look even worse for having fled. The differences between the two narratives notwithstanding, “Koroknai” and T. M.’s accounts of 1956 were based on a similar model: in both narratives, “we” (in the case of “Koroknai,” the secret agents and their contacts, in the case of T. M., only the agents) referred to the people who had stood their ground, and the significance of this act was augmented by the fact that “they” (the leaders of the state security services, or in the case of T. M.’s recollections the officers of the secret police in general) had not braved the dangers, but rather had fled.

The authors of the recollections preferred to perceive the relationship between agent and case officer as something more than a simple official relationship.28 The author of the May 27, 1958 report envisioned the ideal contact as someone who would be like a stern but understanding father, who would insist on the proper execution of the tasks and methodically indoctrinate the agent, but who at the same time who takes an interest in the agent’s family life, for instance. (This father figure soon gave the agent—who was struggling with serious financial problems—a significant amount of money, he was able to get a ticket to the Hungarian-English soccer match, or he took the agent to visit his mother in a car owned by the office.) One finds traces of this in the report of May 28. The case officers were not always just or consistent (in comparison with one another), but they loved their “children,” i.e. the agents who could have learned from them: “One was never on time, the other always nervous, a third was angry because I had gone to the meeting in spite of the fact that I was sick, while another did not accept my illness as an excuse. There was one who urged me to get the person under observation to drink so that I could learn more from him, and another who thought it was disrespectful of me if I was tipsy after having completed a task. I was also disparaged for going to the bathroom on the occasion of a meeting. Nonetheless, I learned a great deal from each contact, and I sense that they were fond of me. I also think back on all of them with a warm heart ” (my emphasis).

“Koroknai” sensed the solicitude behind the scolding: “looking back on the criticisms [made by the contacts], I think that I badly needed them, especially because neither the people around me nor my superiors have regularly shown value for my work or my conduct.” In other words, it was important to him to have someone pay attention to what he was doing, and the assessments helped him become a better person. However, he preferred to see the case officer not as a father-figure, but as a friend. On one occasion he wrote the following: “a long time ago, sixteen years ago, a political officer came looking for me in my apartment. I was not at home. When I returned home, my wife used the following phrasing to ensure that our little boy would not understand: a friend of yours was here. At the time, this was a code-word. Over the course of the years it acquired meaning and no longer had to be used in quotations marks.”

On the basis of his narrative, in order for this to happen it was necessary for the state security officers to become uncertain as a consequence of 1953, the dissolution of the independent secret police, and the political changes that took place following Stalin’s death. The agent could only sense that the contacts were no longer working according to prefabricated schemes, but rather were brooding, which altered the nature of the meetings as well. No longer did they resemble interrogations in which the agent had to provide an official account, rather they were more as if “two people were conversing in a room.” This changed the agent’s relationship to the case officer: “I felt as if I were working not only in the service of a political view, but was also personally helping the people who maintained a relationship with me in their work. And I used all my abilities to help them. I remember, once I had a contact who was old and too slow in the head to understand what was going on around us at the time. I have never been as attentive in preparing my reports as I was with him. I wanted him to be able to hold his ground as well as he possibly could in front of his superiors. I think of him with respect and fondness to this day.” T. M. had similar sentiments. At the beginning of his letter he makes the following impassioned complaint: “During those ten years—oh, how many times did I speak about this to deaf ears—I missed friendship more than anything else. I worked together with antipathetic colleagues, indifferent colleagues, and congenial colleagues, but I was always missing a friend.” This is why he was so joyful and satisfied to be able to refer to his contact at the time, the addressee of his letter, as his friend.

This all draws attention to one very important factor. It is quite clear that the authors of the retrospective narratives did not regard themselves merely as parts of a network, but rather considered themselves colleagues—external, working in secret—of the state security services. However, apart from the declarations they made when they were recruited (the legal weight of which was debatable), the only thing that tied them to the machinery of the state security (which for them was obscure and vague in its outlines) was the case officer. The relationship between them and their case officers decisively shaped the attitude of the informer towards his work and his commitment to the system. One notices a similar phenomenon in the case of the unofficial collaborators with the Stasi. As far as they were concerned, the contact officer essentially embodied the institution, indeed to such a degree that they referred to their contact officers as “my Stasi.”29 This suggests that collaboration should not be understood as some abstract relationship between an individual and “the” power. This relationship had a personal side as well: from the perspectives of the collaborators, cooperating with the system or an institution of the system meant working together with someone, i.e. with another person.

One of the episodes recounted in “Koroknai’s” recollections shows that from the perspective of collaboration with the Soviet occupation forces and the communists the importance of personal relationships extended beyond the network of agents. As the editor of the journal Debreczen, a periodical of the Smallholders’ Party, he came into official contact with an employee of the Soviet embassy (which had its headquarters in Debrecen, which served as the temporary capital of the country) who worked as a censor. (Presumably this was Bela Ianovich Grygoriev, i.e. Béla Geiger, who had moved to the Soviet Union with his parents as an emigrant. This seems likely given that, according to the description, the conversation between them was held in Hungarian, without an interpreter.) In time, their relationship became personal and even amicable. In the course of their talks, “Koroknai” came to know a man who was cultured, wise, and always unperturbed, and he claimed that it was because of this acquaintance that as a politician and newspaper writer of the Smallholders’ Party he never made an anti-Soviet speech and never wrote an anti-Soviet article. He portrays the Soviet censor as a man of unimpeachable integrity, who he also later was able to regard as a stable point, drawing strength from his example, which strengthened his commitment to the system.

Me and Them

The recollections of the agents share many affinities, perhaps the most significant of which are the authors’ perceptions of their relationships to the state security and their attitudes towards the work they performed as agents. These similar perceptions stem fundamentally from the fact that the agents in question found themselves essentially in the same situation at the moment when they were writing their recollections. Each of them had performed tasks as part of a secret network for years, presumably to the satisfaction of their superiors, as is indicated by the fact that they were asked to write about the experiences they had gained in the course of their work. This similarity in the circumstances in which they found themselves when looking back on their careers led them to adopt similar perspectives in their recollections and offer similar portrayals of the state security network. It is not clear, however, whether or not the stances that emerge in these writings can be considered average, typical, or prevalent. Of course, this can perhaps never be determined with any degree of precision. In my view, however, the value of these recollections lies not in their statistical relevance. They are interesting and valuable as texts, thus the “scope” of the conclusions one can draw on the basis of them could perhaps best be determined by comparing them with the recollections written at the same time (in the Kádár era) by agents who found themselves in different positions. No such “control group” exists, however, as it is difficult to imagine that the authorities would have had someone write down his experiences who only reluctantly had agreed to serve as an informer, had quickly shunned the work because of moral scruples or for some other reason, or for whatever cause had proven useless as an agent. In the end, one cannot entirely exclude the possibility that the experiences of a reluctant or ineffective agent would have been useful to the state security services, but it seems unlikely that someone who was not eager to cultivate the best relationship with the political police would have accepted this task. Whatever the case, however useful they would be as additional methodological sources, to my knowledge no other recollections of former agents similar to those discussed above survived.

The situation, however, is not entirely hopeless. The narratives can be compared with a text that was written under the injunction of the political police, if perhaps under entirely different circumstances. The document in question is a confession written on March 22, 1957 by J. P., a man who was put on trial after 1956.30 Proceedings were brought against the man primarily because of acts he had committed in the course of the events of the uprising, but he was also accused of having revealed his ties to the state security to others. The circumstances under which the document was written demonstrate that at the moment of composition J. P. was in an entirely different relationship with the organs of state security than the other four agents. He was not a respected agent who was considered useful, but rather a suspect accused of treason. (Given the nature of the text, it was not anonymous, but I will not include the name of the author here, since it would not contribute in any meaningful way to its significance in this context.)

The story begins with a description of his recruitment. In this description, the soon-to-be agent plays no role whatsoever as initiator. On the basis of the account, he agreed to cooperate only under pressure from the officers of the secret police: “I was very afraid […] that my family ties could cause me grief. So in order to prove that I thought differently, I agreed to follow their instructions.” (The principal goal of recruiting J. P. was to establish contact with his cousin, who had been sentenced to eight years in prison for having participated in underground organizational efforts in 1952, but who had escaped from a coal mine, where he had been serving time, in June 1955 and fled to the West. The agent was supposed to lure his cousin back to Hungary.)

In spite of the fact that the documents were written under very different circumstances, the confession bears many similarities to the recollections of the less reluctant agents. After having been recruited, J. P. was also troubled by moral misgivings for having accepted the role of an denouncer. His contacts attempted to dispel these anxieties by insisting that he was not serving as an denouncer, but rather was only providing characterizations. It is not clear, on the basis of the text, whether this explanation provided him with any solace or not. It is revealing, however, that he almost compulsively emphasized that by submitting “characterizations,” he did not wish to malign anyone. He strove to say good things about the people he was asked to inform on. But he also emphasized that he did not intend to mislead the secret police either. His remarks suggest uncertainty, which stems from the fact that he sought to meet a variety of divergent expectations at once, but he did not know how to present himself in the best colors to the people to whom his confession was addressed. This tension is palpable in his relationship to the primary target, his cousin who had escaped to the West. On the one hand, he was not willing to attempt to persuade his cousin to return to Hungary and thereby betray him, while on the other he held his cousin responsible for the position in which he found himself.

J. P. also emphasized that he established and maintained relationships with the people he kept under observation only because he had been ordered to do so by the secret police. He was noticeably pleased if his superiors praised him or expressed satisfaction with his work, and he was also bothered when the case officers did not follow the most basic rules of conspiratorial work. Clearly as an agent, he did not know specifically what these rules were, but a bit of commonsense was enough for him to realize that if he received telephone calls from the police station and the meetings were being held at his place of work, those around him might well realize that he was in the service of the state security. As he said in connection with the letter that he was supposed to send to his cousin (which was dictated to him by one of the officers), such steps were not productive, since the addressee would be suspicious. And indeed he was probably correct, his cousin probably was suspicious, for he never replied to the letter and never wrote to J. P. again.

In J. P.’s account, 1956 understandably could not be portrayed as a period of committed moral integrity in the face of armed opposition (as it had been described by T. M.), if for no other reason than simply because he had been arrested specifically for the acts he had committed during the revolution, but also because it was at this time that what the agent had feared the most had come to pass: more and more people had informed him that they knew about his ties to the state security. From a certain perspective, however, his situation nonetheless bore affinities with the situation of the other four agents. First, even after the revolution had broken out, he continued to “work,” though in his case this meant little more than routine execution of his responsibilities for a time (on October 24 he discussed a letter that he was supposed to send with his case officer). Second, and this is considerably more significant, he had a chance to experience abandonment: the county secret police fled the country and left him behind. Thus, he had to face the emerging threats and the possibility of being exposed on his own. His solution to the situation was to expose himself as someone who had worked for the secret police and try to win the goodwill of the revolutionaries.

J. P. did not use the expressions agent or case officer either, though he also did not refer to himself as a colleague of the officers, nor did he call the officers contacts. The position in which he found himself at the time of retrospection did not make it possible for him to regard the officers of the state security services as colleagues. In my view, this was not because in the eyes of his “colleagues” (or more precisely their colleagues) he was a man suspected of having committed counter-revolutionary acts. According to all signs, he did not even see a link between the state security that had been dissolved in 1956 and the people who were interrogating him, for even after his arrest, he was convinced that he had been detained because he had worked for the discredited secret police. The explanation, in my view, lies rather in the fact that J. P. conjured his memories under circumstances and at a time that did not make it possible for him to make his agent self an integral part of his identity. He could not proudly admit to having worked in the service of the state security, nor could he interpret the deeds he had committed as acts of spying on the enemy. Unlike the other four agents, the circumstances did not enable him to regard himself as anything other than a denouncer. While for the other four narrators the tension between their dual roles did not lead to a split in their psychological lives (at least not a lasting split), for J. P., who found himself in far less auspicious circumstances, his work as an agent clearly caused serious inner crisis and suffering.


The retrospective narratives under discussion here offer illuminating illustrations of the fact that the state security network was the shared product of “power” and “society”: in its organization, the secret police took the initiative, but in order for it to come into being they needed the cooperation of members of the citizenry who had been selected as candidates for recruitment. Research on ideological dictatorships has shown that among the motivations of these informers one finds notions of patriotism or ideological commitment, but most of the people involved were influenced by personal interest.31 The informers and their superiors thus used one another, and also depended on one another. From the perspective of power, this meant that the informers contributed to the maintenance and functioning of the system and also that the need for the information they provided made the system dependent to some extent on them. This realization may have played a role, for instance, in the fact that—unlike the Gestapo—the Stasi strove to rely on the organized network of informers.32 The institutionalization of informing, however, did not mean that personal, material or other considerations were not among the motivations of the unofficial coworkers of the East German secret police.33

The texts under discussion here paint a picture according to which the authors accepted the role of informer out of loyalty to the system and commitment to ideology. (Clearly, the authors did not consider it tactful to mention personal motives in narratives intended for their superiors.) This is the most apparent in “Koroknai’s” recollections. He had already offered his services to the Communist Party when he was recruited. However, this gesture could suggest another kind of motive. Perhaps as he bore witness to the creation of the one-party system, the Smallholder politician realized that if he wanted to remain politically active he would have to find new opportunities and new spaces for action. The dictatorship offered him the role of informer, and he accepted it. His case suggests that, for the people who were part of it, the network of informers could serve as a tool for political participation in regimes in which there were few other such opportunities.34 (In the Soviet Union under Stalin, for instance, letters in which people were denounced served as a tool with which control was exercised, nominally at least by common members of the citizenry, over people in power, a practice the roots of which went back to the time of the czars.)35

In my view, we may be better able to break from the moralizing narrative mode if we regard the acts of agents or “denouncers” as “a kind of citizen activity in their own right, one of the few powerful forms of agency available to them.”36 Thus the network used by the state security services can be regarded as one of the tools of dialogue between power and society, of course a tool that power offered certain members of society, who either rejected this “opportunity” or made use of it, out of fear, compulsion, possible advantages in the future, etc. Whatever the case, we can examine the work performed by the informers as a social practice, as one of the forms of collaboration with the dictatorship (using the term collaborator to refer not only to people who cooperated with the forces of Soviet occupation, but more generally with the dictatorial system). Indeed, we can study it as an unusual form of collaboration, in part because an agent could be regarded as a collaborator in a legal sense, since his or her recruitment was an act of (admittedly precarious) legal weight, and in part because, given the essential nature of this form of collaboration, it had to remain a secret and thus obliged the agent to lead a double-life, at least for a time. Of course, this approach does not entirely exclude the possibility of passing ethical judgment, but it creates an appropriate foundation for a nuanced study of the state security network of the Bolshevik dictatorships.37

Nonetheless—and this is essential—the agents never referred to or thought of themselves as collaborators. They did not contextualize the services they had provided in the complex relationship between power and society. Indeed, they draw no such clear distinction between the two in their narratives. They characterize their work and in general the work of the secret police as having been entirely in harmony with the society around them, or at least the society of honest workers, and something that was done in the interests of this society. In addition, they regarded the circles of the employees of the state security, whether people who worked openly for the state (the officers) or people who worked in secret (the agents), and the work they performed as a unified whole. One could say that they effaced entirely the border between “power” and “society,” and in doing so also effaced the border between officer and agent.

With the exception of the numerically small group of people who actively opposed the regime, everyone was compelled to cooperate with the communist system to some extent or to flee the country. Everyday life was shaped by various ways of relating to the regime. Perhaps, instead of speaking of collaboration, which implies a sharp dichotomy, it would be more productive to speak of various (and possibly diverging) degrees and forms of cooperation with the system.

Archival Sources

Állambiztonsági Szolgálatok Történeti Levéltára [Historical Archives of the Hungarian State Security], Budapest.

ÁBTL 1.5. 2-3/6/1955. A belügyminiszter 6. sz. parancsa az államvédelmi szervek ügynöki munkájának alapelvei című instrukció kiadásáról, 1955. február 9. [Order number 6 of the Minister of Internal Affairs on the issuing of the instructions entitled Basic Principles of the Agent Work of the Organs of State Security. February 9, 1955].

ÁBTL 1.5. 2-10/94/1956. A belügyminiszter 94. sz. parancsa az államvédelmi szervek ügynöki munkájának alapelvei című okmány kiadásáról, 1956. október 8. [Order number 94 of the Minister of Internal Affairs on the issuing of the certificate entitled Basic Principles of the Agent Work of the Organs of State Security. October 8, 1956].

ÁBTL 1.11.10. A Belügyminisztérium III. Főcsoportfőnöksége ügynöki hálózata, a hálózati munka fejlődése és feladatai, 1968. december 11. (II. sorozat, 60. doboz.) [The agent network of the III. Chief Directorate of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the development of the network and its tasks, December 11, 1968 (Series II, box 60)].

ÁBTL 1.11.10. Jelentés. A BM állambiztonsági szervek hálózata, a hálózati munka feladatai, 1968. július 12. (II. sorozat, 60. doboz.) [The network of the organs of state security of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the tasks of the network, July 12, 1968. (Series II, box 60)].

ÁBTL 3.1.9. V-145842. 33–37. P. J. önvallomása, 1957. március 22. [Confession of J. P., March 22, 1957].

ÁBTL 4.1. A-2103. Így láttam. Névtelen jegyzetek egy elhagyott lakásból. 1970. [How I saw it. Anonymous notes from an abandoned apartment. 1970].

ÁBTL 4.1. A-3087. Muzslai József and Szélpál Ottó: Az ügynökség vezetésének és nevelésének alapelvei és módszerei. Budapest: BM Tanulmányi és Módszertani Osztály, 1957. [Fundamental principles and methods of the leadership and indoctrination of the agency. Budapest: Research and Methodological Department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, 1957].

ÁBTL 4.1. A-3253. Hálózati személy visszaemlékezése saját titkos munkájára. Jelentés, 1958. május 27., Jelentés, 1958. május 28. [A network man’s recollections of his own secret work, May 27, 1958. Report, May 28, 1958].

ÁBTL 4.1. A-3783. Kedves Barátom! Egy ügynök visszaemlékezései. Segédanyag a Politikai Nyomozó Tanszék részére. [Budapest:] BM Tanulmányi és Módszertani Osztály, é. n. [Dear Friend! The recollections of an agent. Auxiliary material for the Department of Political Inquiry. [Budapest:] Research and Methodological Department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, n.d.].

ÁBTL 4.2. 10-21/33/1958. A belügyminiszter 33. sz. parancsa az államvédelmi szervek ügynöki munkájának alapelvei című okmány kiadásáról, 1958. december 5. [Order number 33 of the Minister of Internal Affairs on the issuing of the certificate entitled Basic Principles of the Agent Work of the Organs of State Security, December 5, 1958].

ÁBTL 4.2. 10-21/5/1972. A belügyminiszter 005. sz. parancsa az állambiztonsági szervek hálózati munkájának alapelveit tartalmazó szabályzat kiadásáról, 1972. április 5. [Order number 005 of the Minister of Internal Affairs on the issuing of the regulations containing the basic principles of the Agent Work of the Organs of State Security, April 5, 1972].


Ady Endre összes versei [The Complete Poems of Endre Ady]. Budapest: Szépirodalmi, 1967.

Berkovits, Balázs. “Erkölcstelen besúgók, tehetséges áldozatok, áldozatos erkölcsbírók” [Immoral Denouncers, Talented Victims, Self-sacrificing Moralists]. anBlokk 3 (2009): 6–14.

Betts, Paul. Within Walls: Private Life in the German Democratic Republic. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Bruner, Jerome. Actual minds, possible worlds. Cambridge–London: Harvard University Press, 1986.

Childs, David, and Richard Popplewell. The Stasi: The East German Intelligence and Security Service. Basingstoke–London: Macmillan, 1996.

Confino, Alon. “The Travels of Bettina Humpel: One Stasi File and Narratives of State and Self in East Germany.” In Socialist Modern: East German Everyday Culture and Politics, edited by Katherine Pence and Paul Betts, 133–54. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2008.

Dobos, István. Autobiographical Reading. Spectrum Hungarologicum. Vol. 3. Jyväskylä–Pécs: University of Jyväskylä, 2010.

Fitzpatrick, Sheila. “Signals from Below: Soviet Letters of Denunciation of the 1930s.” The Journal of Modern History 68 (1996): 831–66.

Fitzpatrick, Sheila, and Gellately, Robert. “Introduction to the Practices of Denunciation in Modern European History.” The Journal of Modern History, 68 (1996): 747–67.

Gellately, Robert. “Denunciation in Twentieth-Century Germany: Aspects of Self-Policing in the Third Reich and the German Democratic Republic.” The Journal of Modern History, 68 (1996): 931–67.

Gellately, Robert. “Denunciation as a Subject of Historical Research.” Historical Social Research, 26, no. 2 (2001): 16–29.

Gieseke, Jens. “Staatssicherheit und Gesellschaft – Plädoyer für einen Brückenschlag.” [State Security and Society – Arguments in Support of the Necessity of a Simultaneous Study] In Staatssicherheit und Gesellschaft Studien zum Herrschaftsalltag in der DDR [State Security and Social Studies to Everyday Oppression in the GDR], edited by Jens Gieseke, 7–22. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2011.

Gieseke, Jens. The History of the Stasi: East Germany’s Secret Police, 1945–1990. Translated by David Burnett. New York–Oxford: Berghahn, 2014.

Gyáni, Gábor. “Kollaboráció és a hatalom titka” [Collaboration and the Secret of Power]. In Az ügynök arcai. Mindennapi kollaboráció és ügynökkérdés [The Faces of the Agent. Everyday Collaboration and the Agent Question], edited by Sándor Horváth, 41–52. Budapest: Libri, 2014.

Horváth, Sándor. “‘Apa nem volt komcsi’ – a mindennapi kollaboráció és az ügynökkérdés határai” [“Dad was not a Communist.” Borders of Everyday Collaboration and the Agent Question]. In Az ügynök arcai. Mindennapi kollaboráció és ügynökkérdés [The Faces of the Agent. Everyday Collaboration and the Agent Question], edited by Sándor Horváth, 7–37. Budapest: Libri, 2014.

Horváth, Kata. “A Borsányi név. A politikai és a tudományos megfigyelés határai” [The Name Borsányi. Borders of Political and Scholarly Surveillance]. anBlokk 3 (2009): 30–38.

Kozlov, Vladimir A. “Denunciation and Its Functions in Soviet Governance: A Study of Denunciations and Their Bureaucratic Handling from Soviet Police Archives, 1944–1953.” The Journal of Modern History 68 (1996): 867–98.

Miller, Barbara. Narratives of Guilt and Compliance in Unified Germany: Stasi Informers and Their Impact On Society. London–New York: Routledge, 1999.

Ross, Corey. The East German Dictatorship: Problems and Perspectives in the Interpretation of the GDR. London: Arnold, 2012.

Sauerland, Karol. Harminc ezüst. Besúgások és árulások [Thirty Pieces of Silver. Denunciations and Betrayals]. Translated by Péter Várnai. Budapest: Helikon, 2001.

Schacter, Daniel L. The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers. Boston–New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2002.

Takács, Tibor. Besúgók a besúgásról. Ügynök-visszaemlékezések a Kádár-korszakból [Denouncers on Denouncing. Recollections of Agents from the Kádár Era]. Budapest: L’Harmattan, 2013.

Vann, Richard T. “Historians and Moral Evaluations.” History and Theory, Theme Issue 43 (2004): 3–30.

1 This article was written with the support of program number K-104408 of the Hungarian Scientific Research Fund (OTKA).

2 Balázs Berkovits, “Erkölcstelen besúgók, tehetséges áldozatok, áldozatos erkölcsbírók”, anBlokk 3. (2009): 13.

3 Cf. Sheila Fitzpatrick and Robert Gellately, “Introduction to the Practices of Denunciation in Modern European History,” The Journal of Modern History, 68 (1996): 765–66.

4 Gábor Gyáni, “Kollaboráció és a hatalom titka,” in Az ügynök arcai. Mindennapi kollaboráció és ügynökkérdés, ed. Sándor Horváth (Budapest: Libri, 2014), 43–44.

5 Richard T. Vann, “Historians and Moral Evaluations,” History and Theory, Theme Issue 43 (2004): 3–30.

6 This is by no means true exclusively for conditions in Hungary. Jens Gieseke, „Staatssicherheit und Gesellschaft – Plädoyer für einen Brückenschlag,” in Staatssicherheit und Gesellschaft Studien zum Herrschaftsalltag in der DDR, ed. idem (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2011), 7–22.

7 Fitzpatrick and Gellately, “Introduction”, 759–63.

8 Robert Gellately, “Denunciation in Twentieth-Century Germany: Aspects of Self-Policing in the Third Reich and the German Democratic Republic,” The Journal of Modern History, 68 (1996): 931–33, 966–67.

9 Paul Betts, Within Walls: Private Life in the German Democratic Republic (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 23, 49.

10 Robert Gellately, “Denunciation as a Subject of Historical Research,” Historical Social Research 26, no. 2 (2001): 20.

11 Corey Ross, The East German Dictatorship: Problems and Perspectives in the Interpretation of the GDR (London: Arnold, 2012), 63.

12 István Dobos, Autobiographical Reading. Spectrum Hungarologicum, vol. 3 (Jyväskylä–Pécs: University of Jyväskylä, 2010), 9.

13 Állambiztonsági Szolgálatok Történeti Levéltára (hereafter: ÁBTL) 4.1. A-3253.

14 ÁBTL 4.1. A-3783.

15 ÁBTL 4.1. A-2103.

16 Jerome Bruner, Actual minds, possible worlds (Cambridge–London: Harvard University Press, 1986).

17 I have analyzed these texts in greater detail elsewhere: Tibor Takács, Besúgók a besúgásról. Ügynök-visszaemlékezések a Kádár-korszakból (Budapest: L’Harmattan, 2013).

18 Kata Horváth, “A Borsányi név. A politikai és a tudományos megfigyelés határai,” anBlokk 3 (2009): 37.

19 Karol Sauerland, Harminc ezüst: Besúgások és árulások, trans. Péter Várnai (Budapest: Helikon, 2001), 249–58.

20 Daniel L. Schacter, The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers (Boston–New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2002), 138–49.

21 ÁBTL 1.11.5. 2-3/6/1955. A belügyminiszter 6. sz. parancsa az államvédelmi szervek ügynöki munkájának alapelvei című instrukció kiadásáról, February 9, 1955; ÁBTL 1.5. 2-10/94/1956. A belügyminiszter 94. sz. parancsa az államvédelmi szervek ügynöki munkájának alapelvei című okmány kiadásáról, October 8, 1956; ÁBTL 4.2. 10-21/33/1958. A belügyminiszter 33. sz. parancsa az államvédelmi szervek ügynöki munkájának alapelvei című okmány kiadásáról, December 5, 1958; ÁBTL 4.2. 10-21/5/1972. A belügyminiszter 005. sz. parancsa az állambiztonsági szervek hálózati munkájának alapelveit tartalmazó szabályzat kiadásáról, April 5, 1972.

22 ÁBTL 4.1. A-3087. József Muzslai and Ottó Szélpál, Az ügynökség vezetésének és nevelésének alapelvei és módszerei (Budapest: BM Tanulmányi és Módszertani Osztály, 1957), 37.

23 The citation is from the last stanza of a poem by twentieth-century Hungarian poet Endre Ady entitled A kimérák Istenéhez, or “To the God of Chimeras”: “My concern is your conern / For if you do not keep your faithful / no one will believe in you in time: / God, Secret, draw your sword!” Ady Endre összes versei (Budapest: Szépirodalmi, 1967), 375.

24 ÁBTL 1.11.10. A Belügyminisztérium III. Főcsoportfőnöksége ügynöki hálózata, a hálózati munka fejlődése és feladatai, December 11, 1968 (II. sorozat, 60. doboz).

25 ÁBTL 1.11.10. Jelentés. A BM állambiztonsági szervek hálózata, a hálózati munka feladatai, July 12, 1968 (II. sorozat, 60. doboz).

26 David Childs and Richard Popplewell, The Stasi: The East German Intelligence and Security Service, (Basingstoke–London: Macmillan, 1996), 83. Jens Gieseke, The History of the Stasi: East Germany’s Secret Police, 1945–1990 (New York–Oxford: Berghahn, 2014), 79–80.

27 ÁBTL 1.11.10. Jelentés. A BM állambiztonsági szervek hálózata, a hálózati munka feladatai, July 12, 1968 (II. sorozat, 60. doboz).

28 This was true of the informers for the Stasi as well: Betts, Within Walls, 46–47.

29 Barbara Miller, Narratives of Guilt and Compliance in Unified Germany: Stasi Informers and their Impact on Society (London–New York: Routledge, 1999), 64.

30 ÁBTL 3.1.9. V-145842. 33–37. P. J. önvallomása, March 22, 1957.

31 Fitzpatrick and Gellately, “Introduction”, 751; Gellately, “Denunciation as a Subject,” 23–24.

32 Idem, “Denunciation in Twentieth-Century Germany,” 956–59; Betts, Within Walls, 44–45.

33 Alon Confino demonstrates this in an excellent case study: “The Travels of Bettina Humpel: One Stasi File and Narratives of State and Self in East Germany,” in Socialist Modern: East German Everyday Culture and Politics, ed. Katherine Pence and Paul Betts (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2008), 133–54. Also see Betts, Within Walls, 46–47.

34 Fitzpatrick and Gellately, “Introduction”, 752; Gellately, “Denunciation as a Subject,” 25.

35 Sheila Fitzpatrick, “Signals from Below: Soviet Letters of Denunciation of the 1930s,” The Journal of Modern History 68 (1996): 845–49; Vladimir A. Kozlov, “Denunciation and Its Functions in Soviet Governance: A Study of Denunciations and Their Bureaucratic Handling from Soviet Police Archives, 1944–1953,” The Journal of Modern History 68 (1996): 867–98.

36 Betts, Within Walls, 49.

37 See Sándor Horváth, “»Apa nem volt komcsi« – a mindennapi kollaboráció és az ügynökkérdés határai”, in Az ügynök arcai. Mindennapi kollaboráció és ügynökkérdés, ed. Sándor Horváth (Budapest: Libri, 2014), 7–37.

Volume 4 Issue 1 CONTENTS

pdfCaterina Preda

Forms of Collaboration of Visual Artists in Communist Romania of the 1970s–1980s

Little attention has been given in political science analyses of communist-era Romania to the relationships between visual artists and the secret police. In this article, I attempt to address this lacuna in our understanding of the interactions between the state and artists by presenting two forms of collaboration of visual artists during the last two decades of Romanian communism: the artists’ involvement in the ideological project of the communist party and their “collaboration” with the secret police. In addition, I also examine the ways in which artists have contributed a posteriori to our understandings of the communist experience with their artworks. I offer detailed examinations of the cases of three visual artists. The approach I have adopted includes analyses of interviews with two artists who represent two opposing cases and examinations of the files that were kept on them by state surveillance organs, so as to provide a new, multifaceted perspective on the relationships between artists and the communist regime. I contend that the study of artistic artifacts can supplement traditional sources for political science analyses of the communist past and provide a more nuanced perspective on the period. The article shows that imposing artistic dogmas is not simply a top-down process, but one resulting from complex interactions between different institutional and individual actors. 


Keywords: visual artists, secret police (Securitate), Romania, communism, collaboration.



In this article, I introduce two understandings of collaboration among artists with the communist regime in Romania: collaboration as part of an artistic project of the regime and the cooperation of individual artists with the secret police. I also examine a posteriori contributions of artists to our understandings of the communist regime as another perspective on the ways in which life under the dictatorship is remembered. The collaboration of artists with the communist regime is a topic that remains highly divisive in Romanian society given the political uses to which the archives of the former regime, which were only recently made accessible to the public, have been put to.

Before 1989, artists had to pursue their creative activity in conformity with the ideological principles of the state. Thus, they were compelled to collaborate in the consolidation of the myth of communist society, or the “multi-laterally developed,” society as it came to be called towards the end of the regime. At the same time, most artists developed “another art,” alongside their work in compliance with official requests to depict the mandatory ideology. Some of these artistic productions can help us construct a history that differs from the officially sanctioned one and remains distinct from the narrative of the so-called “democratic opposition,” which emphasized victimhood and repression, which are not necessarily part of a shared memory for all citizens. In this sense, artistic artifacts can supplement traditional sources for political science analyses of the communist past. This different point of view on this history is in accordance with Jacques Rancière’s concept of dissensus. Both politics and art provoke a dissensus and impose operations of reconfiguration of the sensible; thus art can help us see what was unseen or see differently what was regarded from a unique perspective.1 The artist is also a collector of signs. He or she is an archivist, and thus what artists register may convey meanings in everyday objects, such as a banal photograph or a mundane event, that at first escape our glance.2

In this article, I discuss the experiences of three Romanian visual artists, Sabin Bălaşa, Ion Grigorescu and Rudolf Bone, and their interaction with the Securitate,3 as well as their perceptions of these experiences. Although my discussion does not offer a comprehensive overview of these interactions or the relationships on which they were based, the experiences of these artists are evocative of the control exerted by the secret police on the artistic world. I also attempted to learn more about the point of view of the former Securitate on this topic and requested any files archived by the Council for the Study of the Securitate Archives (CNSAS). For Ion Grigorescu, I found no surveillance or collaboration files; the artist is briefly mentioned in surveillance files that were kept on other artists. In the case of Rudolf Bone, there was a surveillance file that I use in order to compare the contents of the file with the information given by the artist in the interview. There is a microfilm file on Bălaşa that documents his collaboration with the Securitate. The three artists represent distinct and opposing cases. While Bălaşa is considered to have been one of the “painters of Ceauşescu” (i.e. he painted several famous paintings of the couple), Grigorescu was marginal during the communist era and Bone was a dissenter. Two other informal interviews with Romanian art critics (Pavel Şuşară and Aurelia Mocanu) accompany the secondary sources used for this investigation. The artistic examples include Ion Grigorescu’s depiction of the “spontaneous organization” by the secret police of a manifestation of support for the communist leaders, Rudolf Bone’s description of his inability to act, and Ion Dumitriu’s documentation of the lives of the people who were and still are excluded from official portrayals of life under communism.

This investigation covers the last two decades of the communist regime in Romania, the 1970s and the 1980s, starting with the recalibration of the Romanian cultural sphere after the so-called “1971 July theses” by Nicolae Ceauşescu, in which the dictator demanded that artists deal more often with socialist topics.4 The focus of this research is on visual artists (or artists in the plastic arts, as they were called by the communist regime), including painting, sculpture, ceramics, etc.,5 as well as their forms of representation, such as the Union of Plastic Artists (UAP).

Little attention has been given in political science analyses of communist-era Romania to the relationships between visual artists and the secret police. Some information is provided in studies that analyze the relationships between artists and the Securitate in the volumes of collected documents edited by Dan Cătănuş, such as Intelectuali români în arhivele comunismului [Romanian Intellectuals in Communist Archives] (2006), which includes several references to artists who were arrested, etc. One could also mention the volumes edited by Silviu Moldovan, Arhivele Securităţii vols I & II (2006), which contain files from the Securitate archives that have references to artists. A further useful reference is the analyses of the Romanian cultural sphere during communism. In addition to my doctoral dissertation, in which I compared the Romanian experience to the Chilean one,6 works by other authors have delved into this topic. In two volumes, Literatura şi artele în România comunistă 1948–1953 [Literature and the Arts in Communist Romania, 1948–1953] (2010) and Politicile culturale comuniste în timpul regimului Gheorghiu-Dej [The Communist Cultural Policies during the regime of Gheorghiu-Dej] (2011), Cristian Vasile concentrates on a description of the structures of the communist regime and the decisions made by these institutions that affected artists and artworks. Additional information is provided by Magda Cârneci’s analysis of the visual arts during the communist regime in Artele plastice în România 1945–1989 [Fine Arts in Romania 1945–1989] (2000), in which Magda Cârneci identifies several periods within the long period of communist rule and examines artistic trends and specific artists. Diaries kept by those involved in the artistic sphere, either as art critics or as employees of a museum department (Petre Oprea) or a Union of Plastic Arts’ department (Samuil Rosei), represent another important kind of source that offers insights into the Romanian artistic world during the communist period. I use each of these sources as complements to the interviews mentioned above.

My article deals with the collaboration of Romanian visual artists with the Securitate, although there were other forms of collaboration that could be investigated, such as the relationships they established within the UAP. I chose not to focus on this, however, as it has been already discussed in the studies of Alice Mocănescu, for example, much as the question of collaboration between artists and organizations of the PCR (Partidul Comunist Român [Romanian Communist Party]) has been touched on in the studies of Cristian Vasile. A focus on their relationship with the Securitate offers another perspective from which to consider the complexity of the links between artists and the communist regime, as well the different meanings of adhering to the official line or contradicting it and the types of artistic freedoms artists had.

In what follows, after a presentation of the Securitate and its relationships with the artists of Romania, I offer an analysis of the collaboration of Romanian artists with the ideological project imposed by the communist regime (with a focus on the last two decades). I then discuss specific forms of collaboration by visual artists and their relationships with the secret police in Romania. Finally, I present examples of works of art that contribute to our current understanding of the communist past.

The Securitate Surveillance: Perception And Reality

The communist regime was based on ideological control and the establishment of the illusion of perfect surveillance. More often than not, people censored themselves on their own, without any outside stimuli (i.e. real secret police surveillance). This fear of the other was gradually internalized by Romanian citizens during the communist regime and became the norm in the 1980s. For example, this awareness of being followed was evoked by the art critic, Samuil Rosei who wrote the following in his diary in 1971: “I don’t know if that day I observed I was followed. The ‘guys’ were on my trail for almost a year. I saw them in the morning in the window of the attic across the street, happy that finally I was leaving home and giving them a chance to take a walk. I counted around 16 or 17 of them, the people who chased me ‘from the shadow’.”7

The actual number of secret police keeping members of the population under observation was not as high as the people in question believed, but the extent of the surveillance network remains impressive. The number of informers at the outbreak of the December 1989 Revolution was “450,000, of whom some 130,000 were active.”8 Other figures are more striking. According to Anisescu, “approximately 7,000,000 people, or one-third of the adult population appeared in the registers of the Securitate in 1965. Writers and artists were chosen generally as subjects for surveillance files.9 Along with the people who were collaborating with the secret police, we should also mention those who were working for the Securitate. The Securitate employed only 3,973 people in 1948, but by 1969 this number had risen to 5,966, and10 by 1989 it had ballooned to more than 20,000 (39,000 according to Verdery).11

Compliance was guaranteed through different techniques: blackmail, menace, surveillance or inducements, as well as surveillance that included “the use of informers, visual surveillance, and wire-tapping.”12

There were several types of collaboration with the Securitate, and several synonyms have been used in the literature on this topic. Thus, we could include here the terms collaborator, informer, popularly turnător (literally someone that spills it all), or source (official name). According to Deletant, “the informer network was described as being composed of informers, support personnel, residents and occupants of safe houses,” and “the informer was defined as a person who had access to information and sufficient personal attributes, someone who, under the constant guidance of a Securitate officer, actively seeks and gathers information about the people and the deeds that form the object of an investigation.”13 Moreover, an informer was a person who “provided information in an organized manner (preferably in writing), assumed a false name, and usually signed a “contract” called an Angajament [commitment].”14 There would be a further difference between “collaborator (unqualified informer), and informer (qualified, source—the name given by the Securitate),” but also with respect to the “‘informers with no traces,’ support persons in contact with an officer.”15

Specific techniques of surveillance and repression were used by the communist regime for the artistic sphere. At the beginning of the communist regime, “soft” repressive techniques were used, such as “interference in the creative process by the imposition of themes, the censuring of work, and obstacles to publication,” along with harsher approaches, such as “limiting access to education, exercising self-criticism in front of the group, public exposure, exclusion from the party, being compelled to work at a low income job,” and even “being deprived of personal liberty by being sent to work colonies, assigned a fixed residence, imprisoned, and, finally, recruited inside the prison to serve as an informer.”16 According to Clara Mareş, the Securitate had several means of exerting influence on artists and especially writers by using “neutralizing measures,” such as positive influence or alerting the party organization, and if this did not work, the artists would be compromised, isolated or warned.17 Then, artists would be kept under surveillance, just like other citizens. Their mail was read, their houses and studios were searched, and the secret police installed listening devices. Even their friends and families were used to recruit informers.18

Having examined the files on fifteen artists and art critics held in the CNSAS, I have identified details concerning the specific ways in which visual artists were kept under surveillance. First, there was an important difference between the motives for keeping an artist under observation in the 1950s and 1960s and the motives for keeping artists under surveillance in the last two decades of communist rule, i.e. the 1970s and 1980s. In the first period of the communist regime, the main motives concerned “hostile” declarations, i.e. anti-communist sentiments and pro-American statements, while later the reasons either involved artworks (works included in an exhibition that were regarded as going against the established canon) or were connected to the artists leaving the country, as well as to their contacts with foreigners inside the country. In the latter case, artists were coopted into collaboration and pressured to inform on the employees of consulates and embassies. Once abroad, they had to contact certain persons, discuss specific topics and inform the officer upon their return of the details of their stay. I was not able to establish with certainty if going abroad automatically meant being contacted by an officer so as to be coerced into collaboration, but whether this was the case or not, it was certainly the general perception of those who recall the period.

Establishing contact with an artist in order to compel him or her to collaborate was part of the preparatory work done by the Securitate. Prior to the initial contact by the officer, other informers (through “letters of recommendation”) and members of the UAP (usually the chair) would have to characterize the person in question as a potential candidate for collaboration. A very detailed report was provided by the UAP, including information about the artist’s education, his or her character, and the quality of her or his work as exemplified in the number of exhibitions in which he or she had participated. The file established by the officer in charge included information about the artist’s contacts with foreigners in Romania or Romanians who had emigrated (Bone). Before the officer arranged a meeting to determine whether or not an artist who had been identified by the Securitate as a possible collaborator would agree to collaborate, the artist would be followed and thoroughly evaluated. Thus, most files include a “plan of measures for surveillance,” such as the examination of his or her mail, eavesdropping on telephone conversations, and the installation of different instruments used in surveillance inside his or her house or studio.

Most of the artists I investigated agreed to collaborate, and some, such as Bălaşa, were rewarded, while others were not. Some of the artists who collaborated were able to travel with less difficulty afterword, as is clear from their files; they received letters of recommendation from the UAP and the militia in support of their demands. Some of the artists had several names as collaborators because they were surveyed in different periods and given a new name for each new surveillance or/and collaboration file. The files are very chaotic, since, as Verdery notes, they were organized on the basis of the activities in question and not chronologically,19 but they sometimes provide information that goes well beyond the mere question of whether or not the person collaborated with the Securitate. An important detail mentioned by Verdery is also noticeable in some of the cases I investigated. As she notes, “files can make ‘informers’ out of people who staunchly deny that they ever held this role.”20 Thus, the files archived by the CNSAS should be compared with other sources, as I try to do in this article by including the viewpoints and remarks of the artists who create their own narratives through the answers they give to my questions or, in the case of Bălaşa, to questions raised by others.

Artistic Ideological Collaboration with Communist Myth Construction

An important part of the establishment and the consolidation of the communist regime in Romania was the control exerted on the cultural sphere. Some artists and intellectuals were coerced into complying with the new official dogma, others conformed voluntarily, and some opposed the regime and were punished accordingly. The punishments included imprisonment, execution, or the loss of the right to create as mandatory official creative unions were established. Those who collaborated with the regime were offered important benefits if they chose to participate in the ideological project and conform in their creative work to the new aesthetic. The regime rewarded those who agreed to collaborate by granting them prizes in the form of monetary incentives, but also recognition, privileged access to creative institutions throughout the country, and domestic and international travel.21

Rather quickly, at the end of the 1940s, the Romanian government acquired a monopoly on art production and distribution through the nationalization of cinematographs, printing facilities, museums, etc. and the centralization of educational institutions. Moreover, artists became ideological workers in the service of the party. Their endeavors were organized by the state-structured artistic creative unions (which included writers, visual artists, architects, musicians, and, later, people involved in theater and cinema). For Magda Cârneci, the Union for Plastic Artists (UAP), the party (with its different structures), and the artists formed a kind of totalitarian triangle. I would add to this triangle another type of collaboration by artists with the regime, which involved the influence exerted by artists on their colleagues or acquaintances through their cooperation with the Securitate.

A unique style was imposed on creators: Socialist Realism imported from the Soviet Union, where it had become the norm in the mid-1930s. Relaxed after 1956 in the Soviet Union and other East European countries, it remained the norm in Romania, and it even gathered strength in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1971, Nicolae Ceauşescu issued his infamous “July Theses,” which reinvigorated the socialist orientation of artistic endeavors through a 17-point program to be followed by artists. Thus, “through different forms and varied styles of expression, art must serve the people, the fatherland, the socialist society,” and art had to illustrate socialist realities, understood as the life of the working people.22 This translated into the promotion of what Magda Cârneci has called “state kitsch,” which was centered first and foremost on the image of Ceauşescu himself, but also on his close family, his wife Elena and his sons and daughter. Then, having decided that in his view artists had not followed the official guidelines, in 1983 Ceauşescu reiterated his call for artists to produce socialist inspired art through what is known as the “Mangalia Theses.”23 Art was considered merely an ideological tool that served political purposes and had no autonomy of subject or method. This official art was demanded from artists for regional, municipal, and local exhibitions, which were organized throughout the year, as well as for the rest of the celebrations, which became ever more numerous in the last years of the Ceauşescu regime.

At the same time, the communist panorama of artistic creation is much more complicated and diversified or stratified. As Ion Grigorescu stated, “there were many ways to collaborate, in the sense of working together.”24 The types of collaboration with power included being a member of the Communist Party, being a member of the union (which was mandatory for any artist), working for the different intermediate or local party agencies that acted as patrons of the arts in the free world and ordered artworks (for instance, the Union of Communist Youth, UTC, etc.), having connections with the “Gospodăria de Partid” (a section of the Central Committee of the Romanian Communist Party in charge of administrative internal affairs) or the BTT (Bureau of Youth Travel), or, finally, working for the Ministry of Internal Affairs (for these individuals artistic creation was a luxury).25

For Ion Grigorescu, who in recent years has been characterized as one of the representatives of the Romanian neo-vanguard for his artworks in which he mixes photography, video, performance art, etc., his choices were also more complex, as he recounts in the interview.26 His evolution as an artist was molded during the communist regime and his options were imprinted with the different realities that obliged artists to create:

I.G.: I began to exhibit visual art in 1969. I found the following [written] in my diary entry from March 11, 1976, “during the night, passing next to the steam from the cement-crushing mill (Balta Albă): if these people are building socialism, so should I.”

(…) My childhood coincided with the evolution of the socialist society, I benefited from the permanent actualization of the social and political problematic. I felt it was a new world that was being built on the basis of equality, of the honor of being a revolutionary fighter, of the principle that life was an honor. These ideas shaped me in the sense of the continuous fight for them, of the personal example. As my family, my neighbors were having a difficult time in the first years of the 1950s, we all believed we were equally poor, in the work full of perspectives. I was very fond of the newspaper Scânteia [the official newspaper], of its graphics and its information, and I had this representation of an ‘us,’ a block of people of the same social will, the bad coming always from outside. I found out in time that the social structure was much more complicated. I depart from the hardest work for which I have a deep love and respect. I like to listen to people of all sectors of life, the image of their lives is formed out of words; I’d like to try to follow a worker with my camera for twenty-four hours. Of paintings, I don’t make ethical debates, I don’t want to give ratings, in fact I don’t have such a rigid position anymore, I suggest they be analyzed, I give way to discussions, to reactions in many mediums. I would like to make inquiries.27

I have painted several paintings, such as “The reconstitution of the furnace in the studio,” “Uncamarades,” “Accomplishing the plan resides in the power of the collective,” “Rapid Club.” I made the photographic collage of the TVR broadcast entitled “The great manifestation of August 23, 1974” (with Scânteia texts) and two portraits of president Ceauşescu. …I wasn’t a party member, and I preserved my position of presenting reality without commentary as long as I could.

On the basis of my experiences, the [ideological] principles kept evolving, and sometimes they contradicted themselves and were even criticized in time, and artists followed them sometime without knowing what they really meant.28

The artist and art critic Magda Cârneci divides artists of the 1970s and 1980s into three groups according to their relationship to power: “conformists, fake non-conformists (or fake conformists) and non-conformists,” a groups which, she says, would equal Sorin Alexandrescu’s classification into “mercenaries, merchants and monks (…) or committed, neutral and opponents”.29 Conformists still created according to the official aesthetic, while fake conformists/fake non-conformists or neutrals mediated between the two categories, “paying their tribute to power” by engaging in the creation of the kinds of artworks demanded by the regime and in parallel creating “an autonomous art”; finally, non-conformists detached themselves completely from the social advantages enjoyed by those in the previous category. For Cârneci, the difference between them was essentially an existential one.30

According to art critic Pavel Şuşară, there were three categories of artists who collaborated with the regime: those who were part of the system and participated in the Cântarea României Festival; those who were neutral, neither good or bad, “they minded their own business”; and the vanguard artists, who were further subdivided into two types, those who used vanguard means and instruments (Andrei Cădere, Ion Grigorescu, etc.) and those who were subversive ideologically, in the spiritual, religious sense (for example the Prologue Group). For Şuşară, the latter had “liberty inside the birdcage.”31 Art critics were also collaborators, as the most rudimentary among them gave a “good to exhibit” kind of stamp, which were subtle guarantees and had maximum credibility. Some artists collaborated voluntarily; some—victims themselves—made others victims, while others were forced into collaboration. Şuşară himself was called upon at the Securitate after any artists’ meeting had taken place, and often because he was denounced for listening to Radio Free Europe. Along with this suspicion, those that had contacts with the secret police inside an artistic branch were well known by artists and art critics, but all accusation remains under the register of rumors, suspicions, in the absence of a documented proof (for instance, the general public only has access to someone’s Securitate files if the person in question was appointed to a public position32). If some people were well-known for their roles, others were suspected of serving as high-ranking, well-placed officers or more because of their ability to travel and return without punishment (this was also possible for artists who had important family ties with party members or Securitate officials).

Sabin Bălaşa is a very good example of a fake conformist, a painter who paid tribute to power while continuing to create art that did not follow the official aesthetic. Bălaşa even bragged that he was paid a large sum of money for his paintings depicting the Ceauşescu couple, which he represented according to his own style, not in accordance with the official aesthetic:


I don’t refuse an order. When I needed the money, and I did, because I have two children, and they came and ordered me to paint a work depicting Ceauşescu from me, I accepted gladly. But only with the condition that I do it my way! (…) I liked commissions that were made during the Ceauşescu regime. But I painted him as I wished (…) Since great artists always followed orders, only amateurs do what they like. (…) The orders did not come from the Ceauşescu family, I received them from completely different people. I know, I heard that they liked my painting, but this was not special, everyone likes my painting. I’ve only met them once, very late, in a strictly official setting. The orders came from people who to this day are very rich, people whom I again thank for giving them to me. (...) I didn’t do politics and nobody told me what to do. Because I did not do politics and did not create any fuss, the Securitate did not treat me badly. Why complain? I stayed away from dissidence, from complaining, because dissidence is a sort of complaining.33


Bălaşa characterizes himself, much as well as the critics of the period did,34 as an opportunist, an artist who did not care for ideological principles or art for that matter, but rather only for his own career. In fact, after 1990 the painter continued to create works of art for the wealthy people of the day and to construct his image as an artist of genius, an opinion that was not shared by his colleagues. Bălaşa was, as we shall see in what follows, a collaborator with the Securitate who was paid for his services.35

The Relationship of Romanian Artists to the Securitate:
between Surveillance and Collaboration

In order to investigate how the relationship to the Securitate was established, I used three contrasting cases: those of artists Sabin Bălaşa, Ion Grigorescu, and Rudolf Bone. Grigorescu had no problems with the Securitate and even affirms the contradictions that have arisen since the fall of communism with regards to his work; although nowadays he is included in exhibitions that show his disrespectful artistic gestures toward the communist regime, he underlines how much more complex his artistic endeavors were, since he knew when to show respect for the official canon and when simply to “keep quiet.” As he says,


In two films, I used the image of the President (sic), if I would have called many people to show [the films] to them, they would have taken them from me as propaganda against the establishment and I would have been in a bad position. In my notebooks I had the texts of the movies and other commentaries on the political education. They remained in the drawer. If I would have willfully tried to exhibit abroad or to have contacts there, I would have probably been followed.36


Bone, on the other hand, was openly against the communists and was followed by the Securitate as a consequence of his artistic gestures.

Why was an artist followed by the Securitate? Reasons having to do with style (for instance, shows of disrespect for the official norm) were significant, and factors that made someone prone to blackmail were exploited, such as sexual orientation (homosexuality was forbidden and punished during communism).37 Artists themselves viewed their relationships with the Securitate differently, as can be seen from the answers they gave to my questions. As Ion Grigorescu recounts:


Preda: What was your relationship with the Securitate before 1989?

Grigorescu: I would say I had no relationship [with the Securitate]. In 1977, after the earthquake, I was able to leave for Paris and Zurich, during the spring holiday, as I was a professor. (…)

C.P.: Do you have any information about a colleague or friend who was contacted by the Securitate? What was his relationship with them?

I.G.: No. In 1974, I met Paul Goma in the studio a colleague of mine with whom I exhibited that year, Ion Condiescu. I have no ‘information,’ the world was full of rumors and reticence.

C.P.: What were artists reproached for by the Securitate? [and a broader question: What kind of political control was exercised over an exhibition or a commission?]

I.G.: I don’t know what artists were reproached for by the Securitate. I assisted with a small number of censorships of exhibitions because usually the censor avoided the artist so as not to be obliged to give unpleasant explanations. In 1972, they removed a painting of mine with a depiction of a girl who had been hanged. In 1974, a painting by Matei Lăzărescu with a depiction of a freezer including meat and money was removed. The censor asked, “what does it want to say? That it is expensive?” Around 1980, I was given a commission to paint a portrait of president Ceauşescu (sic.). The head of the service for exhibitions of the UAP told me to erase two of the three characters, which I did, then they told me it’s too realistic, that the character had a swollen, soft hand. The censor did not tell the truth when he rejected a work because he [the censor] was either afraid to say the truth, which would have meant to partake, or he didn’t want to become involved.38


Since the main preoccupation of artists (and the majority of Romanians) was how to escape, how to get away, how to leave the country, getting a passport was quite important. Thus, one of the issues that concerned possible interaction between Romanian artists and the secret police was that of obtaining the right to travel abroad. Romanians did not have passports; a Romanian citizen could only obtain a passport submitting an explicit request and providing adequate explanation. Deletant quotes an official document of the Securitate that made “the issue of a passport conditional on collaboration with the organ of state security,” and as he notes, “the award of a passport to a Romanian citizen was a privilege not a right, and was in the case of ‘service’ (i.e. issued for travel or official business) opposed to ‘tourist’ passports often conditional upon the bearer fulfilling an extra task for an organ of the Securitate.”39 At the same time, Deletant recognizes that it was not possible that all the people who traveled abroad had actually collaborated with the Securitate: “all those who were granted passports were adjudged to have made concessions to the Securitate, either in the form of accepting a misiune in the form of reporting on the activities of Romanian relatives and friends abroad or of informing on them at home, for which the favor of a passport was the reward. This is certainly the case with many Romanians who were allowed to travel in the communist era but it is unlikely to be true of all. The Securitate and the DIE were selective in their interest in Romanians wanting to travel abroad and it is doubtful whether they had the resources to charge every traveler with a mission.”40

Ion Grigorescu recounts the story of his travels abroad during the communist era:


I.G.: How did I obtain my passport? The summer before [the spring of 1977 when he travelled to Paris and Zurich] I had asked for one on the basis of an invitation to the international engraving exhibition. The exhibition passed with no reply. After almost a year, I found out that the man who issued passports, colonel Budecă, had left a telephone number at the UAP for artists who had contacts with foreigners. I called him, he replied that he did not deal with passports, but a week later I was contacted by post to pick up my passport. I left, I came back and filled the file with information regarding where I had been and the people with whom I had spoken, together with the chief of personnel of the UAP, the stoker Turlacu, the one who gave me and immediately took my passport. The same happened after I returned from Macedonia in 1979.41

If for Ion Grigorescu there is no surveillance file in spite of the fact that he traveled abroad on several occasions,42 for his brother, the painter Octav Grigorescu, there is a surveillance file that was kept following his trips to Italy and his expression of his desire to remain in Italy. Ion Grigorescu is not mentioned at all in any of these files.43

For Rudolf Bone, the experience he had with the Securitate was more direct, as he noted in the interview. He was under surveillance by the Securitate, and this directly affected him.


C. Preda: What was your relationship with the Securitate before 1989?

Rudolf Bone: As far as what concerns me, my relationship with the Securitate was that of someone being followed, intercepted [my phone was tapped], and listened to. I suspected this at the time, and it was later confirmed [that] I had a file as someone who was being followed. It is not a big file, because I was followed only as of 1988. I think they followed me because, following the summoning of all sculptors from Oradea to a meeting of the county party cabinet, and although I was not a member of p.c.r. (sic.) they were trying to convince us to accept to work on the building site of the House of the People, I was the only person who openly refused, and I immediately left the meeting room in spite of the threats that were being made by the person who was leading the meeting. In consequence, I was discharged as a teacher at the primary school where I was teaching and was transferred to the Artisans’ cooperative, which was supposed to assign me to the building site of the House of the People, where I was supposed to carve decorative motifs into marble. And the worst thing was that I was the only sculptor from Oradea in this situation! I managed to avoid the trap with the help of medical certificates provided by some doctor friends of mine.

C.P.: Were you ever contacted by an agent?

R.B.: For the first time around 1978–89, when a young lady visited me at the high school where I was teaching; I met her in the high school, and all I knew about her was that she had graduated from the Economics Institute of Cluj. I didn’t know she was working for the Ministry of Interior. I found out from her she was sub-lieutenant and that she was responsible for the artistic sphere, the art collections, the museum. Back then, all art collectors had something to do with the regime. My father had in his collection works of local artists, but also some compositions from the Baia Mare School. You couldn’t sell or buy anything without THEM (sic!) knowing. My father sold without letting anybody know. The young lady tried a little blackmail, letting me know she knew something. I think they only suspected, otherwise they wouldn’t have been so discreet. She proposed that I collaborate with her for the expertise of some paintings of the Baia Mare School. I refused politely saying I was no painter and so I wasn’t qualified to help her. She stopped looking for me, she even avoids me today. We don’t say hello. The second time was in September 1989, one day before I left for Bucharest for the exhibition I was about to do with [Dan] Perjovschi at the Orizont Gallery on Victoria Boulevard. Obviously they knew and thought I would soften. On the phone, a comrade major Marian or something like that tried to call me at the Securitate headquarters, which was close to my home. I told him rudely that I was not going anywhere because I had an exhibition in Bucharest and I had to pack my works. He replied that he knew about my business and that they were coming to my place. In seven minutes the lieutenant major arrived, fortunately alone. After some stupid questions, such as ‘comrade Bone, why are you doing such pessimistic work?’ and after having let me know that they had a video of my artistic actions in Sibiu in April 1989, when I had had some rather firm and nonconformist ideological attitudes, he asked me how I had ever come to exhibit a bronze sculpture in Ravenna in 1983. I replied that the answer was simple, I had sent it through the UAP, and a commissar of the union had traveled with the works selected by the Ravenna jury on the basis of some photos. Then he asked me the trick question, namely, would I want, from now on, to take my works abroad myself? Me, who couldn’t even travel to the socialist neighbor and friendly country of Hungary because they refused my passport demands! I replied that they should send sculptor K., who left any time he wanted to, traveling to Italy and anywhere in the West with no obstacles. As a close to our talk, he told me in a slightly threatening manner to be careful what I exhibit in Bucharest, and he put a white piece of paper in front me on which I was to write that I wouldn’t tell anybody about our talk, and then I was supposed to sign it. I refused, saying that they found out everything anyway, so there would be no point in me signing. He insisted and I said clearly that I wouldn’t sign any paper. In my mind, I was thinking that I wouldn’t sign any agreement with Satan, no matter what they did to me! He left by saying, ‘we’ll meet again!’ We only met after the events of 1989, passing on the street, when I confronted him without telling him anything.44


At the CNSAS, I discovered that the Securitate followed Rudolf Bone, assigning him the code name “Rudi” in a surveillance file (I 329979) in 1987–1989. His file includes five documents. The first one is a “Note for tasks to be accomplished” concerning Bone, who was known for having contacts with foreign countries through the mail and who intended to participate in the VII Venice Biennial (1988). The officer asked for approval for surveillance “in order to prevent crimes from taking place” and so as to discover the artist’s connections with foreigners by studying his mail and eavesdropping on his telephone conversations. The second document is a report in which Bone is characterized as a serious person with no vices, and as someone who had many contacts in foreign countries. The third document is a report about Bone’s desire to participate with a work of art in an exhibition organized in Italy. According to this report, the artist was to be contacted after he had asked for a passport in order to establish his position and his contacts. The fourth document is a report that suggests that Bone should be followed in order to be contacted and that he should be enlisted to collaborate, depending on his attitude. Finally, the last document in Bone’s file is a report regarding the contacts that were established with him by the secret agent in November 1989. According to the report, the artist discussed his participation in the exhibition in Sibiu, the possibility of sending artworks to foreign exhibitions without ever traveling abroad, and his former colleagues who had immigrated to West Germany; at the same time, the agent notes that Bone was instructed how to speak with foreigners and that he agreed to respect these norms.

The Sibiu event at which the Securitate was called on to interrupt an artistic action also included Bone, who presented his intervention, entitled Ritual (1989). It depicted the artist “sacrificing” a papier-mâché figure that he had made, and all this to a soundtrack of “blah-blah” recorded by his fellow artists participating in the action.45 “‘The Ritual’ was consumed practically without an audience, although those looking gathered at the windows of the gallery, recalling the atmosphere that dominated the year 1989 of generalized fear of the other (that the artist mocks), as well as eluding censorship that would have had to give its approval for such an action.”46 Chestnut self-portrait (1983), the work by Bone of which I have included a digital reproduction below, is a depiction of his incapacity to speak freely at the time. The face and head of the artist are perforated with small colored pieces of wood, while the artist stares at us, as if wishing to communicate something important (Pintilie).


Rudolf Bone, Chestnut Self-portrait, 1983, reproduced with the consent of the artist.


Being given permission to travel abroad was considered one of the clearest indicators of collaboration with the Securitate. The study of the visual artists’ files shows that in many cases artists were followed when abroad by secret agents who had infiltrated the exiled community, and some were invited to a “discussion” with an officer upon their return, in the course of which they had to recount whom they had met, what they had discussed, whether or not they had been contacted by people active inside exile communities, who might have tried to convince them to stay abroad.

Finally, the case of Sabin Bălaşa (1931–2008) is interesting for the sake of contrast, because the painter had a collaboration file with the Securitate.47 He was also followed by the secret police, but as his file is missing most of its pages, we do not have access to the documents. The file of Bălaşa is only available on microfilm and is incomplete. It includes a report for a proposal of recruitment (1967), a report on how recruitment went, a signed “commitment” to collaborate (1971), a background report on his wife Alexandra from the UAP, a background report from the UAP from the head of personnel and signed by the president Ion Pacea that confirms that Bălaşa was not a member of the Romanian Communist Party, two reports from two sources, and two receipts for money and a bottle of whiskey (1986).48 Although Bălaşa’s signed agreement to collaborate dates from 1971, his file states that he collaborated with the officers as of 1967.

Bălaşa’s signed commitment states:


Conscious that defending the country, the security of the state, constitutes a sacred debt of any citizen of this country, a patriotic obligation of the whole people and also an important contribution I am called upon to make as a citizen of RSR, I pledge to support secretively, actively and in an organized manner the organs of security in the activity they accomplish to prevent, discover, and liquidate the crimes committed against the security of the state. I commit to fight with consistency, to respect the law, to act with promptitude so as to prevent the imminent dangers to the security of the state. To manifest vigilance toward the enemy of the fatherland, to be honest with the security organs and not disclose to anyone my connection to them. I commit to respect this commitment, conscious that disrespecting it can bring damage to the security of the state. September 9, 1971 (sic!).


In the plan to recruit Bălaşa, which dates back to 1967, the officer states that he had been contacted because of his connections abroad, especially in Italy, and in order to provide information concerning Romanians who had emigrated, as well as Italians active in the emigration circles of Romanians. In one of his recommendations, he is shown appreciation because when he was sent abroad he did not stay in any of the countries visited and thus showed his patriotism. His collaborator name was “Sorin Olteanu,” and the people who compiled his file appreciated his efforts, which helped solve several ”problems.”

Artistic Contributions to a New Understanding of the Past:
the Art of Memorialization

I suggest adding to the perspectives on the communist past and its aftermath by including artistic points of view in which symbolic languages are used or direct citations of the period figure. Thus, I acknowledge the distinct perspective of a privileged category of citizens, visual artists.

Another perspective from which to consider the question of the relationship between the artist and the regime involves depictions of those who surveyed. The best example of this is Ion Grigorescu’s image reproduced below. Part of his series of photographs entitled Electoral meeting of 1975, this image presents a Securitate officer supervising the organization of a “spontaneous” manifestation of support for the official leader, Nicolae Ceauşescu, and the Romanian Communist Party. The other 28 photographs show people being taken to the event, but the images also reveal the people’s boredom and disinterest. They are holding smiling portraits of Ceauşescu and enthusiastic slogans, but they don’t seem at all animated. Officially, such events were not organized, but rather took place spontaneously, thus Grigorescu demystifies the perspective of the communist regime with material proof. The series of photographs offers a point of view that differs strikingly from the official one. Moreover, Grigorescu manages to safeguard this telling image of a secret police officer holding his walkie-talkie, preoccupied by the need to surveil the participants continuously. The person doing the surveilling was also being watched. This image contains nothing important. Nothing extraordinary is happening, but its mere trace is important today for our comprehension of the ways in which the communist regime functioned.

Ion Grigorescu, Electoral meeting, 1975, reproduced with the consent of the artist.


Moreover, Ion Grigorescu’s images of the desolate communist daily landscape contradict the official depictions of an idealized reality as it was supposed to be presented by artists through the ideological lenses. For example, in his photographs Queue for meat (1975), Waiting for Propane tanks and Getting on the bus from 1984, we see real everyday life under the Ceauşescu regime, time spent waiting to acquire products that were scarce, trying to find one’s way to work by using the overcrowded public transportation system. Many other artists indulged in this chronicling of the daily routines as a manifestation of their ordeals, which were denied or at least hidden by the regime. These unimportant details of everyday life can help us reconstruct today the reality of communism in Romania as it was experienced by large parts of society. In his videos entitled Beloved Bucharest (1977) and Balta Albă (1979), Grigorescu was also able to record the periphery of the socialist urban dream life as testimony “to the failure of socialism: the poverty, the dreary living conditions, the new construction projects, which gave rise to alienating and low-quality living environments.”49 The artist reminds us that his fellow citizens shared his point of view:


I think everybody was aware of that [social reality]. Everybody knew that the propaganda was hiding a distinct and unpleasant reality in working conditions: people were working, but could take no pleasure in their work whatsoever. At least this is my conclusion. But when I exhibited such works, the only thing they could say was: ‘We won’t accept this, since it is ugly.’ They couldn’t just condemn the work directly, unless they were prepared to recognize the truth.”50

Equally interesting in this sense are Ion Dumitriu’s series of slides, Groapa de gunoi [Landfill site] (1975), which document the activities of people on the outskirts of Bucharest, showing a side of the communist reality that officially was not supposed to exist and much less be recorded or immortalized in art. The artist concentrates not on the successes of the socialist program, but rather focuses on those that failed to “be integrated” and that lived their lives on the margins of the official narrative of the glories of socialism.


This concise investigation into the relationships between artists and the communist regime in Romania used three types of possible interconnections between the two to discuss the complexities of living under a dictatorial regime. Artists collaborated with the communist regime ideologically by creating art that conformed to the official aesthetic. As Romanian art critics remind us, things were not so simple at the time, and thus many artists had a double art, one that fit the public mandatory aesthetic and one that was true to their own aesthetic values. Finally, some opposed the regime completely and sometimes suffered the consequences, as in the case of Bone. Interaction with the Securitate was motivated either by a desire to travel outside of the country, which meant artists were contacted by representatives of the secret police before and after their travels in order to receive a passport and to recount their journey and provide information regarding the people with whom they met, etc. Artists were also observed and contacted by the Securitate because, in the view of the authorities, they had shown disrespect for socialist creative principles, as both Grigorescu (who says he did not go beyond the limits he knew) and Bone (contacted by an agent at the end of the communist regime) acknowledge.

Because of the specific character of the visual arts, which address a smaller public (when not using the propaganda of Socialist Realism), the work of visual artists, after self-censorship, was observed in order to ensure that it did not violate the limits by the UAP and the other departments of party or state institutions before coming under the scrutiny of the Securitate. The three cases discussed above allow us to conclude that, contrary to popular belief, traveling abroad did not automatically entail a proposal for collaboration, nor did it necessarily prompt the authorities (the Securitate) to open a surveillance file on the person in question. The study of supplementary artists’ files shows, nonetheless, that this happened in other cases, and that the reasons varied across the decades of Romanian communism: from the need to survey those in the exiled communities to the government’s desire to examine prior links with foreigners inside Romania.

In keeping with Rancière’s perspective on the artistic gesture that can provide a new understanding or a novel point of view, the Romanian examples discussed above show how these artistic endeavors help bring forth a new perspective on life during communism, far from the official line. We saw how the artistic gesture of registering reality captures another side of this reality that helps our a posteriori conceptualizations of dictatorships with the addition of a perspective that otherwise is not available. Artists register not only the secret police, as Grigorescu does in Romania, they also register details of the daily misery that don’t exist in the official propaganda and that today can balance this official perspective on reality. Moreover, artists also capture feelings, and they symbolically give expression to the sentiments of the majority of Romanian citizens in the last years of the Ceauşescu regime: trapped, incapable of moving or talking, desperate.


Archival Sources

Consiliul Naţional pentru Studierea Arhivelor Securităţii (CNSAS) [National Council for the Study of Securitate Archives] files:

Bălaşa Sabin – M.R. Buc. 142480/roll. 1469.

Bone Sigismund Rudolf – I 329979.

Grigorescu Octav – SIE 4045; I 454430/ 2 vols.



Cârneci, Magda. Artele plastice în România 1945–1989 [Fine Arts in Romania, 1945–1989]. Bucharest: Meridiane, 2000.

Cătănuş, Dan, ed. Intelectuali români în Arhivele Comunismului [Romanian Intellectuals in the Communist Archives]. Bucharest: Nemira, 2006.

Deletant, Dennis. “Romania”. In A Handbook of the Communist Security Apparatus in East Central Europe 1944–1989, edited by Krzysztof Persak and Lukasz Kaminski, 285–328. Warsaw: Institute of National Remembrance, 2005.

Institutul de Investigare a Crimelor Comunismului în România, ed. De ce trebuie condamnat Comunismul? Anuarul Institutului de Investigare a Crimelor Comunismului în România [Why Should Communism Be Condemned? The Yearbook of the Institute of Investigation of Communist Crimes in Romania]. Vol. 1. Iaşi: Polirom, 2006.

Mănescu, Eugen. Între linii [Between the Lines]. Bucharest: Editura Rao, 2011.

Nedelcu, Adrian, ed. Viaţa cotidiană în communism [Daily Life during Communism]. Iaşi: Polirom, 2004.

Oprea, Marius. Bastionul cruzimii O istorie a Securităţii 1948–1964 [The Bastion of Cruelty. A History of the Securitate, 1948–1964]. Iaşi: Polirom, 2008.

Oprea, Marius. “Securitatea şi moştenirea sa” [The Securitate and Its Legacy]. In Comunism şi represiune în România [Communism and Repression in Romania], edited by Ruxandra Cesereanu, 23–38. Iaşi: Polirom, 2006.

Oprea, Petre. Jurnalul anilor 1971–1975 [Diary of the Years 1971–1975]. Bucharest, Ed. Maiko, 2004.

Pintilie, Ileana. Acţionismul în România în timpul comunismului [Actionism in Romania during Communism]. Cluj: Idea, 2000.

Preda, Caterina. Dictators and Dictatorships: Artistic Expressions of the Political in Romania and Chile (1970s–1989). No paso nada...? PhD Dissertation available on demand. University of Bucharest, 2009.

Preda, Caterina. “Sub supraveghere (artistică). Relaţia artiştilor cu Securitatea” [Under (Artistic) Surveillance. The Relationship of Artists to the Securitate]. Studia Politica Romanian Political Science Review 13, no. 1 (2013): 159–72.

Rancière, Jacques. Le spectateur emancipé. Paris: La Fabrique, 2008.

Rancière, Jacques. The Future of the Image. London–New York: Verso, 2006.

Rosei, Samuil. Jurnal întârziat, vols 1–2 [The Belated Diary, vols 1–2]. Bucharest: Ed. Anastasia, 2009.

Vasile, Cristian. Literatura şi artele în România comunistă 1948–1953 [Literature and the Arts in Communist Romania, 1948–1953]. Bucharest: Humanitas, 2010.

Vasile, Cristian. Politicile culturale comuniste în timpul regimului Gheorghiu-Dej [The Cultural Communist Policies under the Regime of Gheorghiu-Dej]. Bucharest: Humanitas, 2011.

Vătulescu, Cristina. Police Aesthetics Literature, Film & Secret Police in Soviet Times. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010.

Verdery, Katherine. Secrets and Truths: Ethnography in the Archive of Romania’s Secret Police. Budapest: CEU Press, 2014.

1 Jacques Rancière, Le spectateur emancipé (Paris: La Fabrique, 2008), 70, 72.

2 Jacques Rancière, The Future of the Image (London–New York: Verso, 2006), 26.

3 “Securitate,” the name by which the secret police in communist Romania has come to be known, is in fact a kind of shorthand. The actual name of the institution was General Direction for State Security (D.G.S.P) in 1948. In 1968, it became the Council for State Security.

4 As Verdery recalls, 1971 was also an important year because it bore witness to a change in the approach of the Securitate. It was the year in which a “new Law on the Defense of the State secret made the entire society responsible for protecting secrets.” Katherine Verdery, Secrets And Truths: Ethnography in the Archive of Romania’s Secret Police (Budapest: CEU Press, 2014), 130.

5 The people involved in the cases in question are painters, but because they used other media (film, photographs, body art) I use the term visual artists. My research here does not include filmmaking.

6 Caterina Preda, “Dictators and Dictatorships:Artistic Expressions of the Political in Romania and Chile (1970s–1989) No paso nada...? ” (PhD diss., University of Bucharest, 2009).

7 Samuil Rosei worked for the exhibition department of the Union of Plastic Artists (UAP). See his two-volume diary, which recounts his daily routines and the life of artists at the time. The note quoted is from February 18, 1971, Samuil Rosei, Jurnal întârziat, 2 volumes (Bucharest: Ed. Anastasia, 2011), 75.

8 Denis Deletant, “Romania,” in A Handbook of the Communist Security Apparatus in East Central Europe 1944–1989, ed. Krzysztof Persak and Lukasz Kaminski (Warsaw: Institute of Naftional Remembrance, 2005), 314. Katherine Verdery gives a different number: “486,000 informers assisting 39,000 full-time employees,” the numbers being those given by the Romanian Service of Information (SRI) after 1990. Katherine Verdery, Secrets and Truths: Ethnography in the Archive of Romania’s Secret Police (Budapest: CEU Press, 2014), 207.

9 Cristina Anisescu, “Evidenţele şi arhivele Securităţii,” in “Partiturile” Securităţii: Directive, ordine, instrucţiuni (1941–1981), ed. idem et al. (Bucharest: Nemira, 2007), 52 quoted by Cristina Vătulescu, Police Aesthetics Literature, Film & Secret Police in Soviet Times (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010), 6.

10 Deletant, “Romania,” 302.

11 According to Virgil Măgureanu, head of the institution that inherited the organization after 1990, the Romanian Intelligence Service, quoted by Marius Oprea, “Securitatea şi moştenirea sa,” in Comunism şi represiune în România, ed. Ruxandra Cesereanu (Iaşi: Polirom, 2006), 25.

12 Deletant, “Romania,” 303.

13 Ibid., 315.

14 Germina Nagâţ, “Informatorul de lângă noi,” in Viaţa cotidiană în comunism, ed. Adrian Nedelcu (Iaşi: Polirom, 2004), 132.

15 Germina Nagâţ, “Informatorul de lângă noi,” 132. Marius Oprea quotes an internal document of 1951 (The Directive for working with agents). Marius Oprea, “O privire în interiorul aparatului de Securitate,” in De ce trebuie condamnat Comunismul? Anuarul Institutului de Investigare a Crimelor Comunismului în România, vol. I (Iaşi: Polirom, 2006), 103.

16 Ana Maria Cătănuş, “Capitolul IV. Represiunea împotriva intelectualilor: forme şi manifestări,” in Intelectuali români în Arhivele Comunismului, ed. Dan Cătănuş (Bucharest: Nemira, 2006), 168.

17 Clara Mareş, “Represiunea Securităţii împotriva scriitorilor în anii 1986–1988,” in De ce trebuie condamnat Comunismul? Anuarul Institutului de Investigare a Crimelor Comunismului în România, vol. I (Iaşi: Polirom, 2006), 203–04.

18 Ana Maria Cătănuş, “Capitolul IV,” 170.

19 Katherine Verdery, Secrets and Truths: Ethnography in the Archive of Romania’s Secret Police (Budapest: CEU Press, 2014), 52.

20 Ibid., 66.

21 Alexandru Murad-Mironov, “Capitolul V. Beneficii, privilegii şi recompense sau preţul intelectualităţii din RPR,” in Intelectuali români în Arhivele Comunismului, ed. Dan Cătănuş (Bucharest: Nemira, 2006), 457–73.

22 Nicolae Ceauşescu, “Proposals of measures for the improvement of the political-ideological, Marxist–Leninist education of Party members, of all working people,” July 6, 1971.

23 Idem, ”Speech by Nicolae Ceauşescu at the Working Meeting on Organizational and Political-Educational Activities of Labor” (Mangalia, August 4, 1983).

24 Email interview with Ion Grigorescu, September 15, 2013. My translation from Romanian.

25 Ibid.

26 Ibid.

27 In the interview, the artist quotes a text he had published in the magazine Arta 6, no 12 (1973) about the “Realist artist.”

28 Email interview with Ion Grigorescu, September 15, 2013. All subsequent quotes are from the same source.

29 Magda Cârneci, Artele plastic în România 1945–1989 (Bucharest: Meridiane, 2001), 107–08.

30 Ibid., 108–09.

31 Informal interview with Pavel Şuşară, August 23, 2013. All the following quotes of Şuşară have the same source.

32 See the website of the CNSAS, accessed April 7, 2015, http://www.cnsas.ro/index.html.

33 Alice Năstase Buciuta, ”Sabin Bălaşa: am avut şi simţul creaţiei şi al procreaţiei,” Marea Dragoste/Tango, July 8, 2012. My translation from Romanian of Bălaşa’s answers to an interview published in a women’s magazine. Because Bălaşa died in 2008, I could not use his answers to my questions.

34 See for example the television show “Mysteries and Conspiracies” by Florin Iaru on Romanian Television, TVR2 with three art critics, Tudor Octavian, Pavel Şuşară and Ruxandra Garofeanu “About Sabin Bălaşa.” Available at (accessed April 7, 2015) http://tvr2.tvr.ro/despre-sabin-balasa-sambata-la-mistere-si-conspiratii_8675.html (November 8, 2014). In this show, the art critics estimate that Bălaşa received 200,000 lei for his paintings depicting Ceauşescu.

35 File of the CNSAS: M.R. Buc. 142480/roll 1469.

36 Email interview with Ion Grigorescu, September 15, 2013.

37 See for example the study by Sînziana Cârstocea, “La Roumanie - du placard à la liberation. Eléments pour une histoire socio-politique des revendications homosexuelles dans une société postcommuniste” (PhD Diss., Faculté des sciences sociales, politiques et économiques Departement de Science politique, Université Libre de Bruxelles, 2010).

38 Email interview with Ion Grigorescu, September 15, 2013.

39 Denis Deletant, “Romania,” 285, 297.

40 Ibid., 313.

41 Email interview with Ion Grigorescu, September 15, 2013.

42 He traveled to Budapest, Zurich, Basel, Paris and Karlsruhe in 1977, to Macedonia in 1979 and to the USSR in 1981.

43 Files of Grigorescu Octav at the CNSAS: SIE 4045; I 454430/ 2 vols.

44 Email interview with the artist Rudolf Bone, August 28, 2013.

45 Ileana Pintilie, Acţionismul în România în timpul comunismului (Cluj: Idea, 2000), 68.

46 Ibid., 68–69.

47 Bălaşa’s file at the CNSAS: M.R. Buc. 142480, roll 1469.

48 The receipt for the bottle of whiskey dates from 1986 and is for the collaborator BRUNO, although his collaborator name was different in 1967. I assume another file was opened at a later date and what was kept on microfilm (selected information) was only preserved in order to prove, if necessary, that he had indeed served as a collaborator. Bălaşa’s file at the CNSAS: M.R. Buc. 142480, roll 1469.

49 Magda Radu, Catalogue of the exhibition Geta Brătescu şi Ion Grigorescu. Resources. Works from the collection of MNAC Bucharest (Bucharest: MNAC, 2007), 17.

50 “Ion Grigorescu in discussion with Magda Radu,” in Romanian Cultural Resolution, ed. Alexandru Niculescu and Adrian Bojenoiu (Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2011), 221.

Ion Dumitriu, Groapa de Gunoi, Diapozitive, 1975–1978, reproduced with the consent of the Foundation Ion Dumitriu.


Volume 4 Issue 2 CONTENTS


Anastasija Ropa

Imagining the 1456 Siege of Belgrade in Capystranus


The poem Capystranus, devoted to the 1456 Siege of Belgrade by the Ottoman Turks, was printed three times between 1515 and 1530 by Wynkyn de Worde. It survives in a fragmentary form, testifying to its popularity with the audience. Studies of the poem have tended to concentrate on its literary qualities, discrediting its historical value as an account of the siege. In this essay, I build on the work of scholars who view the narrative of Capystranus as a work of fiction, informed by the conventions of crusading romance, rather than as an eyewitness account. However, I reassess the value of Capystranus for the study of war history: I argue that, in its description of the siege, the author pictures accurately the spirit of contemporary warfare. The present essay explores, for the first time, the experiences, images and memories of war as represented in Capystranus, comparing the depiction of warfare to contemporary discourses on the law and ethics of war.

Keywords: Capystranus; Middle English romance; Siege of Belgrade, 1456; fifteenth-century warfare; later crusades


Capystranus is a Middle English verse romance devoted to the Siege of Belgrade by the Ottoman Turks in July 1456. The poem was printed three times between 1515 and 1530 by Wynkyn de Worde, and it survives in a fragmentary form, which could, perhaps, testify to its popularity with the audience.1 The poem is anonymous, and it is uncertain whether it was written directly for print or was in circulation for some time before printing. There are chronicle sources, including English ones, that describe the siege, but the poem is based on a variety of sources, which makes it a fascinating source for studying contemporary and early responses to the siege. The present essay will, first, outline the earlier tendencies in English criticism of the poem and suggest new perspectives that highlight the romance’s historical, cultural and literary significance for studying the ways in which the Siege of Belgrade was remembered and imagined in Europe. Second, the essay will trace changes in military practice and ideology that informed the poem and the context in which it was read by early audiences. Finally, I will conduct a series of close readings of the accounts of two sieges described in the poem within its historical context. Comparing the text to other accounts of the 1456 siege and to existing models of crusading romance will help me to assess the role of memory and imagination in the poem.


In 1453, the Christian world was shaken by the news that Constantinople had been captured by the Turks. Three years later, in 1456, the successful defense of a less prominent city, Belgrade, revived the hopes of delivering the capital of Eastern Christianity, though these dreams of a new crusade proved ephemeral: Belgrade itself was lost to the enemy in 1521. Meanwhile, the Hungarian victory was of singular importance for fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Europeans. Norman Housley remarks that “the victory was repeatedly cited in the decades to come as proof that the Ottomans were not invincible.”2 The Middle English poem Capystranus is an important witness to the impression the battle made on Europe, including the inhabitants of England, who were physically distant from the events in East Central Europe.

In what sense does Capystranus engage with memories of the Constantinople and the Belgrade sieges? Study of the processes by which memory works and on the interactions between memory and history by both cognitive psychologists and historians emphasizes the dynamic nature of memory. In many instances, recorded memory is communal rather than personal, a tendency explored in Pierre Nora’s lieux de mémoire (sites of memory).3 While twentieth-century war memories are in many cases national, medieval memory was often determined through religious affiliation, particularly in the case of “holy wars.” The importance of realms of memory for medieval and post-medieval audiences has been emphasized by Sharon Kinoshita, who discusses Chanson de Roland as a lieu de mémoire.4

J. M. Winter highlights the unstable nature of memory, stating that “the act of recalling the past is a dynamic, shifting process, dependent on notions of future as much as on images of the past.”5 Moreover, contemporary historians draw our attention to the interaction between history and memory: history not only draws on individual and collective memories but also shapes them. Thus, one’s memories of past events are influenced by accounts of the same or similar experiences; this is the case not only in modern times, but also in the Middle Ages. According to Joanna Bourke, “History and memory are not detached narrative structures; at no time in the past was memory ‘spontaneous’ or ‘organic’; at no time has history been able to repudiate its debt to memory and its function in moulding that memory.”6 In this essay, I will consider the interaction between memory and imagination in shaping images of war in Capystranus as a twofold process: while the text may be based on the past accounts, it also influenced future memories and representations of crusading warfare.

Intriguingly, Éva Róna argues that the poem is based on eyewitness accounts; Róna’s hypothesis presents some problems, given that, according to Róna, the poem was composed directly for the press, while the first known edition of the poem is dated to 1515. Róna indicates that contemporary English chronicles refer to the Siege of Belgrade.7 On the other hand, Stephen Shepherd believes that the poem was in circulation prior to its printing. Shepherd points to certain corrupt rhymes and missing lines in the 1515 edition, which could have occurred if the text had existed in manuscript form before it was set for printing by de Worde in 1515.8 Shepherd’s suggestion about the dating of the romance is accepted by Rhiannon Purdie.9 Meanwhile, Bonnie Millar-Heggie is skeptical about Shepherd’s dating, and believes that the poem was written closer to 1515; Millar-Heggie’s dating thus makes the influence of eyewitness accounts on the representation of events more problematic.10 In fact, comparing the representation of the siege in Capystranus and other contemporary and later sources can be helpful in testing both Róna’s suggestion about the incorporation of eyewitness accounts and Shepherd’s early dating of the poem.

After its initial publication in 1515, the poem was reprinted by de Worde in 1527 and in 1530.11 Remarkably, de Worde’s editions are decorated with woodcuts, providing clues to the publisher’s ideas about the attraction of the poem, its target audience and de Worde’s marketing practices. Although de Worde may be simply re-using woodcuts already ordered for his other prints, decorating a text in this way raises the costs of production at the same time as increasing the book’s attractiveness. Leth Seder stresses de Worde’s carefulness in the “selection and placement of illustrative woodcuts” for the anonymous romances he printed.12 Thus, the surviving fragment of de Worde’s 1530 edition is introduced with a woodcut depicting the storming of a town, which, according to J. O. Halliwell, is “exactly similar to one in W. de Worde’s edition of Richard Coeur de Lion, 1528.”13 The woodcut introduces the first of the two sieges described in some detail in Capystranus—the 1453 Siege of Constantinople.

Woodcuts contribute to making Capystranus a popular romance in more than one sense. The romance plays on the current anxieties about the Ottoman threat, and it was commercially successful, judging by the fact that it was reprinted. The survival of only three fragmentary copies may suggest that, like Malory’s Morte Darthur, printed by de Worde’s predecessor William Caxton and later by de Worde himself, the text was, to use A. S. G. Edwards’s expression, “literally read to destruction.”14 However, the rate and condition of survival also indicates the readers’ attitude towards the printed book, an object that was cheaper and less valued than, for instance, the more elaborate illuminated manuscripts. It would be interesting to see how the English audience reacted to the second and third editions of Capystranus after Belgrade fell into Ottoman hands in 1521. Meanwhile, romances dealing with the Siege of Jerusalem remained popular long after the city itself was taken and its delivery became a fantasy.15 Indeed, Anthony Leopold shows that crusading proposals, originally composed for the “leading rulers of Europe as practical plans for the recovery of Jerusalem,” continued to be copied for “enthusiastic nobles” well into the sixteenth century.16 Likewise, Capystranus could have exercised a special, sad or nostalgic attraction after the loss of Jerusalem to the infidels.

Capystranus as Crusading Romance

Studies of the poem have tended to concentrate on its literary qualities, discrediting its historical value as an account of the siege. Millar-Heggie considers the poem to be an “intriguing work that reflects fifteenth-century ideology and fears” and provides an “exhortation to a new crusade.”17 Recently, Lee Manion highlighted the place of Capystranus within the tradition of crusading romance, while acknowledging its originality in focusing on a recent event, which makes the author alter certain romance conventions. According to Manion, “Capystranus recognizably draws on the medieval literary tradition, but the poem’s revisions to that tradition and treatment of a more recent historical event reveal how subsequent early modern texts could discuss crusading subjects critically while modifying the form of the crusading romance.”18 Manion’s discussion of Capystranus, including its use of Biblical tropes and allusions to Charlemagne’s wars, builds on the work of several illustrious scholars of romance. Indeed, Philippa Hardman, Malcolm Hebron, and Diane Vincent consider Capystranus alongside other “siege poems”: they point out that these poems draw on the chanson de geste tradition, alluding to Charlemagne and his exploits against the Turks.19

In his monograph The Medieval Siege, Malcolm Hebron examines a particular group of romances, “siege poems,” that center on a siege as the locus for the confrontation between the “Saracens” and the Christians.20 Grouping together poems that deal with the sieges of Troy, Thebes, Jerusalem, Rhodes and many other cities may obscure the particular context in which each text was produced and the signification of each siege for the audience. However, such an approach highlights the importance of siege in medieval warfare and imagination. The Sege of Melayne, to which Capystranus is usually compared by scholars, depicts an event belonging to the heroic past, the beginning of Charlemagne’s reign.21 Indeed, Hebron claims that, drawing on the tradition of heroic poetry, the Capystranus poet introduces historically inaccurate descriptions of armor and weapons.22 Hebron’s opinion is contested by Millar-Heggie, who points out that “the Christian forces were in fact poorly equipped and outnumbered.”23 Later in this essay, I consider late medieval siege practices and the depiction of the siege in Capystranus, showing that the poet introduces a number of realistic details that would be familiar to his contemporaries. Meanwhile, he also uses motifs that are common in crusading romances, including the enemies’ unnatural cruelty, their exotic appearance and Christian steadfastness.

One of the most prominent features of Capystranus is its hybridity. The poem embraces crusading, hagiographic and historiographical narratives, transforming them through a combination of memory and imagination. In fact, the poem seems to draw on a number of sources, among them oral and written accounts of the Siege of Belgrade, reimagined within the framework of the earlier crusading romance. Vincent comments on the generic fluidity of Capystranus, which stands between romance and chronicle account:

The convergence of the genres of romance and historiography allows Capystranus to imply that Friar Johan Capistranus and Janos Hunyadi, by lifting the Turkish siege of Belgrade, were replaying the opening strains of the same theme of divinely aided Christian triumph over a rival faith and rival civilization.24

Highlighting the symbolic importance of the Siege of Belgrade, the Capystranus author presents the victory as a lieu de mémoire, a conceptual site that may be put to different uses, including political ones.25 Indeed, Vincent emphasizes the Capystranus author’s political awareness and his “exploitation of contemporary religious and political issues.”26 However, in her analysis of the political and religious uses of medieval romance, Vincent seems to underestimate the component of faith, which is particularly important in crusading romances.

In fact, fifteenth- and sixteenth-century authors not only use or, in Vincent’s terms, “exploit” the romance genre to present contemporary political, social and religious challenges in a certain light, but also explore or probe these issues through a kind of “thought experiment.” Raluca Radulescu points out that “romances fulfill the expectations they would tackle the issue of social identity, even though they are not designed to respond to real-life crises but rather provide arenas of discussion where delicate issues may be assessed and debated.”27 Thus, Capystranus engages with several identity issues that were topical in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries: Christian identity, warrior identity, including the blurring borderlines between combatants and civilians, and the intersection between Christian, territorial and professional identities.

Identifying the Participants

Embracing Hebron’s category of the “siege poem,” Suzanne Conklin Akbari argues that Capystranus provides one of the last examples of this sub-genre, marking the beginning of a new cultural period in which nascent national identity ousts pan-European Christendom: “the enemy is no longer described in religious terms, as the ‘Saracen,’ but in national terms, as ‘the Turke’”.28 In fact, the enemy is called “Sarasyns” only twice in the text (ll. 140, 158) and is usually designated by the word “Turke(s).” According to Akbari, Capystranus “marks an end point in siege poetry in the crusading tradition,” so that “collective identity” is formulated “in terms of national identity instead of religious affiliation.”29 Meanwhile, it is noteworthy that the enemy is often described in religious terms, such as “hethen houndes” (l. 46), while the author makes no national distinction between “Crysten men” (l. 76), even between the Eastern and the Western Christians. Indeed, the defenders of Constantinople are called “Our Crysten” on more than one occasion (ll. 122, 134, 147, 156). The union between Eastern and Western Churches, proclaimed in 1439 in the Florence cathedral by Cardinal Giuliano Cesarini and Archbishop Bessarion of Nicaea, met with little enthusiasm in Byzantium, yet it may have been symbolically important for the Western Christendom, including the English audience of Capystranus.30

As to the relieving army of Belgrade, Capystranus’s recruits are “Men of diverse countré” (l. 341). Shepherd comments that “Capistrano’s followers consisted mainly of local peasants,” but other historical accounts mention the presence of men from across Europe, who could be mercenaries employed by Hunyadi.31 While, the presence of soldiers from all over Europe during the siege is thus conditioned by the circumstances of mid-fifteenth century warfare, the poet uses their participation for a specific purpose. He evokes the ideal of a united Christendom and highlights Capystranus’s charisma as well as the attraction of his banner with the crucifix:32


The Frere with grete devocyon

Bore the baner of Crystes Passyon

Amonge the people all

Dysplayed aborde, grete joye to se,

Men of diverse countré

Fast to hym gan fall. (ll. 337–42)


Housley lists among the members of the relieving army of crusaders “Austrians, Germans, Poles, Dalmatians and Bosnians.”33 Meanwhile, modern historians take a bleaker view of Europe’s involvement in the battle than does the Capystranus author. Thus, Pál Fodor states that “At Nándorfehérvár [Belgrade] in 1456 the only help the country’s forces received came from the papal legates and a contingent of about 600 Viennese university students.”34 Indeed, the Capystranus author mentions among the first recruits of the “Frere” students from a university called “Gottauntas” (l. 330), apparently situated in Hungary (there was no such university in Hungary, but the author may be referring to Krakow, which Capistrano visited in 1452).35 Certain contemporary accounts, such as Venetian reports, are skeptical about the quality of Capistrano’s recruits, referring to them condescendingly as “brigna.”36

In the poem, the crusaders’ national identity is specified in the case of two knights who join Capystranus’s army, “Rycharde Morpath, a knight of Englonde, And Syr Johan Blacke […] That was a Turke before” (ll. 354–56). Shepherd notes that the English knight’s identity cannot be verified, adding that “English mercenaries are not known to have participated in the campaign.”37 However, for the English author and his audience the fact that an English knight participated in the famous battle was probably of singular importance. One can imagine the audience rejoicing to hear that


Morpath and Blacke Johan

That daye kylled Turkes many one,

Certayne, withouten lette;

There was none so good armoure

That theyr dyntes might endure,

Helme nor bright basynet. (ll. 405–10)


At the same time, the readers would sympathize with the plight of the crusaders, who, after a hard and heroic battle, retreat to the city, overcome by the sheer mass of the enemies:


Morpath and Blacke Johan

Had woundes many one

That blody were and wyde;

To the towne they flede on fote –

They sawe it was no better bote;

Theyr stedes were slayne that tyde. (ll. 447–52)


Remarkably, the author evokes the English knight and the convert “Blacke Johan” together, suggesting perhaps that religious affiliation overcomes national distinctions and contrasting appearances. Shepherd suggests that “Blacke Johan” could have been “a native of Walachia,” a region to the southeast of Hungary under Turkish rule since 1417. Thus, Johan, though a convert, would not have been of a darker complexion than other Hungarian crusaders, and might well have had some Christian background. The poet, however, found it necessary to stress that, although Johan “was a Turke before” (l. 351), “now he is a curteys knight, […] and a wyght, And stedfast in our lore” (ll. 352–54). Miraculously, religious conversion not only bestows chivalric virtue on the former Turk but also ensures his physical strength. While the Capystranus author takes for granted the English Sir Morpath’s valour and piety, he makes an effort to introduce the convert knight as a deserving and steadfast companion. Interestingly, although Sir Morpath and “Blacke Johan” form a pair in the poem, the exploits of “the good Erle Obedyanus” (l. 344) are mentioned separately; apparently, Christian faith and the fact of taking the cross can overcome territorial and cultural divides, but not social boundaries.

In a sense, Christians were warriors by definition, but this warfare was spiritual more often than physical. According to Contamine, “Christianity and war, the church and the military, far from being antithetical, on the whole got on well together.”38 Contamine further explains:


If the analogy or comparison between spiritualia and militaria became habitual, it was not simply because the omnipresence of war in medieval life allowed churchmen to be easily understood by their listeners and readers, it was also more profoundly because spiritual life was, for a very long time, compared to a merciless struggle without respite, between the heavenly cohorts and the legions of the devil.39


In Capystranus, distinctions between spiritual and physical warfare are partially obscured. Capystranus himself is simultaneously a saint and a soldier. The author declares: “I dare say he was Goddes knight; An holy man was he” (ll. 231–32). Likewise, in other contemporary sources, Hunyadi appears as a hero, heir to the legendary Trojans and almost a saint. The Capystranus author, however, focuses on the former figure, stressing Hunyadi’s obedience (proper to a Christian prince) to the spiritual authority.

Emphasis on Capystranus’s figure and the secondary role accorded to Obedyanus may seem surprising, particularly in view of the fact that, as Thomas Crofts and Robert Allen Rouse maintain, the agenda of the sixteenth-century printed romances is “neither national nor religious but chivalric.”40 However, I would argue that the chivalric ideal these romances promote is simultaneously determined by Christian morality and transformed by changing military ideologies, ethics and practices. Indeed, contemporary chroniclers praise Hunyadi not only for his military exploits but also for his spiritual and, to an extent, feudal, virtues, including loyalty. Antonio Bonfini, in Rerum Ungaricarum Decades, emphasizes that Hunyadi was appointed the captain of Szörényvár (Severin, Romania) and Temesvár (Timişoara, Romania) as a “reward for his loyalty and virtue” and not only for his “heroic deeds.”41

To capture the spirit of the Siege of Belgrade, the Capystranus author draws not only on the conventions of crusading romance, but also on the lived experience of fifteenth-century warfare. The battle scenes would have found particularly strong resonance with the English audience, many of whom would have heard narratives of war told by eyewitnesses or described in romances and chronicles written in the second half of the fifteenth century. As a result, the importance of Capystranus as a narrative of war goes beyond establishing the details of the 1456 Siege of Belgrade. In contrast to previous studies, I stress that the poem is representative of the experience of war in late medieval East Central Europe, where increasing use of new weapons and strategies of warfare led to a shift in attitudes toward warfare and the level of permissible violence. This new experience, and the response it generated, may be at the root of the poem’s popularity on English soil.

Fifteenth-Century Military Ideologies: Contemplating a War

Ideologies of warfare change over time and culture; however, analyzing the notion of war in late medieval French and English written sources, Contamine concludes that there is no break between medieval and modern military ideologies.42 While stressing continuity in the evolution of ideas, institutions, legal frameworks and technologies, Contamine points to certain shifts that took place in people’s opinions and practices related to “proper” ways of conducting a war. Contamine singles out three fundamental ideas about war that emerged in the early and high medieval periods and that continued to be popular in military discourses at the end of the Middle Ages and in the early modern period: war as ordeal, the peace and truce of God and the classification of war into the categories of holy, just and unjust.43

The notion that war was a form of divine ordeal, judicium belli, in which God granted victory to the righteous or simply those who were right in the quarrel, was an attractive idea in medieval chivalric discourse. Meanwhile, the notion of judicium belli had many implications and was not universally accepted throughout the later medieval period. Medieval critics of the judicium belli ideology noted that, by entering this ordeal, the participants challenged God and that victory could be with the stronger and not with the righteous.44 Thus, a leader who sought battle with a superior enemy could lose even if the weaker army was fighting for a good cause. In Capystranus, the Christians defending Constantinople are overcome even though they are led by a pious commander, the Emperor, while the Turks are obviously “untrue.” In fact, section 2 of the poem,45 which in 1527 print is preceded by a woodcut, begins with the words: “Mahamyte,46 that Turke untrue To our Lorde Cryst Jhesu, and to His lawe also” (ll. 58–60).

Moreover, by rashly engaging in battle with a stronger enemy without real necessity, the commander endangered his and his followers’ lives. Such rashness could arise from pride and cause divine chastisement. Alternatively, facing a dreaded enemy against all odds could be interpreted as utter reliance on divine mercy: trusting in God, Capystranus is determined to fight an invincible, uncountable Turkish army. Moreover, in some cases, fighting against a superior enemy is unavoidable: at Constantinople and Belgrade, the Christians have no choice other than defending the city or surrendering it to the infidels.

Military defeat of the side which has a “just” cause can be construed as divine punishment for sins, such as luxuria and pride. In fact, there is no need for a particular sin to be apparent, as God can inflict suffering in order to lead the faithful to salvation. Contamine notes that the notion of war as ordeal did not disappear entirely from people’s consciousness in the late medieval and early modern periods: “Dieu n’entendait pas récompenser les vainqueurs, reconnaître publiquement leur bon droit, mais punir les vaincus pour leurs moeurs, leur conduit, leurs péchés. Ainsi expliquait-on l’échec des croisades.”47 Victory was a sign of divine election, but defeat could also be a form of God’s favour, in as much as it brought about moral reform and spiritual conversion. In this respect, Capystranus represents an ideal turn of events: the Christians are defeated and martyred at Constantinople, but they emulate Christ, who suffered on the Cross in order to redeem mankind and rose to heaven, as the poet reminds the audience at the beginning of the romance. This purgation is effected by pagans, who appear as idolatrous, savage and almost demonic creatures. In response, Christendom rallies, and God’s knight, Johan Capystranus, blessed by the Pope, leads his followers (priests and schoolmasters), Prince Obedyanus, an English knight and a Turkish convert to triumph.

The role of Obedyanus is, as his name indicates, to comply with Capystranus’s orders, albeit the author of the poem depicts the prince as an exceptionally brave leader. Indeed, Obedience is one of the virtues required of a soldier for the success of a military campaign. Strictly speaking, Obedyanus is subordinated, not to Capystranus, but to Christ himself, because Capystranus chooses as the commander of his army, his “capytayne” (l. 289), “A baner of Crystes Passyon” (l. 283) together with the papal “bull of leed” (l. 291). Interestingly, writing about an event that took place exactly sixty years before the battle of Belgrade, the Turkish victory at Nicopolis, Philippe de Mézières states that “in all military plans and directions since the beginning of wars in this world, four moral virtues have been necessary […] that is Rule, Knightly Discipline, Obedience and Justice.”48 Thus, Obedyanus incarnates the key soldierly virtues that were important both in the late Middle Ages and early modern period; his mastery of one virtue, obedience, implies the presence of rule, discipline and justice as well.49 The true hero of the romance, however, is Capystranus, whose achievement is also presented as re-enacting, albeit on a smaller scale, Christ’s victory over death. Indeed, the poem includes one episode, discussed further in the essay, where the dead literally rise up in response to Capystranus’s audacious prayer.

However, in order to confirm his legitimacy as a crusade preacher, Capystranus needs a papal bull. While crusading was a legitimate form of warfare by definition, the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the early modern period witnessed renewed debate on the distinction between “just” and “unjust” war. It seems that, from the fifteenth century onwards, a “just” war was to be conducted in a “just” fashion, while the “guerre guerroyable” designated merciless, at times unprincipled, warfare. These considerations would have influenced the Capystranus author, who stresses the contrast between Christian and Saracen ways of conducting war. Naturally, the description of Turkish atrocities builds on the long-standing tradition of chanson de geste. Moreover, Constantinople was actually subjected to severe marauding by the Ottoman army, a fact that must have been known across Europe. Less well known, and certainly less popular among the western Christians, was the fact that Sultan Mehmed was bound by the Islamic law to allow his soldiers to do their will and that looting was promptly stopped. The Capystranus poet, indeed, leaves the impression that the Turks continued to murder Christians and commit all possible acts of violence long after the defeat. His description has much in common with scenes from European wars as depicted in chronicles, including both the Hundred Years War and the War of Roses, when the armies showed few scruples about burning and despoiling churches, towns and villages.

The Ottoman violence in Capystranus serves another important function: it brings to the fore the contrast between Christians and the infidels, rendering the latter almost inhumane and animalistic, if not downright demonic, figures. Indeed, scholars of crusading romances and chanson de geste have argued that animal imagery, often associated with violence and predatory behavior, could be viewed as both harmful and beneficial, associated with the devil and God. Thus, the Saracens are clearly devil’s servants and subjects, and they go directly to hell, as the Capystranus author does not fail to remind the audience. The pagans are akin to dogs, even producing canine noises, such as howling and barking. At the same time, Jacques Voisenet persuasively demonstrates that subjection to animal attacks often appears as corollary to salvation not only in devotional and homiletic literature but also in romances.50 Indeed, the Christians murdered by the Saracens at Constantinople and Belgrade are destined to heaven: they are participants in “holy” and “just” warfare, who defend their native soil in a legitimate, chivalric and “just” manner, which is a necessary condition of legitimate war in the eyes of late medieval and early modern philosophers.

Changes in ideological attitudes towards war went in hand with the evolution of military technologies and political institutions. Increasing use of gunpowder, professionalization of armies and centralization of the state apparatus contributed to the evolution of ideas about war. As all of the population became, at least theoretically, involved in war, not only through joining the army, but also through contributing to the military effort by paying taxes and supplying provisions, distinctions between combatants and non-combatants began to blur. In Capystranus, the participation of priests and schoolmasters in the Siege of Belgrade reflects their active role as “God’s knights” as well as the fact that they were no longer immune to military violence. Not only do they celebrate mass, as was customary before battle, but, not content to stay “behind the lines,” they engage in hand-to-hand fighting. There is a disquieting contrast between the language and ritual of Christian service, including the words and gestures associated with peace (pax or the kiss of peace) and the priests’ hardy offensive:


Many a .m. of preestes there was;

The Turkes herde never suche a masse

As they harde that daye!

Our preestes Te Deum songe;

The hethen fast downe they donge –

Then pax was put awaye! (ll. 417–22)


Again, the image of fighting priests may relate the audience back to certain chansons de geste in the Charlemagne tradition, but it also brings to mind actual situations in which clerics had to resist the attacks of marauders or, increasingly, of the Church reformers.

Thus, while retaining notions about war that originated in the Early and High Middle Ages (including war as ordeal, peace and truce of God, holy, just and unjust war), late medieval people reinterpreted war in relation to the new political, economic and social realities. Not all of these changes are equally applicable to the Siege of Belgrade in 1456 and the narrative of this event in Capystranus, yet it is worthwhile to bear them in mind while analyzing the Siege of Belgrade as remembered and imagined in Capystranus.

Experiencing a Siege

Douglas Gray, in considering the Morte Darthur, which was written some years after the fall of Constantinople and the Siege of Belgrade, comments on the growing importance of siege warfare in the late Middle Ages.51 Likewise, Contamine indicates that, while “siege mentality” was characteristic of the entire medieval military culture, the introduction of artillery at the beginning of the fifteenth century marks a turning point in both the technology of war and contemporary mentalities.52 Changes in siege warfare at the end of the Middle Ages found reflection in both chivalric romances and in military treatises.53 Thus, authors of the latter treatises often copied and even modernised the texts of classical authors, such as Vegetius, in the sections that deal with sieges. The advice of classical authors, in fact, was already dated in this period, when the spread of firearms in besieging fortified towns and castles led to the development of new types of fortification and the introduction of firearms as part of the regular town defense accoutrements. In both Constantinople and Belgrade, the Ottomans deployed considerable gunpowder resources, but the defenders, too, had some firearms, which in the case of Constantinople proved highly inadequate.

A number of historians, both medieval and modern, attribute the fall of Constantinople to the superiority of the Ottoman artillery. On the basis of the “western and the Turkish sources,” Halil İnalcik concludes that “the eventual success of the Ottomans came chiefly as the result of two events: the breaching of the walls by the Ottoman artillery bombardment, and the disputes which arose between the Byzantines and the Latins defending the city.”54 Summarising the outcome of the siege, the Capystranus author observes: “Thus is Constantyne the noble cyté wonne, Beten donne with many a gonne, And Crysten people slayne” (ll. 207–10). Unsurprisingly, Capystranus is silent on the supposed discord of the Christian defenders, who seem to present unified resistance to the enemy. In fact, the author begins the account of the siege when the Turks are already inside the city, avoiding the delicate issues of crusader identity and co-operation before and during the siege. As the Turks enter the city, allegedly taking no prisoners, desecrating churches, slaying women, children and priests at mass, the Christians, seeing nothing but death before them, fight heroically:


The Crysten saw that they sholde dye,

And on theyr maystres layde hande quycly

And faught a wele good spede:

Every prysoner then on lyve

Kylled of the Turkes foure or five;

To helle theyr soules yede.

Or our prysoners after were take;

Many a Turke they made blake. (ll. 108–15)

This description is followed by a series of three episodes, where “Macamyte” cries to his “god” (“Mahounde”), to rally his wavering ranks. The Christians combat the Turks valiantly, even killing five thousand Turks at a time (l. 126) and subsequently felling eighty thousand enemies (l. 141). However, the defenders are too few, the Turks are continuously entering the city and the Christians are eventually defeated.

The above brief summary of the siege reveals that, although the description of the fall of Constantinople in Capystranus draws on the existing literary tradition, recycling common tropes of crusading romances and chanson de geste, it is neither entirely fantastic nor deprived of literary force. The series of battles in which the Christians kill an increasing number of the Turks and are finally overridden and dispersed describe, with certain realism, skirmishes that would have taken place on the streets. According to Inalcik, “The Ottoman army entered the city through a large breach made by bombardment in the wall. Emperor Constantine was killed in hand-to-hand combat.”55 Battles within the city walls, with the Christians crying to God and the Ottomans to the prophet render the atmosphere of the event in a way that would have been easily grasped by the fifteenth-century audience.

At the same time, the episodes in which the Turkish leader appeals to Mahomet and meets Christian response are symbolic. There are three such episodes, and after the last in the series the Christians are physically overcome, but seem to score a spiritual victory:


He [Macamyte] cryed on Mahounde as he wolde braste,

Our Crysten on Jhesu cryed faste,

That all the worlde wrought. (ll.146–48)


Although the Christians subsequently flee and most of them are killed, it happens because of God’s will and not through the supposed superiority of the Turks. Indeed, the Christians’ invocation of Christ, the creator of the world, is steadfast and almost serene, in contrast to the Turkish wild cry to their false “god.” The author speaks of the Turkish victory with resignation, apparently humbling himself before divine will:



Alas, saufe Crysten wyll of heven,

Our Crysten were made uneven

With a false company –

For of the Turkes and Sarasyns kene,

An .c. were, withouten wene,

Agaynst one of our meny! (ll. 155–60)


There is certainly no shame in losing a battle if the Turks number a thousand to one Christian. Indeed, the defenders of Constantinople were heavily outnumbered (though not so fantastically) and exhausted by the siege. The Christians lose their earthly holy city, yet they gain the heavenly Jerusalem. However, the Capystranus author appears to imply that, had it been God’s will, the Christians would have won even against great odds, preparing the audience for the miraculous delivery of Belgrade.

The description of the Siege of Belgrade, given in sections IV and V (ll. 360–579) of the poem as it survives, is far more detailed than that of Constantinople. There are structural and narrative similarities as well as differences in the description of the sieges. First, while the Siege of Constantinople begins in medias res, following a prologue that evokes Christ’s sacrifice and Charlemagne’s exploits, most of sections III and IV describe the Christian preparations for the crusade. The author may have relied on the audience having at least some notion of the events that led to the siege of Constantinople, in much the same way as he expected them to be familiar with Charlemagne’s “crusades.” It is possible that the English audience knew less about the Siege of Belgrade, and the romance’s author certainly wanted to highlight the role of his hero, Capystranus, in securing the Pope’s blessing for the holy war and assembling an army. In fact, Shepherd notes that Capystranus’s negotiations with the Pope are conflated with the dealings of Cardinal Juan Carvajal, who resided in Buda in 1455 and was delegated by Pope Calixtus III to prepare a crusade in Hungary, Poland and Germany. The historical St. John of Capistrano preached a holy war in Hungary under Carvajal’s supervision.56

However, Carvajal is not mentioned in the poem. Indeed, the Pope’s words “Thou prechest Goddes words wyde In the countree, on every syde, In many a diverse lande” (ll. 268–70) are equally applicable to Capistrano, whose efforts at preaching a crusade were not limited to Hungary, but extended across Europe. According to certain sources, Capistrano managed to rally 60,000 crusaders, though Shepherd explains that “many fewer probably showed up than had agreed to.”57 The poem’s author gives a more modest figure: at the beginning of the crusade, Capystranus recruits “Syxe and twenty .m.” [26,000] (l. 332) from the mysterious university of “Gottauntas” (l. 329). All recruits are clerics, and most of them are ordained priests. Later, Capystranus and Obedyanus arrive at Belgrade with “.xx. thousande” (l. 360): apparently, 6,000 of crusaders never made it to the city. Meanwhile, the remaining 20,000 have evolved from a motley crowd of students and priests Capystranus must have picked at the university into a splendid army, “In helme and hauberc bryght” (l. 363).

The number 20,000 in relation to the Christian army is cited four times in the poem. At the height of battle, the Turks kill as many at the bridge that leads to the citadel, naturally an important target for both attackers and defenders: “Twenty thousande of our men Were borne downe at the brydge ende, The Turkes were so thro” (ll. 438–40). The author’s emotional involvement is evident: the defenders are not only “our Crysten,” as they are in the description of the Constantinople siege, they are “our men.” The Turks are finally recognized as deserving adversaries, who win not only because there are more of them but also because they are “so thro.” A narrow bridge is just the place where numerical superiority of the attackers can be offset by the defenders’ courage and professionalism, so the Capystranus author explains the Christian losses and withdrawal as a result of the Turks’ ferocity and their exotic appearance. Fresh reinforcements riding on camels overrun both horses and riders: “Dromydaryes over them ranne And kylled downe bothe horse and man” (ll. 441–42). Finally, following Capystranus’s prayer, “Twenty .m.” (ll. 516 and 528) arise from the dead and attack the Turks, driving them out of the city.

The army led by Obedyanus and Capystranus would have been reinforced by the city garrison, but the 20,000 repeatedly given by the Capystranus author provides the poem with narrative unity and makes the details unusually specific for a genre that is notoriously hostile to “realism.”58 While the number of Christians is settled and finite, the Turks attacking Belgrade present an amorphous, shapeless mass, with reinforcement continuously flowing in. Thus, Capystranus announces to the Pope the news that the “Turke,” whose aim is to conquer Hungary, departed for Belgrade “With two hundred .m. [200,000] this same day” (l. 253).59 The Christians are thus outnumbered 1:10, which is an entirely manageable ratio within the universe of chivalric romance. Accordingly, during the Siege of Constantinople, the Christians slay five thousand infidels in no time, albeit the Christian losses are not mentioned: “Anone, within a lytell throwe, Five .m. Turkes on a rowe In the stretes lay slayne” (ll. 125–27). Using much the same words, the poet tells how, at Belgrade, the first encounter between the armies resulted in five thousand dead, presumably Turkish: “Anone they togyder mette: Five .m. deed withouten lette, In helme and hauberk bryght” (ll. 390–93). Moreover, Obedyanus kills every enemy he meets, while Morpath and Blacke Johan likewise “kylled Turkes many one” (l. 406). Had it not been for the new division, counting “A .c. thousande and mo” (l. 431), in bright new armor and mounted on fearful dromedaries, one has the feeling the poem would have been much shorter and devoid of its high point, Capystranus’s prayer and the subsequent miracle.

In fact, the impression of historiographical precision and veracity in referring to numbers of the armies, artillery pieces, kinds of armor worn by the fighters and the animals they ride results in offsetting the disconcerting miracle resulting from Capystranus’s prayer. On the other hand, accounts of miracles worked by saints filed for the purposes of canonization had to be very detailed and verifiable. Although St. John of Capistrano was officially canonized only in 1727, he was regarded as a saint by his contemporaries.60 Thus, the poem’s author may be drawing on the formal requirements for miracle and hagiographic narratives in providing the level of detail for the romance.

As I have mentioned before, the structures of the two siege narratives in Capystranus display both similarities and differences. Both siege accounts are structured as series of battles, either within or outside the city walls. In both cases, the Christians kill many enemies, but must finally withdraw before a larger and fresher army. The battle episodes in the Constantinople siege are punctuated by the Sultan’s outcries to his “god,” the last of which is apparently answered. The Christians flee, though the audience would know that the Christians are defeated through God’s will and enjoy the better part of becoming martyrs, their souls going straight to heaven, while the Turks are hell-bound. No individual Christians are mentioned in the first account, and the Emperor’s name appears only in the narrative of his martyrdom. Clearly, there were no charismatic or at least able leaders at Constantinople, and here the Capystranus author and modern historians are of one mind.

By contrast, “Macamyte” does not appear at any point after the siege of Constantinople. The enemy is referred to collectively, “the Turke,” while the Christian army includes several prominent individuals (Capystranus, Obedyanus, Morpath and Blacke Johan) as well as being socially stratified: there are knights, clerics, further divided into priests and schoolmasters, and, apparently, regular soldiers. The author even distinguishes between the ways in which priests and schoolmasters fight: the former enter the battle singing Te Deum, and the latter deal severe punishment to those who “wolde not lere theyr laye” (l. 425). At the end, Capystranus proves himself a true “God’s knight” and a good leader of his men.

Like Macamyte during the Siege of Constantinople, Capystranus turns to God at the critical moment. In contrast to the Turk’s animalistic, savage yells to his “god,” the saint’s prayers are long and elaborate, addressing his spiritual “overlord” in feudal terms. Interestingly, Capystranus’s prayer offers parallels not only to Macamyte’s yells but also to Emperor’s words in response to the Turks’ requirements of abandoning God. The Emperor answers with a praise to God, urging the Turks themselves to convert; he prefers to be tortured and put to death rather than commit apostasy. 61 Surprisingly, Capystranus actually threatens Christ and Mary that he will abandon them unless the Christians are granted victory. In historical accounts of the siege, Capistrano’s prayer is mentioned, but then he beseeches God’s mercy rather than demands a miracle. Philippa Hardman notes the parallel between this episode and Turpin’s outburst in the Sege of Melayne, stating that both can be related to the “popular story cycles of the ‘miracles of the Virgin,’” “where a devotee of the Virgin rebukes her for failing to prevent some catastrophe, after which Mary miraculously reverses the disaster”62 Unlike Turpin, however, Capystranus addresses both God and the Virgin. His prayer also parallels and contrasts with the response of the Emperor of Constantinople to the Turks earlier in the poem, when the Emperor celebrates the power of Christ and Mary.

At the same time, Capystranus’s prayer is far from incongruous within a chivalric romance. The author prepares the audience for the prayer already from the beginning, when he calls Capystranus “Goddes knyght” (l. 230). A knight has to obey his lord, but can demand, in return, the lord’s protection. In feudal terms, a knight has obligations to those under his charge as well, and, being ultimately answerable to the overlord for his subjects’ well-being, a knight can in turn require the lord’s provisions and defense for the knight’s retinue. Feudal obligations are mutual, not unilateral. Although by the end of the Middle Ages feudal obligations as constructed in chivalric romance were already obliterated, if ever they existed in practice in exactly this way, the ideology of chivalry persisted well into the sixteenth century. In full knowledge that he has performed his obligations well, that he fights for a just cause, as proved by the papal bull, and that he follows the only true commander, Christ, who is depicted on the banner, Capystranus utters what may seem to a modern reader a surprising, if not downright blasphemous, prayer.

The miracle is granted: as far as Capystranus’s voice is heard, the dead rise up. Shepherd comments that Capystranus’s reputation as healer and his enthusiastic encouragement of the troops throughout the battle would have contributed to the account. As twenty-first century readers, we need rationalizations to make sense of a miracle in a “realistic” poem, complete with numbers, descriptions of artillery pieces and arms and names of participants, many of them identifiable historical figures. However, medieval and early modern audiences lived in a culture where miracles were “commonplace,” not only as part of romances and saints’ lives, but also in everyday life and, particularly, in accounts of crusades.63

Is the story of the miracle wrought by Capystranus an instance of memory, transferred through oral accounts, or imagination? If it is the latter, then whose imagination – the Capystranus author’s, his eyewitnesses’ or even the collective imagination of the battle participants? In late-fifteenth-century and early sixteenth-century culture, where religion and war were closely intertwined, the account of a miracle becomes part of collective memory. This collective memory persists into modern culture: the bells ringing on the day of St. John of Capistrano to commemorate a victoria mirabilis is an example of a lieu de mémoire, to which the Middle English poem Capystranus is an early witness.


Nora writes that “memory has never known more than two forms of legitimacy: historical and literary.”64 In the case of memory realms, historical and literary linearities converge, and, like certain other medieval texts, Capystranus marks a point of their convergence. I believe that the poem was popular in the sixteenth century, occasioning de Worde’s three printings, because it combined memory and imagination in the account of a recent landmark in crusading warfare. It would be reductive to read the poem only as an example of political propaganda, because memory realms emerge only when there is “a will to remember.”65 The Capystranus author draws skillfully on contemporary anxieties about the advance of the representatives of hostile culture and faith into Europe, a theme topical even in modern popular culture. He also uses familiar tropes and stereotypes from crusading romance—the Saracens’ cruelty and animalism, the Christians’ unity and steadfastness—though he presents these so as to evoke familiar experiences of war. In this essay, I have shown how the commonplaces of crusading romance were not only relevant in the context of fifteenth-century crusading warfare, but also in the context of “domestic” European warfare. New ideologies and technologies of war are related to the old ones in Capystranus: reading a poem, the audience would have the impression of a double déjà vu—that of reading old romances and that of remembering recent wars, in England and elsewhere in Europe.

Scholars of medieval and early modern English literature tend to consider Capystranus as a “siege poem” or alongside other crusading romances focusing on a siege (Shepherd, Hebron, Hardman and others). Such an approach is fruitful, yet it underestimates the poem’s involvement with two recent historical events, the sieges of Constantinople and Belgrade. Complementing the former approach, another critical tendency is to view the poem functioning as political propaganda, highlighting contemporary threats in the Mediterranean and East Central Europe and consequently shifting the audience’s attention from domestic tensions to international affairs. Elements of crusading romance, chronicle and political propaganda in the poem can be best understood if the poem is discussed within the framework of lieux de mémoire, commemorating miraculous delivery of Belgrade through the offices of Johan Capystranus.

Material, functional and symbolic elements of a memory site are all reflected in the poem. The material element is brought to the fore through references to a concrete place, up-to-date military technology (guns and mortars), ideologies and practices (war as ordeal of purgation, involvement of non-combatants and emphasis on the “right,” Christian way of warfare). Functionally, the poem is designed to promote more active involvement in wars against the Turks in East Central Europe and boost Christian morals. Symbolically, the poem’s author relates the Siege of Belgrade to events of Biblical and mythical history (the exodus, crucifixion, Charlemagne’s wars). Memory and imagination are intertwined in the poem: based on chronicles, oral narratives and eyewitness accounts, the poem is shaped by earlier narratives about similar events, influencing, in turn, future memories.



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1 The poem is available in three modern editions. For the present article, I used Stephen A. Shepherd’s “Capystranus,” in Middle English Romances (New York: Norton, 1995), 388–408. Shepherd edited the text from de Worde’s 1515 edition. There are also two earlier editions: Douglas Gray’s in The Oxford Book of Late Medieval Verse and Prose (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985), 199–203, which reproduces lines 360–521 of the 1515 print, and W. A. Ringler’s in New Hungarian Quarterly 27 (1986): 131–40.

2 Norman Housley, The Later Crusades, 1274–1580: From Lyons to Alcazar (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 104.

3 Pierre Nora, “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire,” Representations 26 (1989): 7–24.

4 Sharon Kinoshita, Medieval Boundaries: Rethinking Difference in Old French Literature (Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013). See also Julian Weiss, “Remembering Spain in the Medieval European Epic: A Prospect,” in Locating the Middle Ages: The Spaces and Places of Medieval Culture, ed. Julian Weiss and Sarah Salih (London: King’s College London Medieval Studies, 2012), 67–82.

5 J. M. Winter, Remembering War: The Great War Between Memory and History in the Twentieth Century (Yale: Yale University Press, 2006), 4–5.

6 Joanna Bourke, “Introduction: Remembering War,” Journal of Contemporary History 39, no. 4 (2004): 485.

7 Éva Róna, “Hungary in a Medieval Poem, ‘Capystranus,’ a Metrical Romance,” in Studies in Language and Literature in Honour of Margaret Schlauch, ed. Mieczyslaw Brahmer, Stanislaw Helsztynski, and Julian Krzyzanowski (Warsaw: PWN Polish Scientific Publishers, 1966), 350–51.

8 Shepherd, “Capystranus,” 391.

9 Rhiannon Purdie, Anglicising Romance: Tail-rhyme and Genre in Medieval English Literature (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2008), 171.

10 Bonnie Millar-Heggie, “Sanctity, Savagery and Saracens in Capystranus: Fifteenth Century Christian-Ottoman Relations,” Al-Masaq: Journal of the Medieval Mediterranean 14, no. 2 (2002): 131.

11 Fragments survive from all three editions: a 10-leaf fragment from the 1515 edition is in London, British Library, 14649; two leaves from the 1527 are BL, 14649.5; and four leaves from the 1530 print are in Oxford, Bodleian Library, 14650. The ending of the poem is missing. See Purdie, Anglicising Romance, 171–72.

12 Seth Leder, “The Wiles of a Woodcut: Wynkyn de Worde and the Early Tudor Reader,” Huntington Library Quarterly 59, no. 4 (1996): 381.

13 J. O. Halliwell, A Hand-List of the Early English Literature Preserved in the Douce Collection in the Bodleian Library, Selected from the Printed Catalogue of that Collection (London: Adlard, 1860), 23. István Petrovics comments on the possible size of the printed booklets and their decoration (“Capystranus. Egy 1515-ben Londonban kinyomtatott névtelen angol elbeszélő költemény,” in Peregrin Kálmán and László Veszprémy, Európa védelmében. Kapisztrán Szent János és a nándorfehérvári diadal emlékezete (Budapest: HM Hadtörténeti Intézet és Múzeum–Line Design, 2013), 127).

14 A. S. G. Edwards, “The Reception of Malory’s Morte d’Arthur,” in A Companion to Malory, ed. Elizabeth Archibald and Anthony S. G. Edwards (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1996), 243.

15 Graindor de Douai’s Chanson de Jérusalem describes the siege of 1187, purporting to present an eyewitness account. For the representation of the infidels in the text, which bears similarity to the portrayal of the Turks in Capystranus, see Huguette Legros, “Réalités et imaginaires du péril sarrasin,” in La chrétienté au péril sarrasin: actes du colloque de la Section Française de la Société Internationale Rencesvals (Aix-en-Provence: University of Provence, 2000), 125–46.

16 Anthony Leopold, “Crusading Proposals in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Century,” in The Holy Land, Holy Lands, and Christian History: Papers Read at the 1998 Summer Meeting and the 1999 Winter Meeting of the Ecclesiastical History Society, ed. R. N. Swanson (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2000), 227.

17 Millar-Heggie, “Sanctity,” 113.

18 Lee Manion, Narrating the Crusades: Loss and Recovery in Medieval and Early Modern Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 161.

19 Thomas H. Crofts and Robert Allen Rouse maintain that, while Capystranus itself is not a Charlemagne romance, it “shares many otherwise uncommon elements with Sege [of Melayne]”. “Middle English Popular Romance and National Identity,” in A Companion to Medieval Popular Romance, ed. Raluca L. Radulescu and Cory James Rushton (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2009), 89.

20 Malcolm Hebron, The Medieval Siege: Theme and Image in Middle English Romance (Oxford: Clarendon Press).

21 See, for instance, Shepherd, “ ‘This Grete Journee’: The Sege of Melayne,” in Romance in Medieval England, ed. Maldwyn Mills, Jennifer Fellows, and Carol M. Meale (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 113–31.

22 Hebron, Siege, 86–87.

23 Millar-Heggie, “Sanctity,” 118.

24 Diane Vincent, “Reading a Christian-Saracen Debate in Fifteenth-Century Middle English Charlemagne Romance: The Case of Turpines Story,” in The Exploitations of Medieval Romance, ed. Laura Ashe, Ivana Djordjevic, and Judith Weiss (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2010), 91.

25 Nora classifies lieux de mémoire on the basis of their material, functional and symbolic elements (“Between Memory and History,” 22–23).

26 Vincent, Exploitation, 91.

27 Raluca L. Radulescu, “Genealogy in Insular Romance,” in Broken Lines: Genealogical Literature in Medieval England and France, ed. Radulescu and E. D. Kennedy (Turnhout: Brepols, 2008), 12.

28 Suzanne Conklin Akbari, “Erasing the Body: History and Memory in Medieval Siege Poetry,” in Remembering the Crusades: Myth, Image, and Identity, ed. Nicholas Paul and Suzanne Yeager (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012), 167.

29 Akbari, “Erasing the Body,” 167.

30 On reactions to the Church union, see, for instance, Aziz S. Atiya, The Crusade in the Later Middle Ages (London: Methuen, 1938), 268–78.

31 Shepherd, “Capystranus,” 402.

32 Images of the cross on military banners were common in the Middle Ages, particularly towards the end of the period; see Contamine, War, 298 and Contamine, Guerre, État et société à la fin du Moyen Âge. Études sur les armées des rois de France (1337–1494) (Paris: Mouton, 1972), 668–70.

33 Housley, Crusades, 103.

34 Pál Fodor, “The Ottoman Empire, Byzantium and Western Christianity: The Implications of the Siege of Belgrade, 1456,” Acta Orientalia Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae, 61, no. 1 (2008): 48.

35 See Petrovics and György E. Szőnyi, “Capystranus: A Late Medieval English Romance on the 1456 Siege of Belgrade,” New Hungarian Quarterly 27 (1986): 141–46.

36 Quoted in Alexandru Simon, “Lasting Falls and Wishful Recoveries: Crusading in the Black Sea,” Imago Temporis, Medium Aevum 6 (2012): 303–04.

37 Shepherd, “Capystranus,” 401.

38 Contamine, War, 296.

39 Ibid., War, 297.

40 Crofts and Rouse, “Romance,” 88.

41 Antonius de Bonfinis, Rerum Ungaricarum Decades IV et dimidia, ed. Josephus Fógel, Béla Iványi, and Ladislaus Juhász (Budapest: Bibliotheca Scriptorium Medii Recentisque Aevorum, 1936–1941). Quoted and translated in Petrovics, “John Hunyadi, Defender of the Southern Borders of the Medieval Kingdom of Hungary,” Banatica (Resita) 20 (2010): 65.

42 Contamine, “L’idée de guerre à la fin du Moyen Âge: aspects juridiques et éthiques,” Comptes rendues des séances de l’Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres 123 (1979): 70–86.

43 For more information regarding the concepts of holy, just and unjust war in romance, see Helen Cooper’s introduction to Christianity and Romance in Medieval England, ed. Rosalind Field, Phillipa Hardman, and Michelle Sweeney (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2010), xvii–xviii.

44 Contamine summarises the Church’s objections to using battles as a form of legal judgment: “1) parce que l’on pouvait perdre même en ayant le droit pour soi; 2) parce que le recours à de tels procédés amenait à tenter Dieu; 3) parce que le justice devenait alors inutile” (Contamine, “L’idée,” 73).

45 The division of the poem in Shepherd’s edition follows the indications provided by “woodcuts and/or large capitals” (Shepherd, “Capystranus,” 391).

46 Mehmed II, sultan from 1451 to 1481, commanded the sieges of both Constantinople and Belgrade; he is named only in the part of the poem devoted to the former siege.

47 Contamine, “L’idée,” 74.

48 Philippe de Mézières, “Epistre lamentable et consolatoire sur le fait de la desconfiture du noble et vaillant roy de Honguerie par les Turcs devant la ville de Nicopoli en l’Empire de Boulguerie,” in Chroniques de France, d’Angleterre, d’Espaigne, de Bretaigne, de Gascogne, de Flandres et lieux circonvoisins by Jean Froissart, Œuvres, ed. Joseph M. B. C. Kervyn de Lettenhove, vol. 16 (Brussels: n.p., 1872), 444–523, cited in Contamine, War, 156. For a more recent edition, see Philippe de Mézières, Une epistre lamentable et consolatoire adressée en 1397 à Philippe le Hardi, duc de Bourgogne, sur la défaite de Nicopolis (1396), ed. Contamine and Jacques Paviot (Paris: n.p., 2008), 53–64.

49 For a discussion of contradictory accounts about the roles of Capistrano, Carvajal and Hunyadi in contemporary historical sources, see Kenneth M. Setton, The Papacy and the Levant (1204–1571), vol. 2 (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1978), 179–82.

50 Jacques Voisenet, “Violence des bêtes et violences des hommes,” in La violence dans le monde médiéval (Aix-en-Provence: Presses universitaires de Provence, 1994), 561–70. See also Voisenet, Bestiaire chrétien. L’imagerie animale des auteurs du Haut Moyen Age (Ve-XIe siècle) (Toulouse: Presses universitaires du Mirail, 1994).

51 Douglas Gray, “Fayttes of Armes and of Chyvalrye,” Selim 7 (2000): 6–7.

52 Contamine, War, 200.

53 Malory’s description of Mordred besieging Guinevere in the Tower of London is indebted to Malory’s own experience of sieges: P. J. C. Field notes that the “fictional siege of the Tower in the Morte d’Arthur contains what seems to be a reminiscence of the real siege in his substitution of guns for the older siege-artillery of his sources.” The Life and Times of Sir Thomas Malory (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1993), 142.

54 Halil Inalcik, “The Ottoman Turks and the Crusades, 1451-–1522,” in A History of the Crusades, vol. 6, ed. Harry W. Hazard and Norman P. Zacour (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989), 314. See also J. R. Melville, The Siege of Constantinople by the Turks: Seven Contemporary Accounts (Amsterdam: n.p., 1977).

55 İnalcik, “Ottoman Turks,” 314.

56 Shepherd, “Capystranus,” 398. The latest study of the saint in English is by Stanko Andrić, The Miracles of St. John Capistran (Budapest and New York: Central European University Press, 2000). In this book, Andrić analyses the accounts of the miracles performed by the saints. See also Iulian Mihai Damian, Ioan de Capestrano şi Cruciada Târzie (Cluj-Napoca: Editura Academia Română, 2011).

57 Shepherd, “Capystranus,” 398.

58 On the absence of “realism” in medieval romance, see Douglas Gray. Discussing the portrayal of the Ottoman Turks in early modern English literature, Anders Ingram dismisses Capystranus as a valuable source for the study of Christian involvement with Ottoman culture, commenting that “The details and language of the description of the fall of Constantinople [in Capystranus] could just as easily describe the fall of Acre in 1291.” Anders Ingram, (2009) “English Literature on the Ottoman Turks in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries” (Unpublished PhD thesis presented at Durham University, 2009), accessed January 26, 2015, http://etheses.dur.ac.uk/1974/, 51.

59 The estimates of modern historians regarding the size of the Turkish army differ. Interestingly, Carvajal wrote to Francesco Sforza of 200,000 Turks advancing on land in addition to those carried on two hundred large galleys and smaller boats (quoted in Setton, Papacy, 175).

60 See Andrić, The Miracles, 155–56. Damian contends that Capistrano provides “a new model of Franciscan sanctity” (Ioan de Capestrano, 289–300).

61 The Capystranus author gives an imaginative account of the Emperor’s martyrdom, in which the Emperor wins a spiritual battle over his enemies, refusing to forsake Christ and the Virgin Mary. The Emperor is tortured and executed with cruelty, sawn to death with a wooden saw, ll. 181–95.

62 Philippa Hardman, “The Sege of Melayne: a Fifteenth-Century Reading,” in Tradition and Transformation in Medieval Romance, ed. Rosalind Field (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1999), 81.

63 The Siege of Rhodes, also printed by de Worde, provides an account of another miracle: Christ and the Virgin appear on the city walls, and the Turks immediately flee. Some Turks even convert to Christianity.

64 Nora, “Between Memory and History,” 24.

65 Ibid., 19.