Volume 5 Issue 4 CONTENTS


In the Pull of the West: Resistance, Concessions and Showing off from the Stalinist Practice in Hungarian culture after 19561

Róbert Takács

Institute of Political History, Budapest


The article explores the representation of Western culture in Hungarian journalism, print media, and public life in the months following the 1956 revolution, when the party lost its strict control over Hungarian society and only gradually was able to reassert its dominance in all spheres of life. Did representations of Western culture really constitute a kind of resistance, or should they perhaps be understood as concessions to prevalent public opinion? Or did they in fact harmonize in some way with the actual intentions of the people who crafted cultural policy? How did the content of newspapers begin to change in November 1956, clashing with the earlier “socialist cultural canon” by presenting formerly censured or anathematized Western cultural products and actors? How was the supply of movies adjusted to public opinion and then slowly readjusted to correspond to former norms? How did theater programs and plans for book publishing reflect the uncertainty of the period, resulting in the publication of works and performance of productions later criticized for bringing values to the stage that were contrary to the spirit of socialism? In this paper, I analyze a provisional period in which earlier norms of journalism, print media, and cultural life were partially suspended and the party made little or no real attempts to reassert Stalinist norms. Moreover, in this period the party did not deny or bring a stop to the de-Stalinization of cultural life, although it did repress open forms of cultural resistance to the Kádár-government.

Keywords: communist media, journalism, cultural transfers, cultural policy, de-Stalinization, resistance, revolution


Soon a ‘new voice’ joined the buzz of the different languages. Jazz music rang out, and the dance started. First a black pair in white pullovers and britches started to follow the sound of the music with a miraculous sense of rhythm. In a little while, other dancers joined them... People laughed when a black fellow invited a Soviet girl to dance boogie-woogie. The Soviet girl, however hard she tried, could not follow her partner.2

This is how the daily Népszabadság reported the rest-day of the summer Olympic Games in Melbourne in 1956. This coverage was the first in Hungary to mention the Western fashion frenzy, boogie (and rock and roll), in a positive way since 1948, only a few weeks after the violent suppression of the revolution. But it harmonized well with the policy of peaceful coexistence of the Khrushchev regime. This short report was also the first occasion when Népszabadság came out from behind the closed world of politics (strikes, declarations, condemnations of resistance) and slowly started to act like a newspaper again instead of a political fly-bill.

The report was printed at a moment when the Kádár government gave up its last efforts to try to find a compromise with the representatives of the workers and intellectuals and was about to finalize its resolution of December 4.3 The forums of publicity were narrow: only a few editorships were functioning, and the re-launch of any newspaper had to be allowed by the leading bodies of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party.4 The book publishing industry was paralyzed, and cinemas and theaters were closed for weeks, and later only opened in the afternoon because of the curfew, which lasted until April of the following year.

There were spectacular and well-explored cases of open resistance, from the “not a single word to Kádár” strike led by journalists5 to the production of illegal newspapers and leaflets.6 Even the central organ of the party tried to protest against defining the relationship between party leadership and communist journalists in a pre-1953 way. Others drew back into passive resistance and refused to publish. The Hungarian Writers’ Association and the Association of Hungarian Journalists became important bases of resistance until the suspension of their autonomy, while their representatives also parleyed with the government.7

After November 4, Hungarian intellectuals followed a variety of trajectories and adopted an array of attitudes towards the government. Some left the country and continued to fight from abroad. Some undertook open resistance, risking imprisonment or even the death penalty. Others tried to cooperate with the new regime, hoping to preserve some of the achievements of 1956 and the de-Stalinization process, while many people decided to fall silent as a form of passive resistance. There were also intellectuals who cooperated with Kádár, whether wholeheartedly or striving for position and influence, or convincing themselves they were more useful to the people in these positions than others would be.

In this article I explore a particular way of assuming distance from official ideological framings and expressing criticism: the reception of Western pop-culture in post-1956 Hungarian public life. I examine Western pop-culture (i.e. what was characterized as “bourgeois” culture) in the Hungarian media and the debates to which it gave rise. Did it really constitute a kind of resistance, or could it rather be understood as a series of concessions to public opinion? Or did it actually help the regime achieve the goals of its cultural policy? In fact, all of these interpretations are valid. First, the references to Western culture in the early press of the Kádár era were intended to create distance from the cultural policy of Hungarian Stalinism, which Kádár’s propaganda tried to dismiss as hopelessly and unnecessarily orthodox and dictatorial. However, the re-importation of images from Western popular culture into official socialist debates created new ways of developing criticism and critical attitudes towards Kádár’s cultural policy too. I explore this double reception in thematic order by focusing on commercial culture, film, theater, literature, jazz, and art in two of the most important newspapers of the time: the party daily Népszabadság and the official youth magazine Magyar Ifjúság.

Western Commercial Culture in the Press

Népszabadság sarcastically noted the shift that took place between November 1956 and February 1957: “Nobody was enthusiastic about the gray journals of the Rákosi regime, while—lo!—the new, democratic press is received with such huge interest. Recently, they were burning newspapers on the streets, but now they keep queuing.”8 The author pointed out that the popularity of the youth weekly Magyar Ifjúság was not based on cultural value. (Magyar Ifjúság was allegedly so popular that it was sold on the streets in record time and after that one could get it only from under the counter, when buying an issue of the official party paper Népszabadság or the trade union paper Népakarat).

What was the secret of Magyar Ifjúság? The first issue of the paper was released on January 5 1957, at a time when there were still many youth organizations and the Hungarian Communist Youth League, which later came to own the paper, had not yet been founded. On the front, children sleighing and Miss France were smiling at the reader. A genre that had previously been rebuked as the quintessence of American trash culture returned. The first comic strip in Magyar Ifjúság was a French translation (Misi and Döme Meet the Dragon), but in the second issue Hungarian characters appeared: The Adventures of the Dogs Blöki and Csöpi.9 This constituted a surprising concession, since even in 1954 official cultural policy labelled comics as a tool that had been used to teach violence and condition people for war: “These books contain depictions of murders, sadistic stories, terrifying adventures, cruelty and bloodcurdling horror, and they are illustrated”. They were even associated with fascism: “Many of these adventures are based on one single supernatural hero, who—as fascists suggested—is the only one able to save the crowd from their troubled situation by using power.”10

Among the novelties of Magyar Ifjúság was a Tarzan serial, which was also banned after 1948 as inferior American mass culture. “Tarzan Wins” was published as a promotion of the newly launched Tarzan series of Kossuth Publishing House. The first part, Tarzan of the Apes, had already been published in late 1956 by Budapest Press, and was continued by the party publishing house in 1957.11 Further Tarzan volumes only arrived in the mid-1960s. The plans of Európa Publishing House for 1957 included the crime stories of Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle, and Európa planned to print open-end crime stories following Western patterns: “In other countries, separate clubs are organized to solve such books, so we can hope that this idea will be welcome here, too,” heralded the youth paper.12

The first issue also introduced Gina Lollobrigida and Luis Procuna, a Mexican actor-toreador. With this, an avalanche of Western stars began.13 Over the course of the upcoming weeks, people were able to read about the cultic James Dean, the rock and roll icon Elvis Presley, actresses Elisabeth Taylor and Marylin Monroe (who in November 1964 could only be seen on the silver screen in The Misfits). Népszabadság tried to catch up with this tempo: in early 1957, it portrayed Kim Novak besides Monroe and Taylor.

The January 5 issue of Magyar Ifjúság also launched a column on world fashion, and it included an interview with András Bágya, head of department of light music at Magyar Rádió, about jazz.14 Even stranger things happened: sexuality was seen as one of the opiates of the decadent West, but not reporting on it. “Wow, how pretty,” proclaimed the Christmas edition of Népszabadság in a caption above a picture of Miss France in a bikini. The typist from Nice greeted the Hungarian readers from the back of a donkey.15 Magyar Ifjúság also captured the attention of its readership with a beauty queen in issue one, and it continued with a portrait of actress Francoise Arnoul in a bikini and a handsome French in tabloid style.16 Allegedly “decadent” and “commercial” Western habits also penetrated the Hungarian environment: the weekly showed the winner of the beauty contest of the National Association of Hungarian Students.17 However, a month later the same newspaper condemned “bourgeois hypocrisy” for surrounding beauty contests with fame and glitter while the winner could be rejected as a teacher in FRG.18 A national beauty contest was not held again until 1985.

Kádár himself spoke highly critically of the work of Népszabadság on the session of the Budapest party activists on January 16 1957:


But it is inequitable for the central organ of the party to report murder cases with mighty letters on the front page and [spice up] the article, which is of theoretical importance, with a picture of a half-naked dancer, while they move the important declarations of the party and the government and the important manifestations of the international workers’ movement to different pages so that you can’t find the sequel.19


We can surely add the report from Paris to the “bourgeois tendencies.” The report invited Hungarian readers to popular striptease bars like Foliés Bergére and Venus to offer accounts of “colourful” shows and dancers covered by fig-leaves. However, for the sake of order, the report added that a French worker cannot afford such fun (“my friend, Beuval, earns this money [the price of 3 bottles of champagne] for a week’s worth of work at Renault”), and it made specific mention of homeless people lying under newspapers by the Seine River.20

At the end of January, the Provisional Executive Committee of Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party (HSWP) discussed the work of Népszabadság and Magyar Ifjúság and concluded that, though their work was not flawless, they could be regarded as supportive of the government, unlike the Hungarian News Agency and Népakarat.21 It was not easy to achieve a balance: people who wanted to make a newspaper different from Stalinist times had to follow the expectations of the party and the audience at the same time, the majority of which would not bother listening to talk of any of the outstanding Soviet achievements, but rather thirsted for news and information about the West. It seemed that interesting journals could only be edited with Western star-portraits, technical novelties, and a pinch of eroticism in the first months of 1957. However, even after this, exprobatory path-seeking efforts were paved with some piquant circuits. What else could have explained the fact that two months later the notion of the lascivious nightlife of the West was again “debunked” in a lengthy article. The journalist (a protocol guest of the newly launched Budapest–Brussels flight) balanced his report on Boeuf sur le Toit club by visiting an anti-fascist place of memory, the fortress of Brendonk.22

Concessions and Renewed Cultural Policy: Ideology Disappears

Kádár also accused the editors of Népszabadság of smuggling a characterization of the West as the “greater world” into the newspaper.23 Nevertheless, the government assumed that there were anti-Soviet emotions among the population, which is best illustrated by the films that were offered after November 1956. Soviet films disappeared for months: they were cautiously reintroduced beginning in February 1957 by local movie companies. Népszabadság printed the first cinema program on November 29, when cinemas were open between 11am and 4pm, according to the curfew. The selection of films was based on the 169 films confirmed by the General Directorate for Films: 29 Hungarian, 33 from socialist countries, and the rest (107 films, i.e. 63% percent, well over half) were from Western countries. Felszabadulás played Fan-Fan the Tulip, Csillag played The Red and the Black, Tinódi played the comedy Papa, Mama, My Woman and Me (presented for the French Film Days in 1956), and Toldi opted for The Thief of Bagdad. The list of licensed Soviet films was compiled only in January “with the political caution justified by the political atmosphere.” Salaries for employees in the movie theaters depended in part on the number of people who actually came to see the movies. However, this factor was no longer taken into consideration in the case of Soviet films.24

The audiences for Western films, in contrast, were huge in 1957. The share of the viewers of Soviet films fell back significantly, even compared to 1956, when this tendency had begun. In 1957, every second cinema-goer opted for a Western film, while the number of Soviet films did not reach 10 percent of the total.




















Chart 1. Distribution of Hungarian audience by the place of origin of films in 1957
(Source: Hungarian National Archives (MNL OL) – The report of the Executive Committee of the Metropolitan Council on the operation of cinemas)25


As the General Directorate for Films put it: “we strove to restore the tranquility of mind of the audience with films.” In the name of tranquility, 40 films were presented from capitalist countries, along with 12 Hungarian and 63 socialist films. The composition of the 98 films of the previous year was the following: 9 Hungarian, 59 socialist, and 31 Western. In 1958, 33.3 percent and in 1959 28.4 percent of the film premiers were imported from the non-socialist countries, so opening to Western cultural products had begun earlier, actually as early as 1954. In 1956/57, the proportion of the films from socialist countries dropped temporarily. 26 Magyar Ifjúság reported that the negotiations would begin with the Motion Picture Export Company in Paris at the end of January 1957.27 Moreover, the negotiations were successful, and three films were accepted in 1957.28 The first one was the most commercial: Trapeze, starring Gina Lollobrigida, Tony Curtis, and Burt Lancaster. So Hollywood returned to Hungary a year after the fall of the revolution with a spectacular feature film.

Nagyvilág, the Hungarian journal for international literature, which had been founded on the model of the Soviet Inostrannaya Literatura, underwent a similar shift. Its first issue was published in October 1956, and its programmatic editorial was written by György Lukács, who had been marginalized under the policy of Andrey Aleksandrovich Zhdanov known as Zhdanovism, according to which the government should exert strict control over cultural policy and foster extreme anti-Western bias. The philosopher-aesthete emphasized that the seclusion after 1948 was the continuation of earlier Hungarian provincialism and was a consequence of weakness and uncertainty, both under Horthy and Rákosi: “Only one kind of struggle can be effective against provincialism: real, first-hand knowledge about the real state of the world, and the evaluation and of the present phenomena and streams of literature based on the autonomous procession and sophisticated arrangement of the seriously collected store of learning.”29 The journal was not abolished, but it was relaunched in the spring of 1957. Of course, the editorial in the April issue was not written by Lukács, who was being held in Snagov as a member of the Imre Nagy group, but by László Kardos, the leader of the Department of World Literature at University of Budapest. However, the program remained unaltered: “The literature that secludes itself from the inspirations, lessons, and experience of the brotherly beauty of contemporary world literature is threatened by the danger of withering, dehumanization, graying, and monotony. Wide-open windows all around are a precondition of the real development of our national culture.”30

At the same time, the programs of the theaters were similar to those of the cinemas. The spring program had already been decided before the revolution. The new performances continued the de-Stalinization line. Soviet plays were not performed. Theaters were just as eager as cinemas to avoid sparking public protests. In the spring of 1957, Népszabadság summarized the mentality of the months after the suppression of the revolution as the negative culmination of the process started in 1953: “slowly they ‘adjusted’ the ‘old, good, certain-success’ operettas, appealing classics, and in the best case new Hungarian slapstick comedies, which are evasive in content and low-grade in performance.” After November, “the shudder from the messages (even progressive bourgeois messages!) and the service of philistine illusions and lies” were palpable.31

The tendencies were similar in theaters and cinemas: Soviet plays disappeared, earlier Hungarian “blockbusters,” classical plays, and several Western light comedies appeared. József Révai, the ideologist in charge of cultural affairs during the Rákosi era in his notorious March article attacked “ideological clarity” in theater life through a revival of the plays of Ferenc Molnár and Ferenc Herczeg.32

What was playing in the theaters on that day? In addition to three classical plays (Victor Hugo: Ruy Blas; G. B. Shaw: Mrs Warren’s Profession and You Can Never Tell), there were also two post-World War I Italian comedies: one by Dario Niccodemi and Pirandello’s unconventional Six Characters in Search of an Author. The latter was premiered in 1957. According to a critic writing for Nők Lapja, an illustrated weekly, the director highlighted Pirandello’s playfulness and subdued his philosophical turbidity.33 Four of the remaining five productions were operettas: three Hungarian plays (Nuptials of Ipafa; Legend of Tabán; Graf of Luxembourg) and one Austrian play (Benatzky: The King with the Umbrella). The fifth was Olympia by Ferenc Molnár. So the offer was restricted to comedies and light musical performances, complemented with two operas (Bánk bán, Don Juan). László Németh’s Galilei and two social critical comedies (a contemporary French satire in crime-story form by Marc-Gilbert Sauvajon and a Yugoslav comedy by Branislav Nušić), which were first performed before the revolution, had been cancelled since January.

According to a March 15 article in Élet és Irodalom demanding order in culture, the situation at the houses of culture was even worse:


In the Young Guard Cultural Home One Kiss and Nothing Else is played. Danuvia Cultural Home plays the comedy by László Fodor. The István Pataki House of Culture plays The Moonlight Groom. MOM House of Culture plays Let’s Dance Mambo, the Zsigmond Móricz House of Culture plays Drum Duel and Rock and Roll, and the House of Culture of the Duna Shoe Factory played a comedy entitled Bubus by Gábor Vaszary.34

In the subsequent months the popular French playwright, Jean Anouilh, also known in Hungary between 1945 and 1948, returned to the stage with Eurydice and Rendezvous in Senlis, along with other entertaining plays, such as Dario Niccodemi’s Morning, Noon and Night, which the reviewer of Népszabadság found a “real Italian orange juice, does not bemuse, does not intoxicate, does not have strength or alcoholic content, but is bland and refreshing.”35

In the case of theaters, there was no such central body as for film import decisions: theaters as creative workshops composed their own yearly plans and submitted them to the Ministry of Culture. Of course, they paid regard to proportions, and the necessity of including an appropriate number of contemporary Hungarian, Soviet, socialist, and classical plays in their programs. These program plans were discussed by the leaders of the Ministry of Culture in the second half of 1957, and plays were accepted which later caused the biggest problems. However, the conference emphasized that the number of Soviet and socialist plays should be raised and propagated more intensely (Vsevolod Vishnevsky’s Optimist Tragedy was the core drama in that year), and plans were also made to cut back the number of “products of low-level bourgeois literature.” They also criticized theaters for trying to win over audiences by compromising principles: “theater directors in the capital have been fighting for a recent Western play for weeks.” Nevertheless, after the revolution theaters could not help offering numerous foreign plays: most of the writers did not write, so there were not enough new contemporary Hungarian plays. The theater with the worst proportion offered 11 premiers of which only 2 were Hungarian. 36

In 1957, the inclusion of earlier discredited leftist authors was continued with Frederico Garcia Lorca. In April, the National Theater in Budapest showed Blood Wedding, in the autumn the National Theater of Miskolc opted for The House of Bernarda Alba. Several theaters included Of Mice and Men by Steinbeck and Before Sunset by Gerhart Hauptmann. The Attila József Theater selected an Italian play by Gian Paolo Callegari (The Girls Who Burned out Early), which reflected on the so called Montesi-scandal. Some other plays added to the Western socially critical pieces (The Little Foxes by Lilian Hellmann and The Diary of Anne Frank), while Naples Millionaire by Eduardo di Filippo and a comedy by Victorien Sardou represented the lighter line.

The two problematic plays might have passed as critical plays by Western authors, one targeting the circumstances in capitalist society and the other slamming the American occupation of Japan. As reviews make clear, the cultural watchdogs only attacked these plays after they had been brought to the stage. The Egg by Félicien Marceau was heralded as a drama unveiling the lies of “bourgeois society,” in which one must sacrifice all moral values in order to prosper.37 However, cultural policy makers and critics soon realized that it represented Existentialism, which was only tolerated in very small doses after 1953.38 Later criticism tried to insist that the drama was harmful since it allegedly propagated nihilism and cynicism, and the way it typified “petty bourgeois points of views” as characteristic of all mankind and gave up hope for change was not acceptable.39As a critic writing for Népszabadság contended,


[t]his writer’s approach does not know humanity, benignity, or moral sense, he does not believe in anything anymore. Its ideal is the perspective of a wood louse, where nothing but instincts remain, you do not have to care for anything, you must not think... This is the denial of everything that is human, this is animal life, it reveals the last moments of a culture. That is why this anti-human art is unacceptable to us, even if it draws a harsh picture of the gray petty bourgeois soul and offers several well-crafted characters. It is unacceptable because it reflects the anarchist worldview against which we are fighting a hard, passionate, and enduring struggle.40


Theater critic Ferenc Gy. Simon directly blamed the actors and actresses for elevating such an equivocal play by doing an outstanding performance with great enthusiasm.41

The other play in the crossfire was an American one depicting life in occupied Japan after 1945 with a sense of irony. Some theater experts thought it was appropriate,42 but partisan critics found The Teahouse of the August Moon too “back-slapping.” Indeed, in their contention it is embodied the propagation of the American occupation: “the holder of the Pulitzer Prize and the voluntary PR-manager of the US Army makes very tricky propaganda about the humanitarian goodness of the occupying army of imperialism.”43

Book publishing was similar in its practices and the shifts it underwent. The medium-term plans of workshops were accepted by a central body. One can observe the rise of commercial culture here, too, i.e. the influence of considerations of profitability and public demand. However, the plans were compiled in a situation of unrest, and the Ministry of Culture could only discuss the quarterly plans of the publishing houses as of the second half of 1957.44 It was too late, however, to make significant changes. The plans of Európa Kiadó, the publishing house with the profile of world literature, had 28 foreign operas for the third quarter of 1957: six Soviet, eight “socialist,” and fourteen “Western” works. The five volumes of “contemporary” “people’s democratic” literature included Franz Kafka and Bertold Brecht. However, the Ministry intervened in the first case. Kafka only began to become acceptable to the cultural organs of the regime in the mid-1960s, as was signaled by a Kafka-study and the publication of one of his novels.45 The long-time “exiled” Brecht was permitted to return with the Threepenny novel, and in April The Good Person of Szechwan was staged in the József Katona Theater,46 followed by further Brecht plays in 1958. Among the fourteen Western authors, six were contemporary. The Hungarian audience may well have remembered Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz, W. Somerset Maugham, and Jean Cocteau from before 1948, while novels by the Indian Mulk Raj Anand had been published under Rákosi, too. The first Hungarian translation by Alberto Moravia (The Roman Stories) was published in 1957, but the real sensation was the publication of the novel by Françoise Sagan. Her first novel, Hello Sadness, was a strange composition even in the French cultural landscape at the time, so its Hungarian publication was really surprising, though Polish audiences had been able to read it since 1956. Nevertheless, it had become common practice by then for publishers to bring out works from the West that were questionable according to the ideology of the regime, although these works were only available to small readership because of issues of circulation. Sagan, who introduced her readers to the world of rebel teenagers, was usually labelled an existentialist, but her book was much better received than the two abovementioned plays. Its novelty, strange honesty, and credible reportage could be emphasized, and this constituted an advantage. It could be characterized as a presentation of “the whole disturbing and mysterious field, about which we only know the outbursts: from rock and roll to the matricides, patricides, and infanticides committed out of boredom”.47 However, the publication of Sagan was not the general rule, but rather the exception, a kind of peculiarity which was much desired by the intellectuals to satisfy rather than whet the appetite. As László Kardos put it when writing about the treatment of the new phenomena of Western literature in earlier years, “curiosity slowly distorted into actual thirst, and thirst spelled illusions about value for the thirsty which were not proportional to the real values of Western literature.”48

The Return of Banned Genres

Official cultural policy made its first timid steps toward the acceptance of jazz after Stalin’s death. This tendency continued after 1956, although it did not lead to the support of “decent” jazz smoothly. Jazz and other practically banned forms, genres, and products of Western culture were regarded as destructive and decadent. As a consequence of the anti-jazz campaign, which began as early as 1946 in the Soviet Union, many jazz musicians were sent to labor camps. Jazz was condemned as a tool of dehumanization, the very opposite of a form of art that was culturally valuable, and even a weapon of American imperialism, since it allegedly killed human feelings and thoughts therefore turned the individual into a cog-wheel of American war machinery. In Hungary, popular jazz melodies did not entirely disappear. Some of them were still played at bars. A circular letter of the Union of Working Youth (Dolgozó Ifjúság Szövetsége, or DISZ) proves that even the communist youth organization had to make concessions to the interests of youngsters: some American songs (“In the Mood,” “Chattanooga Choo-Choo”) were even accepted in DISZ clubs.49

The shift in jazz policy in the Soviet bloc began in 1953. Jazz was also included in radio programs, and more and more jazz hits were played in bars and clubs. New ideological explanations were given: the roots of the genre allegedly were found in folk music, jazz was understood as the music of the American black population, so it was the music of the oppressed.50 Jazz of course remained part of the cultural palate after 1956. The magazine Rádióújság recommended the music of the American Gerry Mulligan sextet for listeners who “had been denied the opportunity to form their own opinions,” and it criticized the earlier “narrow-minded” and “hard-shell” cultural policy.51 However, jazz had deeper roots—and larger audiences—in Poland and Czechoslovakia. Jazz bands from these two countries took part in some of the biggest jazz concerts of 1957, too. In July, Polish Hot Jazz performed in Budapest, followed by the Karel Vlach Orchestra from Prague in September and the American Hot Shots in January 1958.52

When Népszabadság emphasized that Elisabeth Charles, the Scottish singer of Hot Jazz, was an extraordinary example of “true jazz singing without unnecessary writhing or false, external tools,” it targeted some spontaneous tendencies in Budapest bars. A phenomenon that the Metropolitan Council had already detected between 1953 and 1955 began to return to the places of entertainment: “The bands, seeing the lack of orientation, thought everything is possible, and they can smuggle American songs into their shows without any restriction. Moreover, they tried to score and perform the Hungarian songs in Western styles.”53 “Wildings,” as this performance style was called, also appeared after 1956, although cultural policy demanded an aesthetic jazz style without wild improvisation. The embrace of official jazz was set back by the events of the international jazz festival in Budapest in the summer of 1958, when some of the groups and members of the audience did a “dervish St. Vitus’s dance’: “some of the youngsters in the hall forgot themselves, and forgot about their fellows, and they improvised a turbulent, wild fury under the rock and roll music,” lamented the party daily, rebuking both the participants and the organizers.54

Rock, or as it was often called beat, was only fostered by the Hungarian Young Communist League (Magyar Kommunista Ifjúsági Szövetség, KISZ) around 1964, after a comprehensive survey on youth pastimes. From this point on, efforts were made to shepherd the “guitar bands” within the walls of KISZ clubs and houses of culture. However, 1956/57 was still a time of reluctance, even in the West. In addition to generational conflicts, this reluctance was nourished by the century-long opposition of highbrow and lowbrow culture,55 and also the averseness of European elites to Americanization.56 Nonetheless, in Western Europe Bill Haley’s and Elvis Presley’s music made its way through, while cultural mass production quickly exploited the new craze in the pursuit of its material interests. Expresso Bongo, a 1958 musical by Wolf Mankowitz (which was also performed in Hungary in 1963), showed this process from a critical perspective, though it was in fact a successful part of the same music industry at the time.

At the level of official cultural policy, in the mid-1950s the typical attitude toward rock and roll music was rigid rejection, so it was rather surprising that rock and roll was mentioned in a relatively gentle, almost positive context after November 1956. In January 1957, Hungarian journalists started to introduce the greatest Western stars to the Hungarian public, and they left behind the usual pejorative insinuations. József Vető’s report from Vienna described the so-called “Halbstarke” (rock hooligans) almost as waggish music fans, who were called “jampec” in Hungary, which meant a kind of swaggering dandy. Vető emphasized the irresistible ancient power of the music, a notion that would only return in the second half of the 1960s: “Even if I do think hard, I cannot remember a tune, one cannot memorize even a tune from this music, but one still feels saturated with it, and one feels that one must follow the astoundingly inflammatory rhythm.”57 He even wrote appreciatively of how the Austrian audience of the Bill Haley film Rock Around the Clock had stomped, clapped, whistled, and stood up to dance in the projection room. After the film, he was not looking for broken shop windows, but rather noticed that “cheerfulness rings through the neighborhood around the cinema, hundreds, even thousands of people came out dancing in the streets.”58 Magyar Ifjúság also described rock and roll as “thrilling” music in its portrait of Elvis Presley. However, the article downgraded the music of the American idol. The author was rather sympathetic with the enthusiastic youth, and he reminded members of the older generations that they had had their own craze, which also had been intolerable as far as their parents had been concerned.59 Moreover, the rhythms of Elvis also could be heard on the radio thanks to the journalist Kitty Havas, who did reports during the New York trip of the Hungarian UN-delegation and purchased some trendy records, among them Elvis and Harry Belafonte, to be broadcast over the Hungarian Radio in June.60

In addition to popular music, genres of the visual arts that had long disappeared from public spaces were also revived. In the spring of 1957, the lovers of fine arts (some 71,000 people),61 could enjoy a peculiar experience. After eight years, works of abstract art were displayed again in an exhibition called the Spring Salon. Officially it was not organized by the ministry, and four juries of artists made selections from the materials that had been submitted. One of the juries was assigned to assess abstract works by artists led by Dezső Korniss, who had been expelled from the university in 1948 and had worked with little hope of ever having any public exposure until 1956. A separate room was arranged for abstract pieces, among them Miska, a painting by Korniss. It depicted a Hungarian peasant constructed out of geometric shapes. It was not a non-figurative painting in the narrow sense, much like those of Picasso, but the vision of the half and full oval and round plane figures was met with such aversion that Péter Rényi, deputy editor-in-chief at Népszabadság could quote disparaging remarks from the guest book: “If artistic freedom means Miska and co., then Révai was right.”62

Most critics welcomed the initiative, but did not argue in favor of the equality of abstract or “naturalist” styles. Rather, they espoused the idea also prevalent in other cultural spheres like literature and book publishing, according to which any denial of exposure to the public will only lead to overvaluation of undesirable tendencies.

However, even those who were receptive to the exhibition and its aims could not help noticing that politics—and “socialist realism”—had almost disappeared. Anna Oelmacher wrote on behalf of those criticizing the government from the left in Élet és Irodalom. This group held the plethora of neutral topics and the absolute lack of political commitment as the greatest problem. But from Oelmacher’s view, it was seen as anti-socialism, revisionism, and conscious resistance. “The Spring Salon is a manifestation of petty bourgeois revisionism in the fine arts. [It is an expression of] anarchist freedom that claims independence from the foundations and motion of society.”63

She also played the “national card,” underscoring that deniers of forced Sovietization were adopting foreign (Western) patterns: “But today people claim to be modern who operate with esoteric shapes. And people who kept inciting against Soviet patterns, why have not they turned to our lively and still vibrant traditions, and why make our ‘most modern’ ones outworn Bauhaus art, French surrealism, Dutch constructivism, etc.?” The author representing the platform of Révai jumped to general conclusions from the return of “withered streams”: the call for freedom in art is the denial of party control and socialist cultural policy. In this debate, both sides often referred to the Hundred Flowers Campaign of Mao Zedong, launched in May 1956. It could serve as an argument for openness; it was the idea behind the decisions of the four juries of the Spring Salon, which embraced the idea of separate salons for different streams. And this was the formula used by the leftist equation of artistic freedom with libertinage, denial of party control as an outcry against resistance and revisionism. In their metaphors, they referred to gardens instead of meadows of wildflowers: “Let it be ten or twenty salons, flowers would grow wild without a careful gardener.”64 Or as Károly Kiss, secretary of the Central Committee of the HSWP put it in the parliament: “Now they say we should let all flowers bloom and all birds sing, following the example of our Chinese comrades. Our party agrees with the Chinese comrades that all nice, useful, and odorous flowers can bloom, except for poppy flowers. And our party is supportive if all songbirds with a good voice sing, but harmony demands the silencing of ‘good-birds.’”65 Journalist and former minister of information Ernő Mihályfi, summarizing the debate in Élet és Irodalom, suggested that the policies that might be appropriate in Chinese environment were not applicable in post-(counter)revolutionary Hungary, because the Spring Salon had dredged up streams of thought and art that had already been transcended: “So it is not about deciding the future of newly emerging streams and styles, but tested and well-known old weeds had come to light.”66

However, the standpoint of the government remained unclear for contemporary actors. The hardline supporters of the government would have expected greater severity and ideological consistency. However, the cultural policy of the post-1956 communist government directed by György Aczél opted for a more open cultural life and the continuation of the de-Stalinization policies in culture. Paradoxically, the goal of this cultural opening up was to reestablish and strengthen the party’s authority and position in cultural life. This complicated situation provided the background for the relaunch of the monthly literary journal Nagyvilág which mediated contemporary Western high culture, as well as for the successful negotiations with Hollywood and the approval of Spring Salon, the forum in which contemporary Western-influenced works of the fine arts were exhibited. In this regard, even official cultural policy tried to represent itself as resistance to the former Stalinist practices. Promoting the transfer of Western culture could be understood as a defense of the de-Stalinization process in culture.

Decision makers on the intermediary levels (at editorial boards, theater offices, organizing committees etc.) found themselves in a situation in which they could try to shape the cultural processes in Hungary. Their contributions were inevitable in the selection, promotion, and publishing of works of Western arts and culture. However, while on the one hand accepting one of these roles after November 1956 was tantamount to an acknowledgement of the Kádár government, on the other hand the people who were in these positions were able to work to ensure the survival of the de-Stalinization tendency and the preservation of some degree of openness. This was important, since it was not clear at all whether or not the Kádár regime would (be able to) continue in this direction. Many of them were against a re-Stalinization process in culture and resisted a supposed move away from the result of de-Stalinization. In other words, they worked against attempts by the regime to slow the relatively still narrow process of cultural openness.

In this mix-up, earlier displaced and allegedly “transcended” contents returned, both from the “bourgeois past” of national culture and the “bourgeois present” of the West. In this regard, Western culture, which was to some extent readmitted after 1953 and then not rejected by the Kádár government, could serve a different role from the place it had been given as a subservient form of culture in the controlled de-Stalinization process. What was received from Western culture was far from being entirely “progressive.” Re-opened channels of transfer created a situation in which some kinds of counterculture could be nourished. This counterculture included ideological and artistic streams alien to Marxism, such as existentialism and abstract art, as well as the spread of popular mass culture.



Brugge, Peter. “Swinging Sixties Made in Czechoslovakia: The Adaptation of Western Impulses in Czechoslovak Youth Culture.” In 1968: České křižovatky evropských dějin, edited by Ivan Šedivý, Jan Němeček, Jiří Kocian, and Oldřich Tůma, 143–55. Prague: ÚSD, 2011.

Burroughs, Edgar Rice. Tarzan, a dzsungel fia [Tarzan of the Apes]. Budapest: Budapesti Lapnyomda, 1956.

Burroughs, Edgar Rice. Tarzan visszatérése [The Return of Tarzan]. Budapest: Kossuth Kiadó, 1957.

Cseh, Gergő Bendegúz, Melinda Kalmár, and Edit Pór, eds. Zárt, bizalmas, számozott: Tájékoztatáspolitika és cenzúra 1956–1963 [Closed, confidential, numbered: information policy and censorship 1956–1963]. Budapest: Osiris, 1999.

Kardos, László. “Vihar után” [After the storm]. Nagyvilág 2, no. 1 (1957): 3–4.

Kafka, Franz. A kastély [The castle]. Budapest: Európa Könyvkiadó, 1964.

Lukács, György. “Magyar irodalom – világirodalom” [Hungarian literature – World literature]. Nagyvilág 1, no. 1 (1956): 3–5.

Magyar Statisztikai Évkönyv 1954–1960. [Hungarian statistical yearbook 1954–1960].

Murányi, Gábor. “A magyar sajtó története 1948-tól 1988-ig” [The history of the Hungarian press from 1948 to 1988]. In György Kókay, Géza Buzinkay, and Gábor Murányi. A magyar sajtó története [The history of the Hungarian press], 201–29. Budapest: MÚOSZ, 1994.

Némethné Vágyi, Karola, and Károly Urbán, eds. A Magyar Szocialista Munkáspárt ideiglenes vezető testületeinek jegyzőkönyvei II [Records of the temporary leading bodies of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party II]. Budapest: InteraRt., 1993.

Poiger, Uta G. “Rock ’n’ Roll, Female Sexuality and the Cold War Battle over German Identites.” The Journal of Modern History 40, no. 3 (1996): 579–83.

Révész, Sándor. Egyetlen élet: Gimes Miklós története [One single life: The story of Miklós Gimes]. Budapest: 1956-os Intézet–Sík Kiadó, 1999.

Ryback, Timothy W. Rock around the Block: A History of Rock Music in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. New York–Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Sipos, Levente. “A Népszabadság letiltott cikke 1956 novemberében” [The banned article of Népszabadság in November 1956]. Múltunk 4, no. 1 (1992): 131–44.

Standeisky, Éva. Az írók és a hatalom 1956–1963 [The writers and the power 1956–1963]. Budapest: 1956-os Intézet, 1996.

Szigethy, Gábor. “Vilcsi” [Vilcsi]. Kortárs 4 (2014). Accessed June 6, 2016. http://www.kortarsonline.hu/2014/04/arch-vilcsi/23285.

Szobotka, Tibor. “Kafka kettős világa” [The dual world of Kafka]. Filozófiai közlemények 1–2 (1963): 87–112.


1 The study was written with the support of the National Research, Development and Innovation Office (NKFIH) (project no. PD 109103) and the János Bolyai Fellowship of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

2 “Izgalmas versenyek, olimpiai rekordok az olimpia hétfői napján,” Népszabadság, November 27, 1956.

3 The December 4 resolution of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party was the first official document to define the factors behind the “counterrevolution.” It named four responsible agents: 1. the Rákosi–Gerő wing; 2. Imre Nagy and his circle; 3. the “reactionary forces” of the Horthy and capitalist regimes; 4. “international imperialism.”

4 The HSWP authorized the relaunch of all newspapers one by one.

5 Sipos, “A Népszabadság letiltott cikke 1956 novemberében,” 131–44.

6 Révész, Egyetlen élet: Gimes Miklós története, 330–49; Murányi, “A magyar sajtó története 1948-tól 1988-ig,” 213.

7 See: Standeisky, Az írók és a hatalom 1956–1963; Cseh and Pór, Zárt, bizalmas, számozott.

8 Géza Molnár, “Csikorgó fagyban,” Népszabadság, February 8, 1957.

9 Pál Veres and István Endrődi, “Blöki és Csöpi nyaklánca,” Magyar Ifjúság, January 12, 1957.

10 “Tarzan győz,” Magyar Ifjúság, January 5, 1957.

11 Burroughs, Tarzan, a dzsungel fia; Burroughs, Tarzan visszatérése.

12 G. I., “Dosztojevszkij és Conan Doyle, Babits Mihály és Sigmund Freud,” Népszabadság, January 1, 1957.

13 “Melyik tetszik?,” Magyar Ifjúság 1, January 5, 1957; “Esmeralda – Gina Lollobrigida,” Magyar Ifjúság, January 5, 1957; Ferenc Simon Gy., “Dr. Torreádor,” Magyar Ifjúság, January 5, 1957.

14 András Bágya, “Merre tart a jazz?,” Magyar Ifjúság, January 5, 1957.

15 “Hű de csinos!,” Népszabadság, December 25, 1956.

16 “Csak tizenhat éven felülieknek;” “Ki akar férjhez menni?,” Magyar Ifjúság, January 12, 1957.

17 “Gáts Lívia a szépségkirálynő,” Magyar Ifjúság, March 15, 1957.

18 “Szégyen-e szépségkirálynőnek lenni?,” Magyar Ifjúság, May 31, 1957.

19 Némethné Vágyi and Urbán, A Magyar Szocialista Munkáspárt ideiglenes vezető testületeinek jegyzőkönyvei II, 51.

20 B. Gy., “A Pigalle titkai – Meztelen görlök között a “Venus”-ban,” Népszabadság, January 1, 1957.

21 István Friss called the news editing practice of the national news agency “counterrevolutionary propaganda,” and he labeled Népakarat “anti-police.” Némethné Vágyi and Urbán, A Magyar Szocialista Munkáspárt ideiglenes vezető testületeinek jegyzőkönyvei II, 33.

22 István Árkus, “Az éjszakai Brüsszel,” Népszabadság, March 10, 1957; Idem, “A breendonki erőd figyelmeztetése a mához,” Népszabadság, March 13, 1957.

23 “What ‘greater world’ is something without the Soviet Union, without the socialist world? That is the capitalist world, and don’t write ‘greater world’, but write news from the capitalist world. After reading the paper, I have the feeling that Dulles is fighting heroic battles for the peace of mankind and only dark forces hinder him.” Némethné Vágyi and Urbán, A Magyar Szocialista Munkáspárt ideiglenes vezető testületeinek jegyzőkönyvei II, 40.

24 Report for the Metropolitan Council EC on the work of Budapest cinemas. (November 1957). Hungarian National Archives (=Magyar Nemzeti Levéltár Országos Levéltára, hereafter MNL OL) XIX-I-22 16. d.; András Berkesi to the General Directorate of Film (July 22, 1957). MNL OL XIX-I-22 25. d.

25 MNL OL XIX-I-22 16. d.

26 Magyar Statisztikai Évkönyv 1954–1960.

27 “Amerikai filmek a mozikban?,” Magyar Ifjúság, January 19, 1957.

28 Information on Hungarian–American film relations between 1957 and 1964 (August 5, 1964). MNL OL XIX-I-22 90. d.

29 György Lukács, “Magyar irodalom – világirodalom,” 3–5.

30 László Kardos, “Vihar után,” 3–4.

31 László Kálmán, “Megjegyzések a vidéki színházak műsortervéhez,” Népszabadság, September 3, 1957.

32 József Révai, “Eszmei tisztaságot!,” Népszabadság, March 7, 1957.

33 Béla Mátrai-Betegh, “Hat szerep keres egy szerzőt,” Nők Lapja, January 31, 1957.

34 Kálmán Sándor, “Üzleti siker – Irodalmi szabadság – Kultúrpolitika,” Élet és Irodalom, March 15, 1957.

35 “Színházi esték,” Népszabadság, February 13, 1957.

36 László Kálmán, “Megjegyzések a vidéki színházak műsortervéhez,” Népszabadság, September 3, 1957.

37 “Egy héttel »A tojás« bemutatója előtt,” Magyar Nemzet, October 30, 1957.

38 Jean-Paul Sartre was accepted in the Soviet bloc first on a political basis and only afterwards as artist, and hardly at all as an ideologue. Sartre supported peaceful coexistence and visited Moscow in 1954. In January 1956, his play Nekrassov, a satire of the anti-communist hysteria of the West, was also shown in the József Katona Theater. György Kemény, “J. P. Sartre: Főbelövendők klubja,” Szabad Nép, February 15 1956. However, the following reminiscence tells of the variety of responses: “June 27, 1956, József Katona Theater, Sartre: Nekrassov, the moment of the first act caused earthquake in the theater. The swindler who climbed into the flat of the communist journalist through the window escaping from the police is trying to explain the weird situation: Violetta Ferrari is interestedly listening to Zoltán Várkonyi and gives cool-headed, clever, surprising and confusing answers. And then the wizard-of-words swindler loses his temper and cries out: ‘You are a bitch!’ In 1956, in Hungary a bad-egg phony calls the communist journalist a bitch. Scandal! After these words, the ceiling almost foundered in the downtown theater [...] Some people’s delicate palate was hurt by something rude having been said publicly, some were appalled by the fact that a communist journalist had been called a bitch... And many thought: at last somebody aired it...” Gábor Szigethy, “Vilcsi.”

39 János Komlós, “A tojás,” Magyar Nemzet, November 14, 1957: Gábor Antal, “Néhány megjegyzés a Nemzeti Színház új évadjáról,” Magyar Nemzet, November 17, 1957.

40 Kemény, “A tojás.”

41 Ferenc Simon Gy., “A színpad virágai,” Magyar Ifjúság, December 13, 1957.

42 “And if we accepted this play as a witty comedy, we should be happy—and lately there have been such occasions more and more frequently—that we could get to know an interesting theater play from the West again.” István Gábor, “Teaház az augusztusi Holdhoz,” Magyar Nemzet, October 26, 1957.

43 Ferenc Simon Gy., “A színpad virágai.”

44 Report on the July 16 1957 session of the conference of deputy ministers. MNL OL M–KS XIX-I-4-eee 1. d.

45 Tibor Szobotka, “Kafka kettős világa,” 87–112; Kafka, “A kastély.”

46 István Hermann, “Jó embert keresünk,” Élet és Irodalom, March 29, 1957.

47 P. F., “A “Bonjour tristesse” magyarul,” Magyar Nemzet, November 22, 1957.

48 László Kardos, “Nyugati könyvek,” Magyar Nemzet, December 25, 1957.

49 Ryback, Rock around the Block, 11–13.

50 “A modern jazz mesterei,” Rádióújság, January 7, 1957.

51 “Az amerikai néger Hot Shots együttes Magyarországon,” Népszabadság, January 18, 1958.

52 B. T., “Lengyel esztrádegyüttes Budapesten,” Népszabadság, July 5, 1957; Péter Molnár G., “Sokkal igényesebben!,” Népszabadság, July 25, 1957.

53 Report of the Cultural Department of the Metropolitan Council on public entertainment (September 9, 1954) BFL XXIII. 114. 16. kisdoboz.

54 “Utószó a jazz-»fesztiválhoz«,” Népszabadság, July 27, 1958.

55 Western European—mostly state-run—radios were also unwilling to play rock. Change was enforced by pirate radios in the mid-1960s, while in socialist countries music programs of RFE and Luxembourg Radio had similar effects. Brugge, “Swinging Sixties made in Czechoslovakia,” 143–55.

56 Poiger, “Rock ’n’ Roll, Female Sexuality and the Cold War Battle over German Identities,” 579–83.

57 József Vető, “Fékevesztetten: Két viharos óra egy bécsi moziban,” Népszabadság, February 21, 1957.

58 Ibid.

59 “Őrület a huszadik hatványon,” Magyar Ifjúság, February 2, 1957.

60 “New York-i riport,” Rádióújság, June 9, 1957.

61 According to the records of the host institution Műcsarnok. Accessed: September 6, 2016, https://www.facebook.com/mucsarnokidogep/photos/a.603456473069603.1073741828.603442449737672/640994929315757/?type=1&theater.

62 Péter Rényi, “Személyes megjegyzések a Tavaszi Tárlatról,” Népszabadság, May 5, 1957.

63 Oelmacher Anna, “Forradalmi tett vagy kispolgári revizionizmus?,” Élet és Irodalom, April 5, 1957.

64 Ibid.

65 Károly Kiss’s speech in the Parliament on May 10, 1957. Országgyűlési napló, 1953. II. kötet (1956. július 30. – 1958. szeptember 26.), 1706.

66 Ernő Mihályfi, “Jegyzetek a vita-tárlatról,” Élet és Irodalom, April 19, 1957.

Volume 5 Issue 4 CONTENTS


Phantom Voices from the Past: Memory of the 1956 Revolution and Hungarian Audiences of Radio Free Europe

Gábor Danyi

Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest


Following the short period of consolidation under János Kádár in the immediate aftermath of the 1956 revolution, expressions of the legacy and memory of the uprising were no longer permitted in the public sphere and had to be confined to the private sphere. The activity of émigré actors and institutions, including the broadcasts of Western radio stations, played a crucial role in sustaining the memory and the mentality of the revolution. In 1986, thirty years after the national trauma of 1956, Radio Free Europe broadcasted an array of programs commemorating the revolution, while the official socialist media in Hungary contended again that what had happened in 1956 had been a counterrevolution. This study primarily investigates two questions. Firstly, it casts light on the importance of the RFE’s archival machinery, which recorded on magnetic tape the broadcasts of the Hungarian radio stations during the revolution in 1956. Sharing these audio-documents with audiences 30 years later, RFE could replay the revolution, significantly strengthening the interpretation of the events as a revolution. The idiosyncratic voices of the key figures of the revolution guaranteed the authenticity of the commemoration programs even for members of the younger generation among the audiences. Secondly, this study sheds light on the counter-cultural practices through which listeners tried to reconstruct the “body” of the “specters” of the suppressed cultural heritage and eliminate the asymmetry between the radio’s accessible voice and its non-accessible physical vehicle.

Keywords: communist historical representation, documentary programs, authenticity, “presence effects,” samizdat, radizdat, magnitizdat, counter-cultural practices


“October 23 passed in such utter silence that people did not even dare mention the date,”1 wrote a listener to Radio Free Europe on the 10th anniversary of the 1956 Revolution. According to this source, all traces of the “experience of togetherness forged by the revolution had been broken by then.”2 This was one of the consequences of the brutally violent policies carried out by János Kádár’s new regime, which imposed the Party’s official interpretation of counterrevolution on society following intervention by Soviet forces on November 4th. Expressions of the suppressed memory and mentality of the 1956 Revolution were no longer possible in the public sphere and had to be confined to the private sphere, creating a kind of “widespread national oblivion.”3 Three decades later, however, expressions of an enduring collective memory of the revolution began to appear, and they came to play an important role in undermining the legitimacy of the one-party state.

While the narrative of the “counterrevolution” served as a means of legitimizing Kádár’s regime, any attempt to cultivate the memory of the 1956 Revolution belonged to the history of resistance. This history of political or artistic resistance not only included sporadic domestic manifestations originating from personal memory, but also the activity of the democratic opposition, present as of the late 1970s. The activity of émigré actors and institutions―including broadcasts from Western radio stations and émigré newspapers published abroad, but still resonating in Hungary―should also be taken into account, as they played a crucial role in counterbalancing the predominance of socialist propaganda by presenting an interpretation of the October events as a revolution.4

In the West, stations such as Radio Free Europe (RFE) and the BBC regularly commemorated the revolution in Hungarian-language broadcasts transmitted from the far side of the Iron Curtain. “Even as we keep trying to forget the October events, we were pleased to listen to a proper commemoration of this national event,”5 wrote the previously cited listener to RFE in 1966. Twenty years later, on the 30th anniversary, between July 1 and December 31, 1986 a wide repertoire of commemorative programs was broadcast concerning the background, the events, and the aftermath of the 1956 Revolution.6

Naturally, RFE’s commemorative programs ran parallel to those aired in the socialist mass media, so listeners had no choice but to question the authenticity of these contradictory sources. In 1986, authenticity was a crucial question, because the audiences for all of these commemorations included not only the generation which witnessed the events, but members of younger generations as well, i.e. people with no personal memories of 1956. This study investigates the struggle over interpretations of 1956’s meaning within the framework of the attempts made by the two most important agents, the socialist mass media and RFE, to establish the authenticity of their own commemorations.

By the time of the 30th anniversary of 1956 in 1986, a struggle had begun for Kádár’s position as general secretary, and a period of economic stagnation was engendering increased expectations by society at large. In this regard, how the past surrounding 1956 was treated became a kind of “litmus test”7 for the Party’s ability to change and provide effective reforms. The question of whether 1956 could be given a new, official interpretation therefore became a key issue in Hungary.

“History belongs entirely to us”: The 30th Anniversary of 1956 in Official Socialist Media

While in the autumn of 1985 it may have seemed that the official interpretation of 1956 had shifted just in time for the 30th anniversary,8 events actually took another direction. At the 13th Congress of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party (MSZMP), János Berecz was appointed Secretary of the Central Committee and Chief of the Agitprop Committee. The neo-dogmatic cultural policies of Berecz, who had been one of the major voices in the counterrevolutionary narrative,9 left their mark on the commemoration activities surrounding the 30th anniversary.

The aim to represent and again retell what had happened in the dramatic days of late October was motivated by at least two factors. Firstly, Berecz was attempting to gain power by extending Kádár’s offer one more time. This offer to Hungarian society was a promise to raise the standards of living in exchange for acceptance of the communist political system. Secondly, the socialist organs were conscious of the increase in activity by émigré organizations and their intensive relationships with Hungary’s internal opposition, which was eager to rehabilitate 1956 as a revolution. The Agitprop Committee therefore decided to counterbalance the effects of Western “propaganda” and unveil its alleged falsifications by cementing the official counterrevolutionary narrative. Thus, Hungary’s official commemoration of the revolution’s 30th anniversary resulted in propaganda activity that was more dogmatic in approach compared to that experienced five years before.

According to a statement by the Agitprop Committee made in March, 1986, “the propaganda connected to the 30th anniversary [had to] emphasize the unchanged, constant interpretation.”10 On November 4, 1986, at the “great celebration” of both the crushed counterrevolution and the establishment of Kádár’s counter-government, Berecz made the following statement in his speech: “Today there is no need to evaluate the events of 1956 and the processes that led to it in any other way than we did then, at the end of 1956.”11

Berecz was referring to the party resolution issued on December 5, 1956, according to which the October events could only be classified as a total “counterrevolution.”12 The resolution confirmed that the counterrevolutionary forces had consisted of reactionaries―former land-owners, Horthy-fascists, etc.―aiming to crush socialist achievements and restore the partially capitalist, partially feudal system of an earlier era. The resolution stated that even if the majority of those who participated in the events had been honest socialist patriots, they inevitably had aided the counterrevolution. This was the authoritative interpretation held by the ideology of the Kádár regime over the course of the next three decades.

On the occasion of the 30th anniversary, in the official socialist media dominated by this neo-dogmatic cultural policy, several programs, articles, and reminiscences focused on the October events. Of these, the documentary series entitled Velünk élő történelem [Our living history], the chief editor of which was Berecz, reached the widest audience.13 The series was evidence of a search for a new narrative form and technological pathways that would convince society of the regime’s interpretation of 1956. On the one hand, the first three episodes each had the same form. Specifically, they all conjured the history of the counterrevolution by means of “talking-head” interviews with witnesses of the events at the time. The series therefore opened up the emotional dimensions of the counterrevolution by presenting personal testimonies.

The six episodes of Velünk élő történelem were aired on Hungarian Television beginning in the middle of October.14 On the day after the airing of the first episode, Pál Geszti, the cultural editor of the daily newspaper Magyar Hírlap, published an article about the series. This article’s aim was to smooth out the dissimilarities between this official representation of events and personal experiences of the history itself. For Geszti, it was clear that the experiences witnessed by the generation of the time did not correspond to the meanings fashioned in the official representations. “Yesterday evening,” he wrote, “the first episode shown on television certainly generated as many reactions, questions, memories, and emotions as there were viewers.” Geszti attempted to eliminate contradictions surrounding the episode’s reception by comparing a “complex, scientific, essential” representation of history to the contingency of lived history and personal experiences. “The individual experience is always contingent and depends on chance.” Therefore, “there is no certainty that what was lived by XY as a witness or a participant really represented (some kind of) truth.15 Velünk élő történelem had to base its authenticity on the relationship between the official truth of the counterrevolution and a minority of thoroughly sifted, personal memories.

The director of the series, Mihály Mátray, divided the roughly one hundred individuals appearing on screen into two groups: the first included witnesses and 1956 participants, and the second consisted of historians presenting nothing beyond the results of their historical research.16 Berecz was part of this latter group, in the role of historian. Ervin Hollós, the most qualified expert on the counterrevolution and the author of several propaganda books, was also featured. Hollós’s objectivity, however, can be seriously questioned. As of April, 1957, in his role as deputy head and then chief of the sub-department for counterintelligence against internal reaction in the Ministry of Interior, Hollós took an active part in the retaliatory measures taken against alleged participants in the revolution.17 The backbone of the narratives consisted of reminiscences by the political elite of the Kádár regime. The reflections uttered by Antal Apró, György Marosán, Valéria Benke, and Béla Biszku smoothly fitted into the “complex, scientific” picture of the counterrevolution, since these agents were among those who actively shaped the official genesis myth of the Kádár era. By simultaneously presenting reminiscences of others, including radio operators, workers’ militiamen, and university students, the series aimed to demonstrate that the counterrevolutionary narrative created and nurtured by a narrow political elite was actually “true” on the level of widespread social experience.

The first three episodes of Velünk élő történelem primarily illustrated the course of counterrevolutionary violence, depicting the process leading from the peaceful demonstration on October 23 to the siege of the headquarters of the Hungarian Radio and the tumultuous brutality committed by the counterrevolutionary rabble on Köztársaság [Republic] Square on October 30. When depicting how events unfolded at Köztársaság Square, the tale of violence came to a crescendo. From as early as November, 1956, the tragic and undoubtedly brutally violent siege of the Party house formed the hub of the image projected by the Kádár-regime concerning how events had occurred.18 Köztársaság Square was used as the most obvious evidence in support of the official characterization of events as an example of a counterrevolution and raging white terror. László Laboda, a member of Workers’ Council in Diósgyőr, offered the following recollection:


Another trauma in my life was that […] next to the town hall of Ózd two men were hanging upside down, they had been… brutally stabbed with a pitchfork or I don’t know what kind of tool, their clothes had been torn off, they were hanging, covered in blood. It is not possible to forget that, even if one were to live a hundred years.19


The dramatic atmosphere of this scene was guaranteed by the piercing sounds of a violin in the background and the sharply-focused camera shot which closed in on Laboda’s face while he was relaying the bloody details.

According to Velünk élő történelem, in contrast to the “passive route” taken by Imre Nagy in stemming the tide of the brutal counterrevolution, the members of the Kádárist political elite had been actively searching for the right solution. György Marosán repeatedly swore that—had it been given in time—the command to fire would have crushed the counterrevolution. This particular opinion from the dogmatic politician, however, was not his reminiscence of the past so much as it was a revitalization of the offer of the Kádár regime and a justification of the brutal retaliations. According to the documentary series, Kádár’s counter-government, which was set up on November 4, provided the “real turn.” The last two episodes related the story of how society’s trust had been gained by the Revolutionary Workers’ Peasants’ Government and how socialist Hungary had been renewed.

In the actual political context of 1986, the configurations of “continuity” and “resumption” gained new meaning. In one of his articles, Berecz underscored the notion that, “as a consequence of the traditions of the Hungarian revolutionary labor movement, by necessity there were people who have accepted the break with the mistakes of the previous years, and meanwhile the continuity and the renewal in socialism.”20 Berecz summoned the last two nouns as a means of mobilizing the Party’s potential to resolve the actual upcoming problems. “Our Party has already many times given examples of this renewal”; “this time, the task ahead of us is to find new and necessary answers for any new and unresolved problems in society.”21 Continuity―in the sense of expropriating the meaning of history―had to express the absolute right to do this: “the character of continuity is that history belongs entirely to us, together with its successes, its failures, and their lessons.”22

The makers of the series did not properly assess the risks involved in demonstrating this absolute control over history by means of presenting the personal memories of the political elite. In Velünk élő történelem, the October events were represented within the framework of personal recollections, thereby implying that the reminiscences of the political elite were comparable to the memories of the television audiences. Velünk élő történelem definitely met with resistance on the part of viewers who remembered the events of 1956 differently. Imprisoned for counterrevolutionary activity at the end of 1956, Imre Simonyi listened to RFE’s commemorative programs while also viewing Velünk élő történelem. While Simonyi rated the RFE programs as “incredibly good,” the performance given by Marosán on television had him alternating between wild laughter and gripping the arms of his chair until his knuckles turned white.23

Thus, Velünk élő történelem was not received entirely according to the official plan. This counter-productivity was due not only to the propagandistic nature of the series. In this period of increasing political-economic crisis and an emerging discussion among different dissident groups in Hungary, the reiteration of the old offer of the Kádár regime came off as anachronistic. Furthermore, if the issue of 1956 was the “litmus test” of the Party’s ability to change, this dogmatic restoration of the official interpretation of 1956 partially undermined any attempt by the Party to project an image of reform. The events held in memory of the 30th anniversary completely disappointed a society eagerly awaiting comprehensive reforms that were expected to offer a way out of a stagnating situation. In consequence, many people began looking for alternative ideas and information, while many more became interested in learning more about what had actually happened in 1956.24

Radio Free Europe and Warrants of Authenticity

In the aftermath of the 1956 Revolution, socialist propaganda made serious accusations against RFE, essentially laying blame for the tragic events on the radio station. These charges included statements that―among other transgressions―RFE had urged Hungarians to fight the Soviet army, promised Western assistance, and provoked Soviet intervention.25 While admittedly overestimating the radio’s role, socialist propaganda indirectly suggested that Western assistance was a vain hope and communism was there to stay. At the same time, “these historic events made clear both the importance and the responsibility of [RFE], and also proved that this venture would not be merely a temporary one.”26 Consequentially, RFE was forced to analyze and reorganize its attitudes concerning both program policies and its practices of information acquisition, including research and archival work.27 After 1956, RFE also undertook the mission of preserving the memory of the revolution, and during the decades of the Kádár regime it regularly broadcasted programs commemorating 1956.

Considering the reception of these programs, very limited feedback is available in the so-called “Information Items” gathered at RFE’s Munich headquarters as a means of reducing the state of isolation in which the radio station found itself regarding information coming from the Eastern bloc. These documents were generally based on correspondence conducted with anonymous sources located within the bloc or interviews provided by Eastern emigrants and defectors. Their reliability and credibility were carefully checked by various filtering systems. Even if the items “later proved to be reliable historical data,” they nonetheless must be interpreted with a due degree of circumspection, since they may be the products of an interview situation filled with suspicion and ruled by certain sets of presumptions.28 Concerning feedback provided by listeners on the RFE commemorative programs, another source of evidence is also available: the transcripts of messages recorded by the radio’s answering machine in the second half of the 1980s.

Set up in 1985, the answering machine29 was intended to modernize the communication channel between RFE and its audiences, while also replacing correspondence. The answering machine recorded listeners’ calls and messages in two-minute intervals, around the clock, 24 hours a day. While transcripts of the calls were handed to editors, the most important and relevant messages and questions were answered every week during a ten-minute long program entitled Hallgatók Fóruma [Listeners’ forum].30 In comparison to the items, these telephone call transcripts have three advantages. Firstly, listeners called the answering machine of their own volition, hence the suspicion and presumptions that could eventually pervade interview situations31 were lacking. Secondly, the transcripts―appended with additional comments only in extreme cases―preserved the listeners’ views without any kind of distortion or condensing. Finally, in contrast to the anonymous reports found in the Items, in certain and limited cases it was possible to identify the callers; it is, however, true, that those contacting the RFE from within the bloc characteristically used code names.

Hungarian listeners usually called the answering machine service in order to comment on the programs, request that broadcasts be repeated, complain about the signal’s frequently bad quality, share jokes on the current political situation, etc. In the case of important public affairs―such as the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, demonstrations against the Gabčíkovo–Nagymaros Waterworks, and the soccer match loss of 6:0 against the Soviets at the 1986 World Cup―the number of calls increased. In autumn, 1986, many callers discussed the merits of RFE programs commemorating the Hungarian revolution: “Great work, boys, great work, girls. I cannot say anything else. I haven’t heard for 30 years […] such a beautiful and touching […] commemoration. If the Hungarian soccer team had played like this, the net of the Soviets would have been worn out.”32

Another listener left the following message:


First of all, I would like to say thank you for the carefully compiled documentary program which was broadcast these days on the occasion of the freedom fight. I myself, who am over 60 years old, took part in the 1956 events, and I can testify that the documentary is trustworthy down to its smallest detail.33

Naturally, one could cite additional examples of this kind of feedback. In these comments, of the RFE’s rich selection of commemorative programs, the documentary programs edited by László Kasza (entitled Thirteen Days of the Revolution and Freedom Fight and The Decline of Freedom: The History of Twelve Days) was mentioned the most frequently. Following in the footsteps of previous RFE broadcasts,34 these two programs contained a chronological examination of the events leading to the victory of the revolution, piecing this historical episode together day by day. This was then followed by the history of the fight for freedom against Soviet intervention. These programs generally consisted of a well-edited montage of audio-recordings dating from the period of the revolution, as well as recollections by witnesses.

As a very characteristic feature of the feedback, listeners emphasized the role of the original audio-documents. “I spoke of this program to several acquaintances, and it was the general opinion that such programs are very necessary―with the help of original sound recordings―to refute the official lies that distort the past.”35 In 1986, in the Hallgatók Fóruma, some opinions were broadcast which, like the denouncements made by socialist propaganda, accused the radio of vulgar rabble-rousing. On the following day, many listeners called the answering machine to deny these charges indignantly. One such caller offered the following argument:


Did these listeners actually listen to the documentary serial or are they deaf? All right, if we want, we can give credence to László Kasza, if we don’t want to, we don’t have to. But I must ask whether these 50-minute programs consisted of only the voice of László Kasza? Like hell! They were filled with conclusive evidence, since they evoked programs broadcast at the time by Radio Free Kossuth.36


It is worth noting that RFE possessed the most complete archival collection of broadcasts made in Hungary at the time of the revolution. In addition to other techniques used to acquire information, RFE “closely followed the events in the so-called ‘target-countries’ by listening to and recording the official radio broadcasts coming through the air from the communist world.”37 During the revolution, the Hungarian Desk’s attention was focused entirely on the events unfolding in Hungary. At the time, Radio (Free) Kossuth and an increasing number of amateur, independent radio stations served as the main source of information. Throughout each day of the revolution, their broadcasts were being recorded on magnetic tape by RFE’s archival machinery. As a result, a unique collection of historical archives was created that served as a source of original audio-documents to be broadcast again and again into Hungary during Kádár’s regime.

To paraphrase Jacques Derrida, the various types of technological apparatuses used to record, store and replay sound allow phantoms from the past to come back and haunt us,38 thereby making an apparently absent entity present again. “The realm of the dead is as extensive as the storage and transmission capabilities of a given culture,”39 writes Friedrich Kittler. When replayed thirty years later, the audio-inserts originally recorded in 1956 resulted in the resurrection of both the martyrs of the revolution and the apparently dead revolution. When mapping this resurrection, this study turns to the thesis of Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, an author mostly interested in the “presentification of past worlds, that is the techniques that produce the impression (or, rather, the illusion) that worlds of the past can become tangible again.”40 Gumbrecht―while “challeng[ing] a broadly institutionalized tradition according to which interpretations, that is, the identification and/or attribution of meaning, is […] the exclusive core practice […] of the humanities”41―suggests that we “conceive of aesthetic experience as an oscillation (and sometimes as an interference) between ‘presence effects’ and ‘meaning effects’.”42 When discussing the “production of presence,” Gumbrecht focuses on the materialities of communication. According to his definition, “to speak of ‘the production of presence’ implies that the (spatial) tangibility effect coming from the communication media is subjected, in space, to movement of greater or lesser proximity, and of greater or lesser intensity.”43 When transmitting the memory of the revolution, the replayed original audio-recordings brought about these “presence effects,” thereby guaranteeing a high level of proximity and intensity, i.e., the “touching on the bodies” of listeners. Thus, the semantics of the RFE commemorative programs originated from the physical effects generating the illusion of presence. Divided by the generation gap into either witnesses or people with no personal memories of the revolution, listener groups perceived the “presence effects” according to different constellations.

First of all, throughout the 1986 commemorative programs, the “scene of radio listening”44 from 1956 was repeated, though it transmitted a different experience. In the 1950s, listeners had to become accustomed to the jamming against “enemy radio stations.” Jamming, however―as István Rév described the situation―“did not simply aim to make the enemy broadcasts inaudible.” Rather, “the noise also established and confirmed the presence of the Communist authorities in the air, and thus in the private sphere [...] constantly remind[ing] the listener of the continuous surveillance.”45 When all jamming facilities were closed down on October 24, 1956, the lack of the deliberately generated noise transmitted a clear message: “We [the West] are here, and they [the Communists or the Soviets] have gone.”46 In this historic moment, media technology supported the collective imagination in the face of mere reality. Thirty years later, when listening to the original recordings, the same voices emerged from the same “box.” Conversely, in contrast to the original “scene of listening,” the replayed recordings came to represent quite the opposite meaning. On the one hand, the shredded, bad quality of the recordings underscored the fragility of traces of memory concerning the revolution. On the other hand, the majority of listeners―as a consequence of their social conditioning―attributed the bad reception not to atmospheric noise, but to the jamming that had actually been halted in 1972.47 Thus, the bad quality of the commemorative programs broadcasting original recordings once again signaled the presence of the repressive Communist authorities, albeit inadvertently.

Secondly, “reviving the already dim recollection with original recordings”48 also meant that the “scene of radio listening” was once more occupied by the main players in the revolution, brought back to life both through recordings and personal recollections. The interconnection between the replayed recordings and the stimulated development of memories offered the experience of reliving the events of the revolution all over again. One person, who accepted the broadcast programs as representations of her own memories, left the following message:


In 1956, I was a student in my first year at the University of Horticulture. On [October] 23, I was present at the general assembly at the Technical University, and afterward I was everywhere, wherever it was possible, until November 4. Now, as I listen to your reminiscences, I am reliving those minutes again and [I testify to] the credibility of the witness, declaring with absolute faith that everything happened exactly the way it was related. God bless you for these true words and for keeping the memory of the revolution alive.49


The program’s authenticity was based on the relationship between personal recollection and original recordings, which mutually legitimized each other. The “credibility of the witness” included the compatibility between these different perspectives: “those who listened to it were convinced that it was arranged by an editor who had been an eye-witness of the events in 1956.”50

In the case of the younger generation, the authenticity of these programs was established through recognition of the idiosyncratic nature of the recorded voices. Here, the reception process was situated within an acousmatic situation, since the proper source of the sound coming from the radio remained unseen.51 Listeners were therefore forced to confront both the phantom character of the voice as well as the unlocalizable character of the missing body. Consequently, the problem of identifying the two also arose. The rupture resulting from the separation of the voice from the body, however, was not complete, even in the cases of voices replayed in several transposals. The tone, the pitch and the volume of the speech sound attests to the build of the body which becomes the “organon” of the announcement.52 Following this train of thought, the speech sound of the revolutionary players―after being separated onto storage devices and transmission media―gave the impression that it was still permeated by the traces of the body. In other words, the recordings allowed listeners to recognize idiosyncratic voices belonging to identifiable bodies.

A listener who at the time of the revolution was eighteen months old referred to the idiosyncrasy of the voices coming from the radio. In certain cases―such as that of the well-known voice of the Communist Secretary―he could identify the speech sound based on his own experiences: “The audio-documents resembled a real experience for me, like the radio speeches of Imre Nagy or the radio speech of János Kádár, with the promises that he has not kept. If I had not heard it from his own mouth, I would have not believed it, really.”53 For the younger generation, this type of identification could verify the authenticity of other documents as well.

This authenticity was crucial since the RFE commemorative programs drew on many historical sources that had been silenced by the one-party state system. In April, 1986, a listener thought it high time to wash Kádár’s dirty linen in public, especially for the sake of the younger generation.54 This listener’s request was granted.55 In Kasza’s program, Kádár’s speech―originally broadcast on November 1, 1956 by Radio Free Kossuth―was replayed. While also informing the public of the establishment of the new party, MSZMP, this speech included Kádár’s statement describing the events as “the people’s glorious uprising.”56 This document, which contradicted the official stance later adopted by Kádár as the head of the regime and thus raised significant questions concerning his character, was fully reviewed in the program.

The bad quality of the recording, however, meant that only a limited part of the tape could actually be replayed; the rest of the speech had to be read aloud.57 This excerpt was only a few seconds long and unfortunately did not contain the words “glorious uprising.” In spite of this technical difficulty, the recording still possessed the power to authenticate the essential standpoint of the program. The recording itself can be compared with an earlier published version of the speech found in the émigré journal Magyar Füzetek in 1981.58 The transcript of the speech was accompanied by the reproduced title page of Népszabadság―the newspaper in which the speech was originally published―bearing the date November 2, 1956. This reproduction served as a trace of the primary inscription of the actual events, a small, but significant detail that escaped the purges of the memory policies of the Kádár regime. The mere presence of the otherwise illegible reproduction was to verify the entire transcript of the text. This case of “iconic verification” can be compared to the “acoustic verification” accomplished through the partial replay of a recording that created an aura of authenticity for the entire broadcast. Thus, “presence effects” worked to strengthen “meaning effects” in the sense that perception of the physical characteristics of the original documents pervaded the semantic dimension of their reception.

Listeners could not avoid the influence of the intense interplay between “presence effects” and “meaning effects.” One of them swore never to forget the recording of Rákóczi Station broadcasting from the city of Sztálinváros59 in the days of Soviet intervention. In his call to the answering machine he retold what he had heard: “»This is Rákóczi Station, Hungary, this is Rákóczi Station, Hungary! Free Europe, Munich, Free Europe, Munich! Help us, help us! Soviets have marched into Dunapentele. They are firing on our city. We beg you, help us, help us!« Believe me, I am not a sentimental man, but my eyes filled with tears.”60

In the case of both generations, the narratives of the revolution were created according to the listeners’ own past, “from within, not imported or imposed from without.”61 There was ample evidence attesting to their experiences of the revolution, which for them was historically verifiable and possessed great power to inspire.62 This was also reflected in the counter-cultural practices which accompanied the act of listening to Western radio stations, which from the socialist perspective represented the “enemy.”

The Phantom Voice and the Body of the Text

In October, 1985, an elderly woman left a message on the RFE’s answering machine. Her story was both typical and yet unique.


Good evening. Actually, I have been listening to the program by György Faludy on the radio. It recalls very, very beautiful memories of mine, because when I was young, we typed his poems and gave them to one another as a big, big present… […] I had quite a huge collection, but unfortunately my whole apartment burned down in 1956. I lived at the corner of Ferenc Avenue and Üllői Street. […] Well, these treasures of mine ceased to exist. How could I get access to the entire book?63

It was unusual that a listener shared her personal story in such an open and direct tone while also relating details concerning the cultural resistance of the 1950s. Her description of collecting, typing and disseminating texts by a poet interned in 1949 serves as a very early example of samizdat literature circulating beyond the bounds of censorship in Hungary.64

The localization of the apartment and the date of its destruction make it likely that this private samizdat collection disappeared during the Soviet intervention, in the course of the intense fighting that took place in the area around Corvin köz, not far from her apartment. This background information reveals the fragility of samizdat materials, showing that often it was difficult or impossible to preserve them for longer periods of time.

On the other hand, this story is also very characteristic in that it draws attention to the important role RFE played in transmitting cultural products that remained out of reach during the decades of communism. The radio station, however, could make these cultural products available through its “phantom voice,” which―like sound itself―“is more flux and fluid than material.”65 The dissolving, vanishing body of the radio’s phantom voice urged listeners to reconstruct this body physically, to transform the fluid voice into some form of hard copy. In the case of the RFE’s commemorative programs, generally three counter-cultural practices―recording or transcribing broadcasts (the phenomenon of so-called “radizdat” or “magnitizdat”),66 buying materials in the West, or acquiring samizdat texts from local sources―came into play.

Under the name “Hungarian October,” one of the most significant samizdat publishers during the 1980s, György Krassó published a 90-minute long audiocassette entitled The Voice of the Hungarian Revolution as a means of marking the 26th anniversary of the revolution.67 The cassette included recordings of broadcasts by Western radios. Since only a few hundred copies were made, the cassette soon became inaccessible, in spite of the fact that private exchanges obviously added to the number of copies that were made.

It therefore comes as no surprise that in 1986 many listeners made sure to record the commemorative programs. “On behalf of a small group of listeners, I turn to you with the following request. While we succeeded in recording the commemorative program, the jamming sometimes was so extensive that important parts were incomprehensible.”68 The members of this “small group” requesting that the programs edited by Kasza be repeated were most likely working together to copy and share materials among one another.

In 1987, another message providing evidence of one unique case of “radizdat” made its way to RFE’s answering machine. The listener―who was from the eastern side of the Iron Curtain, judging from the fact that he used a pseudonym―happily reported that on the occasion of the 31st anniversary of the revolution, a 500-paged typewritten book had been prepared bearing the title, The Hungarian Revolution, 1956: Commemorative Radio Programs and Historical Series.69 The ability to prepare such a typewritten book meant previous broadcasts had to have been recorded on magnetic tape. The whole year that passed between the recording process and the completion of the typewritten product shows the enormous effort made to create a hard copy of the “phantom voice.”

Including callers from both sides of the Iron Curtain, the largest number of messages was left for RFE by people who wanted to buy the commemorative programs in cassette form. While the radio workers felt it impossible to publish the programs in cassette form,70 the overwhelming interest and large number of requests eventually convinced them to publish the commemorative programs in book form. Published at the beginning of 1988, the book At the Doorstep of Freedom could be ordered from France for 24 German marks.71 In September, 1988, during the program Hallgatók Fóruma, Júlia Lángh was able to point callers interested in the 1986 commemorative programs to Hungarian bookstores located in the West.72

This RFE publication came to Krassó’s attention. Before his brother living in London died, Krassó was finally able to get a Western passport. In 1986 he established the “Hungarian October” independent news agency in London, although this did not mean that he abandoned his samizdat publication activities, especially in respect to the widespread practice of reprinting Western publications in samizdat form. After RFE’s book was published,73 Krassó organized its samizdat reprint in Hungary, including the original typeset and the logo of “Hungarian October” Publishing House. In this version, however, the paper displayed the poor quality and brown-black colors typical of samizdat editions.74 Thanks to the original and samizdat edition, the book At the Doorstep of Freedom was available both in Hungary and the in West.

As a consequence of counter-cultural practices that arose as a result of the act of listening to radio broadcasts, materials concerning the Hungarian revolution were first stored and then broadcast by the radio stations, later entering the listeners’ private archives in some kind of a hard copy form. During this process, the materials that had been broadcasted changed their form and sometimes their media as well (e.g. from magnetic tape to another magnetic tape or a typescript, or from magnetic tape to a book, and then a samizdat reprint). Through these practices, listeners attempted to transform a past that they recognized as authentic into physical materials that were available within arm’s reach and beyond the limits imposed by time. Accompanied by an audio recording, a samizdat edition or book published in the West guaranteed that personal recollections could be revived, thereby allowing people to experience the events of the revolution again and again. The externalization of the memory of the revolution and the dissemination of the vessels in which this memory was preserved created little pockets of resistance to the memory politics of the Kádár regime.


While a vigorous attempt was made to reassert the legitimacy of the official assessment of the 1956 Revolution and the rhetoric of the official depictions of the events during the commemoration of its 30th anniversary, RFE’s commemorative programs broadcast from the West offered an alternative narrative that was accessible to a significant segment of Hungarian society. Velünk élő történelem, a re-projection of the counterrevolution rhetoric used by the political elite of the Kádár regime, exemplified and brought to the fore the profound discrepancies between the official historical abstraction and people’s personal memories. In the end, this official interpretation proved counterproductive. In contrast, RFE commemorative programs were successful in their presentation of the past on the basis of personal recollections, based in part on the approach according to which “understanding the past as history primarily happens in the course of memory, before historical abstraction can settle over it, generously obscuring the fact of this genesis.”75

Within the process of these documentary strategies, the issue of authenticity underlies the question of how to create a representation of the historical events of 1956. In the case of RFE, the Gumbrechtian “presence effects” played an important role in creating a kind of authenticity rooted in archival practices and information acquisition, the media-technological conditions of recording and replaying human voices, as well as the listeners’ social conditioning and personal recollections. Last but not least, the programs’ narrative structure provided the appropriate vehicle for this process. The special configuration of these elements guaranteed the programs’ effectiveness, reviving memories of the revolution from the chronological distance of three decades. While in the case of Velünk élő történelem archival documents functioned only as illustrations of narrative, archival recordings took on lives of their own in the RFE broadcasts, serving as “presence effects.” From this perspective, it can be argued that the “practices of reconstructing” the “phantom voice” were motivated not only by the fluidity of the voice, but also by its “presence effects.” In other words, this phenomenon was influenced by the ephemeral character of the presence, i.e. the feeling “that we cannot hold on to those presence effects, that they […] are ephemeral.”76

In the three-decade-long struggle over interpretations of 1956, the year 1986 brought a significant change. This change was brought about by the fact that RFE’s commemorative programs―in comparison to the influence of opposition groups active as of the late 1970s―created a far wider social basis for the interpretation according to which the October events constituted a revolution, not a counterrevolution.77 If “the first victory of the Kádár era was the successful transformation of shared silence into social oblivion,”78 RFE deserves credit for reviving and replaying the revolution in 1986, while attacking the Kádár regime at its weakest point: its genesis myth. By making voices travel through both time and space, RFE could bridge the gap between past and present, between different agents and distant parts of a divided Europe, obliterating the amnesia of the Kádár era, which had hampered listeners’ efforts to maintain their own personal recollections.




Petőfi Irodalmi Múzeum Médiatára, Saáry Éva hanggyűjteménye, Budapest [Media Archives of the Petőfi Literary Museum, Audio Collection of Éva Saáry].

1956 – Napról napra. Szabad Európa Rádió, München, 1974 [1956 – From Day to Day. Radio Free Europe, Munich].

Magyar Távirati Iroda, Hírarchívum, Budapest [Hungarian News Agency, News Archives].

Levelesláda (Rajki László, SZER, Hallgatók Fóruma) [Letterbox (László Rajki, RFE, Listeners’ Forum)], München, 1988. május 28. [Munich, May 28, 1988], MTI Hírarchívum 1988–, Rádiófigyelés [Hungarian News Agency, News Archives 1988–, Radio Monitoring].

Magyar szamizdat (Kasza László, SZER) [Hungarian Samizdat (László Kasza, RFE)], München, 1988. október 16., (MTI Hírarchívum 1988–, Rádiófigyelés [Hungarian News Agency, News Arlines 1988–, Radio Monitoring]).

Válasz a hallgatóknak (Láng Júlia, SZER, Hallgatók Fóruma) [Answer for the Listeners (Júlia Láng, RFE, Listeners’ Forum)], München, 1988. szeptember 24. [Munich, September 24, 1988], MTI Hírarchívum 1988–, Rádiófigyelés [Hungarian News Agency, News Archives 1988–, Radio Monitoring].


Vera & Donald Blinken Open Society Archives, Budapest

Observance on the 10th anniversary, Item No. 2303/66., December 22, 1966, HU OSA 300-40-4 Box 9 [RFE General, 1965–66]; Records of the Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty Research Institute (Fonds 300), Hungarian Unit (Subfonds 40), Information Items (Series 4).

Opinion on RFE, Item No. 1977/69., December 31, 1969, HU OSA 300-40-4 Box 9 [RFE General 1969-73], HU OSA 300-40-4 Box 9 [RFE General, 1969–73]; Records of the Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty Research Institute (Fonds 300), Hungarian Unit (Subfonds 40), Information Items (Series 4).

Reaction to anti-RFE propaganda campaign, Item No. 1228/69, August 1, 1969, HU OSA 300-40-4 Box 9 [RFE General, 1969–73]; Records of the Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty Research Institute (Fonds 300), Hungarian Unit (Subfonds 40), Information Items (Series 4).

Telefonhívások [Telephone Calls] 12. (Hungarian Service October 7, 1985), 2.; HU OSA 300-40-14 Box 1 [Telephone calls Aug – Oct 1985]; Records of RFE/RL Research Institut (Fonds 300), Hungarian Unit (Subfonds 40), Telephone Calls (Series 12).

Telefonhívások [Telephone Calls] 37. (Hungarian Service April 2, 1986); HU OSA 300-40-14 Box 1 [Telephone calls Apr – Jun 1986]; Records of RFE/RL Research Institut (Fonds 300), Hungarian Unit (Subfonds 40), Telephone Calls (Series 12).

Telefonhívások [Telephone Calls] 68. (Hungarian Service November 5, 1986); HU OSA 300-40-14 Box 1 [Telephone calls Nov – Dec 1986]; Records of RFE/RL Research Institut (Fonds 300), Hungarian Unit (Subfonds 40), Telephone Calls (Series 12).

Telefonhívások [Telephone Calls] 69. (Hungarian Service November 12, 1986); HU OSA 300-40-14 Box 1 [Telephone calls Nov – Dec 1986]; Records of RFE/RL Research Institut (Fonds 300), Hungarian Unit (Subfonds 40), Telephone Calls (Series 12).

Telefonhívások [Telephone Calls] 72. (Hungarian Service December 3, 1986); HU OSA 300-40-14 Box 1 [Telephone calls Nov – Dec 1986]; Records of RFE/RL Research Institut (Fonds 300), Hungarian Unit (Subfonds 40), Telephone Calls (Series 12).

Telefonhívások [Telephone Calls] 118. (Hungarian Service October 28, 1987); HU OSA 300-40-14 Box 2 [Telephone calls Sep – Dec 1987]; Records of RFE/RL Research Institut (Fonds 300), Hungarian Unit (Subfonds 40), Telephone Calls (Series 12).

Telefonhívások [Telephone Calls] 121. (Hungarian Service November 19, 1987); HU OSA 300-40-14 Box 2 [Telephone calls Sep – Dec 1987]; Records of RFE/RL Research Institut (Fonds 300), Hungarian Unit (Subfonds 40), Telephone Calls (Series 12).

Velünk élő történelem [Our Living History] I–III, edited by János Berecz, directed by Mihály Mátray, 1986, Call no. HU OSA306-0-4:24/2-4; Collective Fonds – Records Relating to the 1956 Hungarian Revolution: Video Materials Relating to the 1956 Hungarian Revolution.


A magyar forradalom hangja: A “Magyar Október Szabadsajtó” kiadásában 1982-ben, a forradalom 26. évfordulójára forgalomba hozott 90 perces magnetofonkazetta teljes hanganyaga [The voice of the Hungarian revolution: The entire audio collection of the 90-minute long audiocassette published in 1982 by the Hungarian October Free Press on the occasion of the 26th anniversary of the revolution]. London–Budapest: “Magyar Október” Szabadsajtó, 1981.

Apor, Péter. “Spectacular History: Photography, Film and Exhibitions in Representations of the Hungarian Soviet Republic after 1956.” The Hungarian Historical Review 3, no. 2 (2014): 337–62.

Árpási, Zoltán. Költő, az innenső parton [Poet on the near bank]. Arad: Irodalmi Jelen Könyvek, 2008.

A szabadság kapujában: A Szabad Európa Rádió emlékműsora a magyar forradalom és szabadságharc harmincadik évfordulóján. Részletek [At the doorstep of freedom: Radio Free Europe’s program commemorating the Hungarian revolution and freedom fight on the 30th anniversary. Excerpts]. Munich: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1988.

“Az MSZMP Ideiglenes Központi Bizottságának határozata, 1956. december 5. [Resolution of the provisional Central Committee of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party, December 5, 1956].” In A Magyar Szocialista Munkáspárt Határozatai és Dokumentumai 1956–1962 [Resolutions and Documents of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party], edited by Henrik Vass, 13–17. Budapest: MSZMP Központi Bizottság, Párttörténeti Intézet, 1964.

Benne, Christian. “Gegenständlichkeitsszenen.” In idem., Die Erfindung des Manuskripts: Zu Theorie und Geschichte literarischer Gegenstandlichkeit, 600–14. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2015.

Berecz, János. Ellenforradalom tollal és fegyverrel [Counterrevolution with pen and weapon]. Budapest: Kossuth, 1986.

Berecz, János. “Gondolatok a nemzet és a munkásmozgalom történetéről [Reflections on the history of nation and the labor movement].” Társadalmi Szemle 41, no. 6 (1986): 3–13.

Borbándi, Gyula. Magyarok az Angol Kertben: A Szabad Európa Rádió története [Hungarians in the English Garden: A history of Radio Free Europe]. Budapest: Mundus Magyar Egyetemi Kiadó, 2004.

Chion, Michel. La voix au cinéma. Paris: Editions de l’Etoile, [1984].

Gumbrecht, Hans Ulrich. Production of Presence: What Meaning Cannot Convey. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2004.

Gyáni, Gábor. “Kollektív emlékezet és történetírás: Kapcsolatuk ellentmondásossága [Collective memory and history writing: A contradictory relationship].” In idem., Az elveszíthető múlt: A tapasztalat mint emlékezet és történelem [The past that may be lost: Experience as memory and history], 68–84. Budapest: Nyitott Könyvműhely, 2010.

György, Péter. Néma hagyomány: Kollektív felejtés és a kései múltértelmezés [Mute tradition: Collective oblivion and belated interpretation of the past]. Budapest: Magvető, 2000.

Hann, Endre. “Éteri verseny: A Szabad Európa Rádió hallgatása a nyolcvanas években [Ethereal competition: Listening to Radio Free Europe in the 1980s].” Mozgó Világ 15, no. 4 [1989]: 47–50.

Hagen, Trever. “Calling Out to Tune In: Radio Free Europe in Czechoslovakia.” In Airy Curtains in the European Ether: Broadcasting and the Cold War, edited by Alexander Badenoch, Andreas Fickers, and Christian Henrich-Franke, 123–48. Baden-Baden: Nomos, 2013.

Hutton, Patrick. History as an Art of Memory. Hanover–London: University Press of New England, 1993.

Johnson, A. Ross. “To the Barricades: Did Radio Free Europe Inflame the Hungarian Revolutionaries of 1956? Exploring One of the Cold War’s Most Stubborn Myths.” Hoover Digest October 18, 2007, Accessed October 26, 2016. http://www.hoover.org/research/barricades.

“Kádár János 1956. november 1-jei rádióbeszéde [János Kádár’s radio speech on November 1, 1956].” Magyar Füzetek 9–10, (1981): 212–16.

Kittler, Friedrich A. Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, translated by Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Michael Wutz. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999.

Krämer, Sybille. “Negative Semiologie der Stimme.” In Medien/Stimmen, edited by Cornelia Epping-Jäger and Erika Linz, 65–82. Cologne: DuMont, 2003.

Lénárt, András. “Az erőszak tere: A budapesti pártbizottság 1956-os ostromának ábrázolásai [The square of violence: Representations of the siege of the Budapest Party Committee headquarters in 1956].” In Esemény, trauma, nyilvánosság [Event, trauma, publicity], edited by Mónika Dánél, Péter Fodor, and Péter L. Varga, 79–111. Budapest: Ráció, 2012.

Litván, György. “1956 emlékének szerepe a rendszerváltásban [The role of the memory of 1956 during the transition].” Beszélő 12, no. 1 (2007): 46–50.

Mink, András. “The Archives in Munich.” In Open Society Archives, edited by Leszek Pudłowski and Iván Székely, 39–45. Budapest: Open Society Archives at Central European University, 1999.

Poetics Today. Publish and Perish: Samizdat and Underground Cultural Practices in the Soviet Bloc, no. 4 (2008) and no. 1 (2009).

Révész, Sándor. Aczél és korunk [Aczél and our era]. Budapest: Sík, 1997.

Rév, István. “Just Noise? Impact of Radio Free Europe in Hungary.” In Cold War Broadcasting: Impact in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. A Collection of Studies and Documents, edited by A. Ross Johnson and R. Eugene Parta, 239–57. Budapest–New York: Central European University Press, 2010.

Rév, István. “The Enemy-archives.” In Open Society Archives, edited by Leszek Pudłowski and Iván Székely, 14–18. Budapest: Open Society Archives at Central European University, 1999.

Samizdat, Tamizdat, and Beyond: Transnational Media During and After Socialism. Edited by Friederike Kind-Kovács and Jessie Labov. New York: Berghahn, 2013.

Smith, Anthony D. “The ‘Golden Age’ and National Renewal.” In idem. The Antiquity of Nations, 211–35. Cambridge: Polity, 2004.

Steiner, Peter. “Introduction: On Samizdat, Tamizdat, Magnitizdat, and Other Strange Words That Are Difficult to Pronounce.” Poetics Today, no. 4 (2008): 613–20.

Szilágyi, Csaba. “Records of the Hungarian Unit.” In Open Society Archives, edited by Leszek Pudłowski and Iván Székely, 55–58. Budapest: Open Society Archives at Central European University, 1999.

Ungváry, Krisztián. “Egyenes út a csúcsra: Harangozó Szilveszter, egy állambiztonsági főcsoportfőnök karrierje [Direct route toward the peak: The career of Szilveszter Harangozó, a head of a main department of the state security].” Rubicon 18, no. 3 (2007): 29–35.

1 Observance on the 10th anniversary, Item no. 2303/66.; HU OSA 300-40-4 Box 9.

2 György, Néma hagyomány, 75.

3 Ibid., 100.

4 Ibid., 77.

5 Observance on the 10th anniversary, Item no. 2303/66.; HU OSA 300-40-4 Box 9.

6 Borbándi, Magyarok az Angol Kertben, 369.

7 I am grateful to András Mink for this metaphor and for his other critical comments.

8 Révész, Aczél és korunk, 359.

9 The third edition of Berecz’s book Ellenforradalom tollal és fegyverrel [Counterrevolution with pen and weapon] was actually published in 1986.

10 Révész, Aczél és korunk, 359–360.

11 „Ma is építünk a drágán szerzett, megszenvedett tapasztalatokra: Berecz János beszéde a Szolnok Megyei Tanács ünnepi ülésén” [Today we are still building on the dearly acquired experiences that we suffered: János Berecz’s speech on the ceremonial session of the Szolnok County Council], Népszabadság, November 5, 1986, 3.

12 “Az MSZMP Ideiglenes Központi Bizottságának határozata, 1956. december 5.”

13 Cf. László Rózsa, “Tragédiától sorsfordulóig” [From tragedy to a change of fortune], Népszabadság, November 1, 1986, 7.

14 The first three episodes are available at Vera and Donald Blinken Open Society Archives, Budapest. Call no. 306-0-4:24/2–4.

15 1. Pál Geszti, “Az az este, októberben [That night in October],” Magyar Hírlap, October 17, 1986, 3. Emphasis in the original.

16 Cf. G.L., “»Az életem muszterjével dolgozom…« Hogyan látja a rendező a Velünk élő történelmet?” [“I work with rushes of my life…” How does the director see Our Living History?], Magyar Nemzet, October 16, 1986, 6.

17 Ungváry, “Egyenes út a csúcsra,” 30–31.

18 Lénárt, “Az erőszak tere,” 81. For the Kádár era as a constant historiographical project and for the representation of counterrevolutionary violence see also Apor, “Spectacular History,” 337–62.

19 Velünk élő történelem, III. HU OSA Call no. 306-0-4:24/2–4.

20 Berecz, “Gondolatok a nemzet és a munkásmozgalom történetéről,” 12. Emphasis in the original.

21 Ibid.

22 Ibid.

23 Árpási, Költő, az innenső parton, 132–33.

24 Litván, “1956 emlékének szerepe,” 49.

25 Johnson, “To the Barricades.”

26 Mink, “The Archives in Munich,” 45.

27 Ibid.

28 Szilágyi, “Records of the Hungarian Unit,” 55.

29 Answering machines were also set up in Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia. On the latter case see: Hagen, “Calling Out to Tune in.”

30 See Borbándi, Magyarok az Angol Kertben, 378–80.

31 “A question such as ‘What’s the news at home?’ and the intimidated tourist already suspects some provocation” – a document casts light on the consequences of the socialist propaganda against RFE. Reaction to anti-RFE propaganda campaign, Item no. 1228/69; HU OSA 300-40-4 Box 9.

32 Telefonhívások 69, 8; HU OSA 300-40-14 Box 1.

33 Telefonhívások 68, 14; HU OSA 300-40-14 Box 1.

34 1956 – Napról napra. Szabad Európa Rádió, München, 1974, Petőfi Irodalmi Múzeum Médiatára, Saáry Éva hanggyűjteménye

35 Opinion on RFE, Item no. 1977/69.; HU OSA 300-40-4 Box 9.

36 Telefonhívások 72, 6–7; HU OSA 300-40-14 Box 1.

37 Rév, “The Enemy-archives,” 15.

38 Cf. with Derrida’s words in Ken McMullen’s film entitled Ghost Dance from 1983.

39 Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, 13.

40 Gumbrecht, Production of Presence, 94.

41 Ibid., 1–2.

42 Ibid., 17.

43 Ibid.

44 “Scene of listening” is used here in a way analogous to the term “scene of reading,” describing the objective complexity of the reading process. See Benne, “Gegenständlichkeitsszenen.”

45 Rév, “Just Noise?” 244.

46 Ibid., 244–45.

47 Ibid., 245.

48 Opinion on RFE, Item no. 1977/69.; HU OSA 300-40-4 Box 9.

49 Telefonhívások 68, 13; HU OSA 300-40-14 Box 1.

50 Opinion on RFE, Item no. 1977/69; HU OSA 300-40-4 Box 9.

51 Chion, La voix au cinéma, 29–41.

52 Krämer, “Negative Semiologie der Stimme,” 67.

53 Telefonhívások 72, 7; HU OSA 300-40-14 Box 1. Emphasis added.

54 Telefonhívások 37, 2; HU OSA 300-40-14 Box 1.

55 A szabadság kapujában, 213.

56 Of course, this was not the first time Kádár’s speech was replayed: “The Communists above all were affected by Kádár’s speech, which was a determined profession of faith in the armed revolution,” reported one listener in 1969. (Opinion on RFE, Item no. 1977/69.; HU OSA 300-40-4 Box 9.)

57 A szabadság kapujában, 213.

58 “Kádár János 1956. november 1-jei rádióbeszéde,” 212–16.

59 Sztálinváros, the name of which meant “Stalin City,” was intended to be a model socialist city; it essentially replaced the village of Dunapentele and in 1961 was renamed Dunaújváros, which roughly means “new city on the Danube River.”

60 Telefonhívások 72, 7; HU OSA 300-40-14 Box 1.

61 Smith, “The ‘Golden Age’ and National Renewal,” 227.

62 Ibid., 227–30.

63 Telefonhívások 12, 2; HU OSA 300-40-14 Box 1.

64 On the term “samizdat” see thematic issues of Poetics Today: “Publish and Perish: Samizdat and Underground Cultural Practices in the Soviet Bloc” (vol. 29, no. 4 [2008] and vol. 30, no. 1 [2009]) and Samizdat, Tamizdat, and Beyond.

65 Krämer, “Negative Semiologie der Stimme,” 67.

66 Steiner, “Introduction,” 613–20.

67 A magyar forradalom hangja.

68 Telefonhívások 68, 9–10; HU OSA 300-40-14 Box 1.

69 Telefonhívások 118, 4; HU OSA 300-40-14 Box 2.

70 Telefonhívások 121, 11; HU OSA 300-40-14 Box 2.

71 See A szabadság kapujában and Levelesláda (Rajki László, SZER, Hallgatók Fóruma), München, 1988. május 28., (MTI Hírarchívum 1988-2015, Rádiófigyelés).

72 Válasz a hallgatóknak (Láng Júlia, SZER, Hallgatók Fóruma), München, 1988. szeptember 24., (MTI Hírarchívum 1988–2015, Rádiófigyelés).

73 The book’s cover design was made by Ágnes Háy, Krassó’s common-law wife.

74 Magyar szamizdat (Kasza László, SZER), München, 1988. október 16., (MTI Hírarchívum 1988–2015, Rádiófigyelés).

75 Gyáni, “Kollektív emlékezet és történetírás,” 75. The author reflects on a train of thought written by Patrick Hutton (History as an Art of Memory).

76 Gumbrecht, Production of Presence, 111.

77 It is very hard to estimate the extent of radio audiences, listening habits, and the counter-cultural practices that evolved in connection with it. According to one estimate, about 23 percent of the adult population listened more or less regularly to the RFE in 1986-87, while the habit of listening to the radio was highly correlated to “word-of-mouth” communication, resulting in the wider dissemination of information (Hann, “Éteri verseny,” 47–50).

78 György, Néma hagyomány, 76.

Volume 5 Issue 4 CONTENTS


Socialist-Era New Yugoslav Feminism between “Mainstreaming” and “Disengagement”: The Possibilities for Resistance, Critical Opposition and Dissent1

Zsófia Lóránd

Lichtenberg-Kolleg, Georg-August-Universität, Göttingen


Through a focus on early publications by feminist intellectuals in Yugoslavia during the 1970s, this paper aims to demonstrate methods of feminist critique of the theory and practice of women’s emancipation in the context of a state socialist (in this case self-managing socialist) country in East Central Europe. After a brief overview of feminist organizing in Yugoslavia until the late 1980s, this paper looks at conferences and journal publications, which also provides the opportunity to better understand the workings of the Yugoslav public space and publishing processes. The text, written with a conceptual and intellectual historical focus, analyzes the discursive interventions and reformulations of matters related to women’s emancipation. The new Yugoslav feminist approaches rethought and reformulated the “women’s question.” Reading the prevailing currents of feminism in North America and Western Europe, feminists in Yugoslavia searched for ways to reframe this question into a critique that was constructive as well as innovative in its own context.

Keywords: Feminism, dissent, socialism, women’s question, Marxism, sisterhood.


“Criticism of the family and marriage […] is already the criticism of the state itself,” wrote Rada Iveković in 1981.2 This sentence reveals the essential role of feminism in post-Second World War East Europea[n socialist states, which, however, was an underrepresented discourse amid the variety of dissent, dissidence and countercultural criticism. The close reading of the work of feminists during the 1970s and 1980s in Yugoslavia, where feminism reappeared in a semi-organized form and with a wide range of activities—from intellectual discussion through artwork to explicit political activism—tells us a lot about the potential critiques of state-socialist women’s emancipation in general and thus it is relevant for the region of state-socialist Eastern Europe, while it also allows us to understand the specificities of self-managing Yugoslavia. In this paper, I focus on the early, mostly academic, publications by feminists in Yugoslavia in order to show some of the possibilities and actual meanings of feminist opposition in the context of a socialist state. I argue that their activity is somewhere in between the two ends of the scale that Linda Briskin calls “mainstreaming” and “disengagement,” between trying to negotiate their agenda into the official policies and self-organizing critical, external discourses and actions.3

My approach comes from intellectual and conceptual history. While conceptual history focuses on the meanings of the texts through a contextual reading, for feminist historiography, there is always an explicit political stake in recovering events of the past. In my reading, the two support each other in the sense that it is in the interest of feminist historiography to have meanings of concepts central to certain recovered ideologies, while the contextualism of intellectual history implicitly and often even explicitly subscribes to the importance of the personal within the political. The strategies behind feminist movements always necessarily involve an intervention with language and a struggle for meanings, the reconstruction of which is the primary aim of conceptual and intellectual history—which at the very same time respects the importance of the role of the personal and the individual as well.

The interpretative techniques I employ here focus on written sources, published (articles in newspapers, magazines, journals, as well as books) and unpublished (primarily archival documentation of activist work), artworks and videos, and also oral history interviews with the participants of the feminist groups. I base my analysis on the work and discourse of the members of feminist groups called Žena i društvo [Woman and Society] and their allies. I call the phenomenon in focus new Yugoslav feminism. Some publications and some members of the Žena i društvo use the term “neofeminizam,” that is “new feminism”—a name that not all participants, however, acknowledged. “New feminism” is also a general name widely used to describe that version of feminism, which in its diversity emerges in the 1960s in Western Europe and North America. This is what is mostly known today as the “second wave,” another problematic term I will try to avoid using, because it blends an at least 100-year-long complex history of feminist movements and discourses into one “wave.”4 However, for the Yugoslav feminists of the 1970s, the designation “new” refers to the pre-Second World War feminist history of the country, and this conscious admittance of continuity is important to highlight. The women and few men active in and around the Žena i društvo groups in Belgrade, Ljubljana and Zagreb were not a fixed and coherent group throughout the almost 20 years in focus in this paper. The individual stakes and life trajectories, the different intellectual approaches, the inherent differences within the local scenes intellectually and in the actual infrastructures make this a loose network, connected, however, by the shared fascination of a feminist critique of socialism in Yugoslavia.

The Return of Feminism

The story begins in the early 1970s: at this time, what we find in the open is journal publications and what we find backstage is a handful of young women and a few university professors. As we can see from the interviews and from their biographies, these women came from a rather homogeneous social background and, with two exceptions, were from the same generation. This generation was born after the Second World War to mothers who had a first-hand war experience and were themselves very often active participants of the partisan movement. Unlike their mothers, they were puzzled by the contradiction between the promise of the regime and their own experience of their own emancipation. They were also critical of the idea that their mothers had equality with men: the way they saw it, these women were far from having equal rights and status.5 Academia seemed to be a relatively safe space for the first tentative publications about “what is happening to American women.”6 The interest, of course, was not only in women in the United States: Europe and the “Third World” were on the radar too, especially Italy, England, France, Germany and India.

The new feminists in Yugoslavia could explore the possibilities of a feminist critique of state socialism in the space between the official and the unofficial.7 They started with meetings in each other’s homes, which later moved to the student centers and research institutes until they formed their own semi-institutions with the foundation of the SOS helplines and the shelters. There is a difference between the activities in the three major cities in which the Žena i društvo groups were organized. University seminars or talks took place mostly in Ljubljana and Zagreb, where the groups called Žena i društvo were part of post-secondary sociology departments. In Ljubljana, the ŠKUC, i.e., the Študentski kulturno-umetniški center [Students’ Cultural and Art Center], was an equally important venue at which the feminists shared the space with other countercultural and political groups, such the punk and green movements. The most important feature of the Ljubljana group was that lesbian women and straight or still closeted lesbian women worked together in the same group from the beginning. In the mid-1980s, the lesbian members played an increasingly defining role in Belgrade too. In Belgrade, the most important stronghold of new feminism was the SKC, the Students’ Cultural Center, where the director of the Gallery of the SKC, later the director of the whole institution, was Dunja Blažević. Under the auspices of the SKC, the first international feminist conference in Yugoslavia took place in 1978. Many women joined the feminist circles after attending this conference called Drug-ca žena: Novi pristup [Comrade-ess Woman: a New Approach].

This famous and canonical conference, however, was preceded by many publications (already in 1972)8 and a lot of brainstorming, even feminist presentations at the conferences organized by the state women’s organization, the Konferencija za društvenu aktivnost žena [Conference for the Social Participation of Women], that is, KDAŽ, first in 1976 in Portorož.9 In Belgrade, the SKC offered a series of discussions, the tribine. The conferences (the 1978 international one in Belgrade, and then the Yugoslav feminist conferences in 1987, 1988, 1989 and 1990) and the summer schools at the Inter-University Centre Dubrovnik beginning in 1987 were attracting the largest audiences and opened up to women who would otherwise not have attended the feminist meetings. After 1985, the small group meetings returned: these were a space in which personal experiences were emphasized (very similar to the consciousness-raising groups elsewhere) and the training groups for the SOS helplines for abused women and victims of domestic violence required the closed format. At the same time, because of the SOS helpline and the activities around it, the feminists reached a much wider audience, which could have even served as a basis for a wider grassroots movement had the war not broken out. The women and few men in the three cities cooperated very closely in the creation of these helplines, sharing knowledge and experience.

During the early phase that is the focus of this paper, journal publications were of crucial importance. Because of the influence of some professors and the openness of some women officials in the KDAŽ, some of the young women and men could participate in the conferences and editorial work of the journal Žena [Woman]. As we shall see and as research shows, some of the women indeed were dedicated to the betterment of women’s position in society, to such an extent that they were willing to give space to the feminist ideas of young women—ideas with which they themselves did not agree. This makes Žena an interesting case study of inter-generational and inter-ideological encounters.

Meanwhile, the array of journals accepting feminist articles was extended relatively quickly. From 1975 on, it included social science and humanities journals such as Pitanja [Questions], Naše teme [Our topics], Argumenti [Arguments], Ideje [Ideas], Socijalizam u svetu [Socialism in the World], Republika [Republic], etc., and in the 1980s Problemi [Problems] in Slovenia. The student journals Mladina in Ljubljana and Student and Vidici [Views] in Belgrade also provided important forums for new feminist discussions, which is not by accident: the youth organizations enjoyed relative freedom from state control in their activities.10 With time, the feminist articles reached a wider audience through newspapers and weeklies, such as Danas [Today] and Start, as well as women’s magazines, such as Bazar published in Belgrade, Svijet [World] in Zagreb and Jana in Ljubljana.11 Naša žena [Our women], another print medium in Ljubljana, was a magazine situated on the spectrum between the more serious Žena, which still followed the party lines regarding the women’s question, and the popular women’s magazines (some of which, such as Bazar and Svijet, occasionally did publish feminist articles). The full picture of the feminist discussions, however, includes art, literature, as well as literary and art theory, besides the academic discussions and the activist work. Because of the curators at the SKC, art and literature were extensively present in the feminist programs, including the flourishing artists from Zagreb such as Sanja Iveković. Possibilities for feminist writing were presented and discussed through the work of Irena Vrkjlan, Dubravka Ugrešić and Biljana Jovanović, among others.

The history of the new Yugoslav feminism has its own periodization, while it was running parallel with the new or second wave feminisms in the “West” after the beginnings in the early 1970s, which was characterised by private (kitchen table) conversations and academic publishing, there was a turn around the years 1985–86, called a “second wave” by many, when group members wanted a change in the work of the groups that would serve to focus more on activism and consciousness-raising in small, women-only groups. The next phase in their story started around 1990, when more and more new and much more diverse groups were born out of the Žena i društvo circles and went in different directions. These directions ranged from political and anti-war activism through a more spelled-out LGBTQ activism to anti-violence activism and institutionalization of feminist knowledge through the creation of women’s studies or gender studies centers and departments at universities or parallel to them.12

The type of critique the feminists in Yugoslavia articulated towards the system is hard to compare to any other form of opposition in the region at the time. While there is a temptation to attribute the phenomenon to the exceptionality of Yugoslav self-managing socialism,13 the situation is more complex than that. Due to the organization of the state, the KDAŽ, the student centers as well as the journals and magazines (those in various constellations) were working under the umbrella of the SSRNJ [Socijalistički savez radnog naroda Jugoslavije – Socialist Alliance of Working People of Yugoslavia].14 This, as I explain later in this paper was, however, far from a complete freedom of the press, but there were just enough cracks in the wall that a wide selection ideas, including feminist ones, could reach the public. In addition to the legal and infrastructural circumstances, there is a crucial source of historical inspiration that is also part of the explanation: the large numbers of women involved in the partisan movement,15 their active participation in the National Liberation Struggle and the basis this gave to the extensive emancipation of women after the Second World War, which indeed did entail substantial societal change.16 (Although it is beyond the scope of this paper, there is important current research on the state violence exerted against women in Yugoslavia in addition to the literature on women’s emancipation.)17 Besides these two factors, I would emphasize the importance of contingency: that these women in the Žena i društvo groups met, decided to like each other, decided to focus on feminism, decided to organize the women-only discussion forums and made smaller- and larger-scale decisions that subsequently defined their path. It was the path to feminism, instead of liberalism, deconstruction, Marxist revisionism, nationalism, to mention a few schools that did flourish at the time in the other socialist countries in the region despite the prevailing censorship, despite the lack of a partisan tradition and despite the closed borders.18

Dissent, Resistance, Mainstreaming and Disengagement

The new Yugoslav feminists held a position vis-à-vis the state that was between opposition and inner critique. The entire post-socialist master narrative deserves a more refined approach in order that they not “implicitly and explicitly reproduce binary categories of the Cold War and the opposition between ‘first world’ and ‘second world’,” thus ignoring the ethical and aesthetic complexities of socialist life.19 For various reasons, new Yugoslav feminism is a case par excellence of the productive encounter of discourses. Engaging in a dialogue with the state, building on its promise of gender equality, the new Yugoslav feminists do not directly oppose the Yugoslav state, but see the place of women there as constant opposition. The disappointment of this new generation of young women is similar to the experience of the feminists in the United States and Western Europe and this aspect should be constantly kept in mind when we discuss the difference between the so-called East and the so-called West. Despite the differences in the economic and political systems, the new feminist movement and ideology was born out of a disappointment with the promises of left politics, that is, with the socialist regime in Yugoslavia and the new left, the civil rights movements and the anti-war movements in Western Europe and North America.20

The new Yugoslav feminists learned about the situation of women in the West and the criticism of existing democracies through the inner, feminist dissidence,21 thus they were inspired and critical of Western capitalist democracies at the same time, unlike, for example, the liberal dissident groups in Central Europe. The new Yugoslav feminism, as we shall see, voiced strict criticism through pointing out the systemic nature of the oppression of women, thematizing women’s sexuality and, most importantly, being the first to thematize the violence that women endure without the intervention of the system. Their claim is that the state did not change the status quo, one of their conclusions being that once the regime was built on patriarchy it became ideologically impossible for women to achieve real equality.

I call the new feminist discourse in Yugoslavia a critical one, more similar in its attempt to engage the state in a dialogue than refusing it per se as most dissidence does. In the meantime, it makes sense to look at this new feminism in light of dissenting discourses because of the dissenting status of feminism elsewhere and because of the windows the dissidents themselves offer for this.22 The new feminists in Yugoslavia did not publish in samizdat nor were they imprisoned for their writings. However, they were in search of critical or oppositional positions within the state’s mainstream. They created a micro space in which nonconformist ideas could be discussed and critical thoughts disseminated outside the official classroom space and in which new research was done despite the resistance of the institutions.

Sharon Zukin, looking at “possibilities of dissent” in Yugoslavia, argues that “[i]n states that claim to operate on the basis of a Marxist ideology, there is an enormous vulnerability to dissent because of the gap between theory and practice. In capitalist states, dissent arises in more limited institutional contexts, notably over the excesses of administrative agencies or the dishonesty of executive authorities.”23 Zukin claims that due to the framework, the activity of Đilas or the Praxis group is closer to “whistle-blowing” in the United States than to East European dissidence. In the meantime, she also debates the “liberalism” of the Yugoslav state, suggesting rather discussing different strategies of control, such as creating a controlled space within the state: “neither self-management nor market socialism is as central to Yugoslav development as the relatively non-coercive strategies of labor mobilization and capital accumulation that the leadership established in response to internal and external pressures beginning in 1947 and 1948. And it is wrong to characterize these strategies as liberalism.”24 Even for critical intellectual positions, a publication in a scholarly journal or in the form of poetry could entail severe consequences.25 Editors of journals could also be dismissed by the “publisher” of the journal, i.e., the associations, companies, social, political, educational and other specialized professional institutions26 that were working under the umbrella of the SSRNJ.27

Besides the organizational aspect, according to the data provided by Pedro (Sabrina) Ramet, 80 per cent of journalists were party members and the information published about politics and the economy was acquired mostly via governmental channels. Robinson confirms Ramet’s thesis: based on research regarding “freedom of criticism in various Yugoslav elites,” journalists tend to be less critical than other groups of the Yugoslav decision-making élite.28 Part of the explanation for this tendency lies in the highly political process of their selection. Furthermore, there were annual reviews of the media products and the supervising body, like the publisher’s councils under the authority of the SSRNJ, which could issue warnings, impose penalties on editors, or even dismiss them and the journalists who wrote articles the council found unacceptable. In some cases, issues of journals or newspapers could be banned or confiscated. In the case of those newspapers, journals or magazines that were funded by the SKJ or the SSRNJ, the end of funding meant the end of the medium as well, the most famous example being the journal Praxis.29

The new Yugoslav feminists, therefore, did not face the same level of persecution that the dissidents of Central European countries or the Soviet Union did.30 On the other hand, there is barely any talk about the situation of women in the work of dissidence in Central Europe and the Soviet Union: they overlook the shortcomings of state socialism in this regard, which largely defines the possibilities of thinking about feminism in their discourse after 1989. The difficulties of developing a feminist movement in the new democracies in East Central Europe have been raised by many authors.31 In countries that offer a rich and compelling discussion of human rights, freedom of speech and social justice, the violation of women in the private sphere and exclusion of women from the public gets little attention, an issue that, with few exceptions, has not been examined by existing scholarship until very recently. The new Yugoslav feminist criticism of the state, although it was not a dissident group per se, but something between cooperation and dissidence, helps us to understand what would have been the opportunities in other East European countries to develop a feminist dissidence. The case of new Yugoslav feminism explains to us how the ambivalent emancipation offered by the state socialist regimes made it impossible for dissidents who by the 1980s almost entirely gave up on Marxism to relate to a feminism that had to at least partly acknowledge some of the improvements in the situation of women in socialist countries.32

Investigating Possibilities of a Feminist Critique of Marxian Thought and Yugoslav Socialism

Through their textual interventions, the new Yugoslav feminists not only opposed the state, they also stretched the boundaries of the ways academia thinks of itself and the ways the state presents the position of women in Yugoslavia. Through the reading of new feminist texts from the United States and Western Europe as well as critical Marxist texts from different schools of thought and sometimes even through philosophy from India, the new feminist discourse in Yugoslavia attributes new meanings to the concept of feminism itself. Their political action in academic discussions is rather a discursive one: balancing between disengagement and mainstreaming,33 they try to create a new language to talk about women’s emancipation and the relations between men and women. This involves not only redefining what feminism means, but also the reconceptualization of consciousness, women’s universal experience, patriarchy, family, work, “homosexuality,”34 the relationship between the private and the public as well as the introduction of the concept of gender.

The theme of the relations between the communists and the women’s movement is paradigmatic for the focus of the discourse, inasmuch that leftist, Marxist and socialist feminisms from all over the world prevail in the new Yugoslav feminist intertexts. This always linked the feminist discussions to the broader frame of Yugoslav state socialist ideology. Both the context and the audience, i.e., the community of the text’s implied readers (including the fellow authors in this very issue of the journal Dometi [Throw], mostly from the Žena i društvo group), support this interpretation. There is a debate about a new approach (novi pristup) to the women’s question (žensko pitanje) in Yugoslavia, which for the protagonists of my text is more or less explicitly the new feminism, neofeminizam. In several introductions of journal special issues, the editors openly admit that their quest aims to learn from the feminists elsewhere—the difference is in the scale of how many positive elements they find and to what extent is it the negative examples that teach about paths not to be taken. Therefore, it is not only Žarana Papić in the more independent youth journal Student in 1976 (cf. below), but also several articles in Žena and other journals, such as Argumenti (publishing a documentation of the legendary 1978 Drug-ca žena conference) that give voice to the opinion framed by Mirjana Oklobdžija in Dometi “that even today, in all societies to a smaller or greater extent, women are ‘second rate citizens.’”35

Instead of the state-offered discourse on the women’s question (žensko pitanje), investigations of the ideas of the new feminism bring along a conceptual replacement of the former with the latter. Texts started to emerge only in the early 1970s: reports on the new feminist movement in the United States and various countries of Western Europe, from time to time even South America and Asia, were also published. In reflection on the proclaimed success of women’s emancipation in Yugoslavia, there are at least two parallel stories about feminisms “elsewhere” with emphasis on the “new feminism.” Telling the story of new feminisms in the world involves evaluation and therefore reveals the opinion of the authors, in the manner of which these can be read as manifestos on behalf of the authors. Especially in case of those Yugoslav new feminists who, either as young scholars, like Rada Iveković or Žarana Papić, or as established professors, like Blaženka Despot or Gordana Bosanac, were attempting to introduce a new, competing ideology for which the innocent-looking informative introductions to the currents of “new feminism” in other countries proved to be a good strategy.

In exploring the different strategies aimed at gaining a place in the discourse for new feminism through transfers and translations, I read Rada Iveković’s review on Italian feminism as an implicit programmatic text for the new feminism in Yugoslavia. The article was published almost ten years after the first endeavors to understand the new feminist phenomena, the time being mature enough for making explicit claims of themes and concepts. In Iveković’s article,36 feminism is presented through the history of the Italian communists, which bears many similarities to the history of Yugoslav communists. What makes the text programmatic is the way the author makes an attempt to reconcile the relationship between the women’s movement and the communists – in Italy. The story Iveković presents can be read as an implicit parabolic tale for how the relationship of feminism and the communist party should take shape in Yugoslavia. It does tell the story without explicitly pointing out the similarities, though these similarities nevertheless stand out.

The article begins with the emphasis on the proletarian roots of the women’s movement, which outweigh the traditions of the civil-rights-based bourgeois roots. Iveković discusses in detail the situation and its consequences when the more radical and revolutionary women at the fin-de-siècle joined the Socialist Party of Italy (SPI), which in 1911 severed the ties with the bourgeois women’s groups that were demanding franchise for women. This meant the “liquidation of the women’s question,” with the elimination of the claim for suffrage, which was otherwise also supported by the revolutionary feminists. The SPI’s argument was that this issue did not concern either the class struggle or the working class and thus the paths of the communists and the women’s movement parted for a lengthy period of time. According to Iveković, the interwar period brought along the recognition that there was need for a separate proletarian women’s movement, because the working class is ruled by conservative prejudice against women. However, not much changed in the interwar period, when the major issue was the struggle against fascism and women’s emancipation was present only as a remnant from the previous century (“instead of the swing of the revolutionary flame”).

After the overview of the changes after the Second World War, including the guarantee of the franchise for women, Iveković summarizes the conclusion for the new Italian feminists: despite the normative questions being solved and the laws having been changed “in bourgeois society,” the patriarchal mentality prevailed, proving to be the main barrier to women’s liberation (37). This conclusion is followed by a positive evaluation of the appearance of neofeminizam in Italy in the years 1968–69, which stemmed from the new left movements and student protests, from the experience that even within the student movement women face the same marginalization and discrimination. Feminism in Italy, Iveković concludes, is “without doubt an oppositional movement in relation to the existing social order” as “masses of women, mostly young ones, cannot identify with a single existing political party, not even in the left” (39, emphasis mine). Besides this left-wing feminism, Iveković mentions “that other feminism,” “bourgeois and sexist, which identifies men as the enemy” This idea comes up in other texts I analyze below, addressing the juxtaposition of “good” and “bad” feminisms.

The importance and specificity of neofeminizam in Italy lay in highlighting various topics, which repeatedly return as central concepts of the new Yugoslav feminist discourse: women’s creativity in the arts and the humanities, the debates about sexuality (in Italy mostly with regard to the right to contraception and abortion), consciousness-raising – and through this, the relations between the public and the private, domestic violence and sexual violence. The article ends with the optimistic conclusion: “It is encouraging [to see] that all women with a leftist orientation in Italy are in accord in their struggle, regardless of whether they belong or do not belong to regular parties. Because they all belong to the women’s movement in a broad sense. This way, today even communist women proudly announce that they are also feminists (44).” The story Iveković tells, with the closure about the success of the feminists, makes the reader think of this as a path to follow.

The implied conclusions for the new Yugoslav feminism are manifold. The argument that the roots of the women’s movement, both in the late nineteenth century—fin-de-siècle (first wave) and in the 1960s (second wave), are deeper in the worker’s movement and the in the political left in general addresses both the state establishment and those who want to join the new groups and share the ideas. Further elements of the analysis, which can be directly translated into the current Yugoslav context, are those of the relations between the SPI and the women’s movements in the interwar period and during the Second World War, highlighting the parallel between the NOB (Narodna oslobodilačka borba – People’s Liberation Struggle) and the Alijansa ženskih pokreta [Alliance of the Women’s Movements] and the feminist examination of the reasons for which women’s equality had not been achieved despite the new post-Second World War legislation meant to ensure equality. The ambiguous relationship between the SPI and the women’s movement as allies and rivals of each other is clarified when Iveković points out the oppositional nature of the movement.

The closure of the article is of major significance from a terminological perspective: whereas Iveković does not differentiate between the use of the terms women’s movement and feminism throughout the article, here she makes a distinction. To her, the two concepts are synonymous—women’s movements are based on feminist ideology—and it is a significant development in the Italian context that communist women support feminism. In the meantime, Iveković clarifies the agenda and therefore the meaning of new feminism, which is defined along themes and concepts that are recurrently present in the Yugoslav case as well.

The recognition of different women’s movements and, therefore, feminisms leads to the description of the different currents of feminism through opposing pairs in the early Yugoslav publications. These texts categorize feminism according to the distinction between radical revolutionary women’s movements (Marxist) and bourgeois movements, on the one hand, and extremist (radical, hyper-feminist) movements as opposed to the moderate (socialist, Marxist) movements on the other hand. The two oppositions are clearly contradict one another and represent a certain socialist conservatism when it comes to self-expression.

Silva Mežnarić, a sociologist and editor of the journal Žena who lived both in Zagreb and Ljubljana and was a member of the KDAŽ Croatia in 1972 and joined the feminist group Žena i društvo, initiated a series of articles introducing American feminism. The “series” ended after two articles and feminism as a topic returns on the pages of Žena only in 1975 with the United Nations’ “Year of Women” in 1975, which was followed by the “Decade of Women”, lasting until 1985. Mežnarić’s first article in 1972 bears the investigative title “What is Happening to the American Woman?”37 Her claim is that she wants to demystify the way this “socially-ideationally relevant phenomenon” (57) had been presented in the media up to then. She emphasizes that new feminism is not only relevant in the society in which it originates, alluding to the Yugoslav situation, and adds that her aim is not to judge, rather to represent based on the work of other researchers. Using analyses from economics and sociology, the author shows the economic and social problems American women face, including employment and reproduction. Mežnarić’s conclusion is that the situation of women in both communist and capitalist modernized societies legitimizes feminist claims.

A few years later, in 1976 in Portorož, at the first official conference about women in which the new Yugoslav feminists participated, Gordana Cerjan-Letica mentioned the problem of the lack of knowledge of and limited access to information about new feminism in Yugoslavia. To her, this is the reason for “so many non-objective and scholarly non-justifiable criticism by us against the feminist movement.”38 In this other publication from the same year, Cerjan-Letica prepared an overview of feminism that discussed the issues of radicalism in feminism.39 Summarizing the past ten years of American new feminism, she noticed that radical feminists “in the track of the sensibility of the New Left” politicize “the most human and most hidden spheres of human life–such as the family, marriage, sexuality”(8).

Other authors approached American radical feminists with much more caution. A selection of texts by the members of the Žena i društvo group was published in a 1978 issue of Pitanja entitled “Women, or about Freedom.” The issue claims to be about the žensko pitanje and not feminism, while most of the inspiring and quoted texts and the questions posed are those of new feminism. The Sarajevo-based social scientist, Nada Ler-Sofronić, provided a thought-provoking new theoretical-methodological framework based on a critical reading of new feminist theory from the West for dealing with women’s inequality in Yugoslavia. The selection of authors is colorful and while she is dismissive of Shulamith Firestone for her “extremeness,” “overvaluation of women’s characteristics” and for overemphasizing “women’s nature,”40 she is appreciative of Betty Friedan. Whereas Friedan is often criticized by left-wing feminists both in the United States and elsewhere for her bourgeois lens of analysis, Ler-Sofronić realises that Friedan criticizes bourgeois values when speaking of the lives of bourgeois women. She finds the idealization of women by the radical feminist Firestone more problematic: authors like Firestone are “mistakenly” called “radical,” reclaiming “radicalism” as a synonym for “revolutionary” (21).

Jasna Tkalec also welcomed “radical legislative change,” in this case in France. She embraced the French “new feminism” born in the aftermath of May 1968, which had a radical agenda with “the radical demands for the equality of sexual morals for men and women, loudly seeking rehabilitation from a Freudian position of women’s erotica, the sexuality of children and adolescents and even of homosexuality.”41 This text, inspired by Edgar Morin’s essay in the volume La Femme majeure42 interprets the new French feminism as a human-rights movement (1162), whereas it realizes that, despite the similarities between the feminist discourse and those of Marxism and “decolonialism,” women cannot be treated either as a class or as an ethnic group. Tkalec suggests looking at women as a “bio-social class” and valorizes the potential of the radical demands within the women’s movement (i.e., new feminism), which introduces a specific culture of revolution to the West (1167). The radical demand of the new feminism involves “a reanalysis of the entire social system with regard to the past and future as well. This research raises and actualizes fundamental social and scientific problems and rephrases them in a completely new way” (1167).

A colorful image of feminism unfolds from this range of highly different texts. Revolution in feminism has the appreciation of the authors, while radicalism is already ambiguous. The attributed meanings vary from positive, for example in the sense of “revolutionary,” to problematic as much as it is “bourgeois.” Bourgeois feminism is unanimously criticized by all authors. Another characteristic of the early steps the new feminists in Yugoslavia took is the strategy of suggesting that at the new manifestations of feminism be regarded as relevant due to the “universal experience” of women from the perspective of the ideas presented and from the perspective of “our still patriarchal environment.”43 Universality is useful not only as a “disguise” of the dissenting ideas, but as a category countering the idea that the solution to the class questions is a solution to the women’s question as well.

One of the early examples appears in an issue of Student, edited by Žarana Papić and Ivan Vejvoda in 1976 (a rare case in which only foreign material is presented in translation). It includes texts from Robin Morgan’s edited volume Sisterhood is Powerful by Zoe Moss and Pat Mainardi (from the Redstockings group, which belongs to the above- mentioned “radical” Women’s Liberation groups), an interview with Luce Irigaray by Cathèrine Clément that appeared originally in La Nouvelle Critique, one text by Marie-Thérèse Baudrillard from Politique Hebdo and an excerpt from Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex. What they state in the introduction may not look extremely complicated:

It is interesting to get acquainted with insights of the new thinking of the “problem” of women, her speech (govor), agency (delanje) and living (življenje), and this through a mosaic of broad elements, from analytical-theoretical approaches to personal statements. Though here it is seemingly only about “foreign experience,” a lot of this experience of women is universal.44


The introduction does not identify the selection of texts as feminist, but it also avoids the term žensko pitanje through use of “the ‘problem’ of women,” where the quotation marks distance the authors from identifying with those who consider women a “problem.” The terms agency and speech point toward the language of the new feminism as does the selection from the more avant-garde or radical texts, which, by other authors in the Yugoslav publications, are dismissed for various reasons. The reasons for this can be well organized around the evaluation of and reservation to a stream of feminism as radical, revolutionary or extremist on the one hand, and reactionary-bourgeois on the other hand. The identification or appreciation of these varieties of feminism is rather divergent and needs to be treated in the “revolutionary Yugoslav” context.

The choices of Papić and Vejvoda reflect an appreciation of the radical stream of American feminism as well as of the more theoretical, but rather avant-garde, French wave. The tendency to affiliate oneself with the socialist Western feminists and thus legitimate the introduction of these ideas into the local context prevails in the Yugoslav new feminist context, however, in this case there is also an attempt to reconcile the complex theoretical approach of Irigaray (and elsewhere, Hélène Cixous and Julia Kristeva) with an expectation that writing about society serves the revolutionary change in that very society. The cross-reading of radical feminism with French post-structuralism is an “invention” of the Yugoslav feminists and here is made explicit by the choice of an interview with Irigaray, conducted by Catherine Clément, instead of an excerpt from her Speculum de l’autre femme45 with regard to which the interview was made.46 For discussing the social use of theories, writings and artworks, Clément returns to the concept of struggle (borba in Serbo-Croatian and lutte/combat in French). Clément’s choice of the word has a new relevance in the new context of the space defined by the success ideology of the NOB. This was followed by smaller-scale “struggles” for the fulfilment of the aims of self-managing socialism.

Clément contextualizes Irigaray within 1968 as a movement: “Where, what kind of a relation do you think you have with women’s struggle? The question is all the more important since your book was not a book which we would usually call as one designed for struggles?”47 Irigaray explains her position, which she begins with the assertion that to her, all philosophical discussions have political implications:


Maybe we should go that far that we say there is no “politics” of women that does not take shape either in the form of apolitical statements or disavowal of the political, this is already a demand (zahtjev) which must be fulfilled. [...] In the meantime, if the starting point of women’s struggle (borba) is simply to get to the steering wheel of power, then women wanted what they don’t [want] to be subordinated to the phallic order. […] However, we need to be constantly and without mistakes alert. Phallocracy most probably still has not exhausted all its resources. Are we not witnesses to how today men overtake the women’s question (žensko pitanje)? It is important for them to be able to keep the initiative within the[ir] discourse.48


What Irigaray does in her Speculum is political and radical. Her radicalism is read into a Yugoslav context in which radicalism is read as revolutionary struggle. Through this reading in Student, Irigaray is brought into a dialogue with American second-wave radicalism (even though radicalism assumes different meanings in the original contexts of French theory and the U.S. movement) as she identifies the need for radical (down to the roots) change in the discourse conveying power relations. Getting positions in the existing phallic [phallogocentric] order does not change the discourse and the place of women within that discourse. The “women’s question” gets appropriated by male political actors and immersed into the existing order; Irigaray does not spell it out here, however—her train of thought reminds of the dichotomy between the use of the concept of the “women’s question” and the use of the concept “feminism”, with the underlying political and strategic implications. As feminism takes the women’s question out of the patriarchal context, it means taking the initiative and means intervention into the discourse.

Radicalism, and in relation to that, revolution and the revolutionary nature of an ideology or movement, is a recurrent theme in the new Yugoslav feminist writings of the 1970s and early 1980s and is a crucial factor in their self-positioning within the Yugoslav discursive space, simultaneously adjusting to and challenging the status quo. As we have seen above, Iveković, for example, based on Anna Maria Mazzoni’s classification, identifies the revolutionary branch of Italian feminism as progressive and points it out as exemplary; however, she refrains from calling it “radical.” One of the articles in the hereby analyzed issue of Student, from Sisterhood is Powerful by Pat Mainardi, discusses the “politics of housework,” which is not only relevant from the point of the relations between the private and the public, but also for a statement that identifies the “women’s liberation movement” as “revolution.”49 Here we find a conceptually fascinating distinction between radical revolutionary women’s movements and bourgeois women’s movements, on the one hand, and extremist (radical) ones as opposed to the moderate (socialist) ones on the other.

In Catherine Clément’s previously analyzed interview with Luce Irigaray, Clément and Irigaray agree on the need for a radical change of discourse and then they go even further via Irigaray’s answer to Cléments’s question of whether she thinks the “class struggle” would sufficiently describe these power relations. Irigaray points out that this is exactly the reason for which radical change is needed: men “overtake the women’s question.” Irigaray turns the question around and suggests that class be translated into “men and women” and then adds: “Or, we should admit that today’s praxis of Marxism is not willing to acknowledge this difference and this exploitation of women.”50 This takes us to another crucial question dividing the state discourse and the new feminist discourse, considering whether solving the class question automatically solves gender equality and makes women’s oppression disappear. Irigaray resists this idea by emphasizing that Marxism, at its present stage, is not sufficient. This is in contrast with the claims of the KDAŽ, even with regard to the International Year of Women, when the problems women faced were thematized, or the introductions in books like Đorđević’s Žensko pitanje, which treat the work of Marx, Engels and the early Marxists as not very detailed, but in principle authoritative with regard to the women’s question and which persistently take the žensko pitanje back to the realization of općeljudske emancipacije.

Whereas in the local feminist mythology the 1976 Portorož conference does not hold the same place as 1978, looking at the documentation of the debate we find most of the most important ideas of the new Yugoslav feminists there.51 At this time, Gordana Bosanac and Anđelka Milić were members of the editorial board of the journal and Lydia Sklevický, Vesna Pusić, Nadežda Čačinovič-Puhovski, Silva Mežnarić and Gordana Cerjan-Letica all participated in the conference. Members of the editorial board apparently had to explain themselves for the appearance of the feministička grupacija at the meeting, offering a variety of understandings of what feminism is: “it is important to differentiate between the feminist movement in its basic starting point and of a provocation for a fight against the male sex and the […] progressive movement of women who search for a way for their own action […] for the political, economic, cultural and other forms of development in their own country.”52 The introduction, however, emphasizes the importance of the Marxist stakes in the issue of women and the family, especially the contributions of Vranicki and Šoljan to the conference. So does the closing speech by Breda Pavlić, with the usual conclusion that, on the one hand, many of the demands of the Western feminists have been provided to women in Yugoslavia and, on the other hand, that if feminists want to achieve their goals, they have to return to Marx.53 This happens only to a certain extent: there is a left-wing, most often Marxist, inclination in the feminist theories written by the new Yugoslav feminists, but they almost unanimously refuse to subsume women’s equality to the class question.

Despite the editorial board’s gesture to diminish the significance of the feminist participants, they claim the legitimacy of new feminism. Sklevický, in highlighting the importance of the “history of forgotten sisters,” describes the transition from the “old” feminism to the new wave, which realizes that basic rights do not ensure real gender equality, and therefore demands a liberation from gender roles through various actions.54 The English-language new or second-wave canon was introduced by Gordana Cerjan-Letica, for instance, Firestone; Friedan; Greer; Millett; Margaret Dixon; and Margaret Benston. Cerjan-Letica argued for the alignment of feminism with socialism: “the goal of a non-repressive civilization is there within all heterogeneous left-wing movements,” while refusing to treat women as a class.55 This, in her reading, makes feminism more radical in its demands for equality. Vesna Pusić addresses the anti-, or rather, post-feminist arguments: at first feminism may appear aggressive or explosive—it may even be accused of theoretical incoherence; “however, if we approach it as a manifestation of one broad, global theory, we will much more easily get the dimension of the universality it contains. In other words, even if it is not a theory in itself, it presents a manifestation and is integral part of one broad theory of social change and dialectical development of society.”56

By the time the 1978 conference took place in Belgrade, the new Yugoslav feminists became more and more conscious of radical feminism being closer to their own vision of feminism, revaluation what “radical” and “military” means, with reference to the revolutionary partisan tradition as a source of legitimacy. An effective strategy of Vesna Kesić in the magazine Start is to compare the feminist movement to the workers’ movement. The comparison is triggered by Kesić’s annoyance with the “militant” epitheton ornans of all feminisms in all times, also present in the state representatives’ discussion of feminism. While it is hard to see what it means, writes Kesić, “this is as if the workers on strike would be advised not to choose such a ‘militant’ way of fighting,” and “fighting” here is a “re-vindication of one’s rights.”57 Clearly, a political system supporting the workers in all places to stand up for their rights and heralding the workers being self-managers of their lives in Yugoslavia as well as women’s equality cannot afford labelling women voicing the exact same “militant” demands. In the very same magazine, Slavenka Drakulić reflects at length on the role and challenges of feminism “as a revolutionary movement.”58 Nada Ler-Sofronić even reclaims “radical” for those revolutionary leftist ideas she agrees with: due to its essentialism, she suggests that Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex from 1970 is incorrectly categorized as “radical” and that it is rather “extreme” feminism.59


The quest for meanings of feminism and the possibilities to employ feminist ideas for change—slow and transitional or radical change—in the position of women in Yugoslavia lies behind the early intellectual endeavors of the new Yugoslav feminists. Whether looking at Italian feminism in historical perspective or investigating recent feminist theories and movements, the aim is always to see the relevance of these for the Yugoslav case. The theoretical criticisms shed light on the contradictions within the emancipation project promised by the socialist state and its implementation. It is, however, this promise on behalf of the state that makes the relationship with the feminist groups multi-layered and instead of being dissident (which many radical feminist groups become in other countries),60 the position of the new Yugoslav feminists vis-à-vis the state is critical or dissenting. This position is made easier by the flexibilities within the Yugoslav regime as much as the access to institutions and publication possibilities is concerned. The systematic reading of theories, especially their discussion and their publication, was made possible at least in part by these infrastructures and the discursive practices and linguistic interventions paved the way for activism. They formulated a critique of the socialist regimes that no other opposition group could. Thus they reformulated the relevance of feminism in the region and by challenging the policies and institutions introduced by the socialist governments to achieve the equality of women and men, they offer a different vision of women’s emancipation and gender equality.



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1 This paper is based on my PhD dissertation, “Learning a Feminist Language: The Intellectual History of Feminism in Yugoslavia in the 1970s and 1980s,” submitted and defended at the Central European University in 2015. I also rely extensively on my articles “‘Nem osztálykérdés, nem biológiai meghatározottság.’ A feminista ellenzék elméleti keretei a Tito alatti Jugoszláviában” and another one entitled “New Feminist Identity and Politics through Conceptual Transfers and Activist Inspirations in Yugoslavia in the 1970–80s” in the collective volume edited by Joachim Haeberlen and Mark Szajbel Keck (to be published in 2017).

2 Iveković, “Indija je nijema žena,” 101.

3 Briskin, “Feminist Practice.” The political scientists Juan J. Linz and Alfred Stepan, delineate the concepts of “ethical civil society” and “political society.” In that framework, which was applied to Central European dissent by Alan Renwick, new Yugoslav feminism would be closer to political society in which the dissenting group still chooses to engage the state in some form of dialogue. Linz and Stepan, Problems of Democratic Transition; Renwick, “Anti-Political or Just Anti-Communist?,” 287.

4 Davis, Moving the Mountain, 27–28, and Hewitt, “Introduction,” 1–2.

5 Cf. Sharon Zukin about Praxis: “For several older members of this group, the collective odyssey in dissent began in an unlikely way, in teenage heroism with the Partisans during World War II. […] They were still party members and, unlike Đilas, remained in the party until the late 1960s.” Zukin, “Sources of Dissent and Nondissent in Yugoslavia,” 131.

6 Mežnarić, “Što se događa s amerićkom ženom?”

7 Even though most literature does not refer to Yugoslav self-managing socialism as “state socialism,” I use the term to differentiate the political regimes in post-Second World War Eastern Europe from socialist ideas, diverse as they are, and to strengthen my argument that the feminist critique in Yugoslavia may be relevant for the entire region.

8 Mežnarić, “Što se događa s američkom ženom?”

9 The other events and conferences regarding the “women’s question” also necessarily opened up a space for feminist or proto-feminist discussions, though these were not related to the work of the new Yugoslav feminists. For example, as early as 1976 there was a summer school about the “women’s question” at the Inter-University Center in Dubrovnik. Mitrović, “Genealogy of the Conferences on Women’s Writing,” 167. Also cf. Bonfiglioli, “Revolutionary Networks,” and Dobos, “The Women’s Movement in Yugoslavia.”

10 The reasons and explanations behind this widely repeated statement are explored in detail in the work of Zubak, “The Yugoslav Youth Press (1968–1980).”

11 In the period under study, the five women’s magazines in Serbo-Croatian with the highest circulation were: Svijet (published in Zagreb from 1953 to 1992); Praktična žena (Belgrade, 1956 to 1993); Bazar (Belgrade, 1964 to 1990); Nada (Belgrade, 1975 to 1993 and re-launched in 2001); and Una (Sarajevo, 1974 to 1994). Todorović, Ženska štampa, 78.

12 With regard to wartime, cf. eg.: Mladjenovic and Hughes, “Feminist Resistance to War and Violence in Serbia”; Žarkov, The Body of War; Bilić, We Were Gasping for Air; Bilić and Janković, eds., Resisting the Evil; Helms, Innocence and Victimhood; Miškovska-Kajevska, Taking a Stand in Times of Violent Societal Changes.

13 From the abundant literature on Yugoslav self-management, cf. Pavlowitch, Yugoslavia (esp. from p. 175); Allcock, Explaining Yugoslavia; Mezei, et al. Samoupravni socijalizam.

14 Thompson, Forging War, 13.

15 Wiesinger, Partisaninnen; Jancar-Webster, Women & Revolution in Yugoslavia 1941–1945; Batinić, Women and Yugoslav Partisans.

16 Cf. Gudac-Dodić, Žena u socijalizmu; Perović, ed., Žene i deca 4; Pantelić, Partizanke kao građanke. About the previous and later phases of Yugoslav feminism, cf. Petrović, Jelena and Damir Arsenijević eds. Jugoslovenski feminizma.

17 Jambrešić Kirin, “Komunističko totalitarno nasilje; idem, “Žene u formativnom socijalizmu”; idem, Dom i svijet.

18 Cf. e.g., Kopeček and Wcíslik, eds., Political Thought and Falk, The Dilemmas of Dissidence.

19 Yurchak, Everything Was Forever, 9.

20 Cf. e.g., Hartmann, “The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism” and Sargent, ed., Women and Revolution. Hartmann’s text was published in Yugoslavia as well: Hartmann, “Nesrećni brak marksizma i feminizma.”

21 Sparks, “Dissident Citizenship”; Graycar, ed., Dissenting Opinions. Also, cf. Crow, The Rise of the Sixties.

22 The political scientist Tihomir Cipek and the historian Katarina Spehnjak provide a list of all the non-researched possible forms of “opposition,” “dissent,” “antipolitics” and “resistance” in the former Yugoslav member state of Croatia, and in their categorization, new Yugoslav feminism belongs under these labels. Cipek and Spehnjak, “Croatia.”

23 Zukin, “Sources of Dissent and Nondissent,” 119.

24 Ibid., 120.

25 Cf. the dismissal of the Praxis professors, and in 1971, during the era of the so-called liberalization, the cases of Ignjatović, Gojko Đogo and Janez Janša. Dragović-Soso, Saviours of the Nation; Miller, The Nonconformists; and Gállos, Szlovéniai változások.

26 Zukin, “Sources of Dissent and Nondissent,” 122.

27 Thompson, Forging War, 13.

28 Robinson, Tito’s Maverick Media, 125.

29 Ramet, “The Yugoslav Press in Flux,” 110.

30 Falk, The Dilemmas of Dissidence; Csizmadia, A magyar demokratikus ellenzék; Ost, Solidarity and the Politics of Anti-Politics; Pollack and Wielgohs, eds., Dissent and Opposition in Communist Eastern Europe; Skilling, Samizdat and an Independent Society; Satterwhite, Varieties of Marxist Humanism; Shore, Caviar and Ashes.

31 See Harms, “Destined or Doomed?” and about the case the Polish Solidarity: Long, We All Fought for Freedom and Penn, Solidarity’s Secret.

32 About Marxism and what happens to it, cf. Miller, “Where Was the Serbian Havel”; Judt, “The Dilemmas of Dissidence”; Kopeček, “Human Rights Facing a National Past.”

33 Briskin, “Feminist Practice,” 26, 29.

34 Since it is a development of the last decade, the acronym LGBTQ is unused in the texts that I analyze. Probably no one even dreamed that the movement of people with a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual/transgender or queer identity would reach a level at which they would have the power to choose their own name. In the research material, the most advanced texts make mention of gej [gay] and lezbejka [lesbian] people, although the most common is homoseksualci [homosexuals]. Since the current position of the movements fighting for the equal rights of LGBTQ people find the term “homosexual” to be offensive, one pathologizing and stigmatizing LGBTQ people, I will refrain from its use unless in quotations and will only use LGBT or LGBTQ in my own discourse.

35 Oklobdžija, “Uvod,” 4.

36 Iveković, “Talijanski komunisti i ženski pokret,” 34. Further citations to this work are given in the text.

37 Mežnarić, “Što se događa s američkom ženom?” Further citations to this work are given in the text.

38 Cerjan-Letica, “Neki dominantni stavovi,” 110.

39 Idem, “Feminizam – na tragu radikalizma,” 6–8.

40 Ler-Sofronić, “Odiseja ljudskog identiteta žene,” 21.

41 Tkalec, “Dolazak i događaj feminizma,” 1161. Further citations to this work are given in the text.

42 Lapierre, Morin and Paillard, eds., La Femme majeure.

43 Papić and Vejvoda, “Žena je čovjek,” 7.

44 Ibid.

45 Irigaray, Speculum de l’autre femme.

46 Irigaray’s texts are later also published in translation, in thematic journal issues, accompanied by comments and explanation from the new Yugoslav feminist authors: Irigaray, “Ogledao druge žene”; Idem, “Izlaz iz pećine”; Idem, “I jedna, ne miće bez druge”; and Idem, “Taj pol koji nije jedan.”

47 Clément and Irigaray, “Žena, njen spol i jezik,” 7. All translated texts I quote from the Serbo-Croatian translation, since what I look for is the meanings in that context. Where it seems necessary, I reflect on the change of meanings in translation.

48 This is a translation into English from a translation from French into Serbo-Croatian. I quote the translation because my interest lays in the language (in the sense of discourse) the Yugoslav readers were presented with.

Clément and Irigaray, “Žena, njen spol i jezik,” 7.

49 Mainardi, “Politika domaćeg posla,” 7.

50 Clément and Irigaray, “Žena, njen spol i jezik,” 7.

51 “Društveni položaj žene.”

52 Redakcija, “Portorož i poslije njega,” 5.

53 Pavlić, “Ciljevi i metode suvremenog feminizma.”

54 Sklevický, “Od borbe za prava do prave borbe.”

55 Cerjan-Letica, “Neki dominantni stavovi suvremenog feminizma,” 104.

56 Pusić, “O nekim aspektima,” 121.

57 Kesić, “Nije li pornografija cinična?,” 74–75.

58 Drakulić-Ilić, “Pornografija u novoj prohibiciji,” 68–70.

59 Ler-Sofronić, “Odiseja ljudskog identiteta žene,” 21.

60 Cf. Graycar, Dissenting Opinions; and Echols, Daring to Be Bad.

Volume 5 Issue 4 CONTENTS


Unspectacular Destalinization: The Case of Slovak Writers after 1956

Juraj Marušiak

Institute of Political Science, Slovak Academy of Sciences, Bratislava


On the basis of archival sources, in this essay I examine the debates that took place among Slovak writers in the spring of 1956 and afterwards. I focus on the clashes between the Union of Slovak Writers and the leadership of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (CPCz) that began at the time, and also on the internal discussions among the pro-Communist intellectuals concerning the interpretation of de-Stalinization process. The CPCz leadership essentially brought an end to the “political discussion” which temporarily had been allowed during the “thaw” following the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). Research shows that the relatively weak persecutions allowed the gradual development of reformist thinking and the pluralization of the literary life in Slovakia in the second half of the 1950s and, later, in the 1960s. The political clashes between writers and Communist Party took place in both parts of Czechoslovakia in different ways.

Keywords: de-Stalinization; Union of Czechoslovak Writers, Union of Slovak Writers, liberalization, Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, Communist Party of Slovakia


On the eve of the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), the process of reconstructing the communist regime in Czechoslovakia after the crisis in 1953 had come to an end, both in terms of the establishment of a new balance of power within the narrow leadership of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia and in terms of setting the political and socio-economic priorities of the communist power. In this essay, I examine the cultural ferment in Slovakia in the spring of 1956 and its aftermath. I focus in particular on the attempts of Slovak writers, mainly those who were members or supporters of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, to liberalize ideological control over literature, which included censorship in practice and an insistence on the principles of so-called Socialist Realism. My aim is to discuss the extent to which the rebellion on the part of the Slovak writers was a predominantly autonomous process in the context of the community of writers in Czechoslovakia. I will also seek an answer to the question as to why Slovak intellectuals, who were struggling for the liberalization of the regime, were not able to exert stronger influence on Slovak society.

The Early Phase of Criticism

In Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Hungary, the process of the gradual “de-canonization” of so-called Socialist Realism as an obligatory and exclusively allowed style of art had begun before 1956. In 1954, literary texts began to appear disputing the heroic pathos of the “construction of Socialism,” abandoning “Manichean worldviews” and didactic approaches, and seeking to “inform, inculcate, and inspire”1 readers. The return to individual reflections and emotions, instead of the officially required glorification of the official ideology and policies, was significant for the novel Sklený vrch [The glass hill] by Slovak writer Alfonz Bednár2 and the book of poetry by Ivan Kupec entitled Nížinami výšinami [Through the lowlands, through the uplands].3 However, the first open argument broke out at the end of 1955, when Kupec and novelist Dominik Tatarka (a man who, in 1948–55, had been an active supporter of Socialist Realism and Stalinism) started to criticize the official concept of art and literature openly. Kupec,4 together with Ján Brezina and other poets, sought the separation of art from political propaganda.

The issue of the autonomy of culture and, in particular, literature from state control was openly raised by Tatarka, when he criticized the novel Drevená dedina [Wooden village]5 by František Hečko, which at that time was considered the most outstanding Slovak “socialist” novel and was praised by the state propaganda. According to Tatarka, the novel was an example of “artificial, scholastic literature.”6 Tatarka criticized the growing role of the apparatus of the Union of Slovak Writers, and he claimed to create literary groups outside the structures of the Union, i.e. he claimed to seek to change the mission of the Union as a tool that was used to exert control over writers to further the Party’ s ideological control over literature. His article met with a negative reaction. Novelist Vladimír Mináč accused Tatarka and Kupec of having made “attempts to reconcile idealist esthetics with the esthetics of dialectic materialism.”7 Hečko, the author of the novel that Tatarka and Kupec had criticized, merged the ideological and political arguments in order to stifle Tatarka. According to him, both Kupec and Tatarka were ready to “sell all our socialism for a cherrystone.”8 No restrictive measures were taken against Tatarka or Kupec, which would have been unimaginable in the first half of the decade. But during the first months of 1956, the discussion in the weekly Kultúrny život [Cultural life]9 continued. Subsequently, Tatarka criticized not only the abovementioned novel “Wooden Village” as a “tragic mistake of the Slovak literature,” but also the entire official concept of literature, which according to him was “non-realistic, non-scientific, [and] misleading.” He raised the following questions: “[does] our contemporary [literature] express the truth of our life and the feeling of our life? [Does it express our feelings as people] who went through World War II, [and] who fight against the next war?”10 In his reports, which were published after he had taken trips in Western Europe, he stated, “we don’t want the division of the world, which was invented by the enemy.”11 This statement prompted a negative response on the part of the First Secretary of the Communist Party of Slovakia (CPS) Karol Bacílek.12 The dispute between Tatarka on the one hand and Mináč and Hečko on the other is an example of the “differentiation of the political languages of Marxism.”13 However, it began before the 20th Congress of the CPSU. In fact, Tatarka disavowed one of the key aims of Socialist Realism when he stressed that he never wanted to “construct a new type of human.”14

The pace of discussions in Kultúrny život accelerated after the 20th Congress of CPSU, as the condemnation of Joseph Stalin by the first secretary of the Soviet Communists Nikita Khrushchev caused an “essential crisis of identity,” in particular among members of the younger generation of the communist intelligentsia. 15 Former CPS official and writer Juraj Špitzer, referring to the Polish literary scientist Stefan Żółkiewski, made the following contention: “discussion of art is political discussion… discussion of the all of life, all social issues, the direction of their development.”16 In opposition to the Secretary of the Union of Slovak Writers Ctibor Štítnický, Špitzer tried to publish texts by authors who had been the main representatives of Slovak literature before World War II, but these writings had been put on the “black list” since the Communist coup in February 1948 (works by authors such as Milo Urban, Emil Boleslav Lukáč, Ján Smrek, and Valentín Beniak). Špitzer called for a rehabilitation of Slovak surrealist (so-called “nadrealizmus”) poetry.17 Literary scientist Branislav Choma criticized the prevailing understanding of socialism as “too politicized, narrow, and inhumanly egoistic.” According to him, socialism had to be a “path to greater humanity, greater freedom, and a life that is actually nicer.”18 On the other hand, only two staunchly Social Realist poets, Andrej Plávka and Milan Lajčiak, openly defended the official cultural policy of the regime. According to Lajčiak, the discussion had to be stopped because it was becoming a “crossroad.” According to him, the freedom of writing was the freedom to write in an irresponsible manner.19 However, until April 1956, the discussion in Kultúrny život was focused on the issues strictly connected with the literature, and it did not affect the broader political and socio-economic context.

The 2nd Congress of Czechoslovak Writers and its Aftermath

The open conflict with the power center emerged during the 2nd Congress of Czechoslovak Writers (April 22–29, 1956). Kultúrny život adopted a pro-reform stance before reforms had even begun, and it declared its open support for Tatarka and his criticism of Drevená dedina. More and more articles were printed focusing on intellectual life in Poland, Hungary, and Yugoslavia, i.e. in the Soviet bloc countries in which people enjoyed a larger degree of freedom of speech. Initially, the leadership of the CPCz was anxious about the congress of writers, and it even considered postponing it, because party leaders expected that critics would begin to find a voice. The congress took place in the spring of 1956, when the “discussion” within the CPCz raised by the 20th Congress of the CPSU and the process of de-Stalinization reached its peak. About 425 basic Party organizations in Czechoslovakia demanded the convocation of an extraordinary Party congress, which would threaten the positions of the CPCz leadership. Among the Slovak writers, Stalinist methods were criticized mainly by Tatarka, Mináč, Ladislav Mňačko and Kupec. On the other hand, the CPCz party leadership appreciated the statements of Hečko and Štítnický, because they defended the “party-spirit of literature against the manifestations of liberalism.”20

During the congress, the most famous speeches were held by two Czech poets: Jaroslav Seifert and František Hrubín. Seifert proposed demanding the release of all imprisoned writers and inviting all silenced authors to cooperate.21 Hrubín required the independence of art from ideology.22 However, the Slovak writers were actively involved in the congress as well. The novelist Katarína Lazarová criticized the practices of the censors, although people were officially forbidden to speak about the existence of the main authority of press control.23 She said: “We were in the service of evil headlong. We simply believed that we served the people in the best way.”24 The Congress condemned “any authoritarian solution of the issues of creativity.” However, the statement according to which the processes which had begun at the 20th Congress of CPSU had been the “beginning of the new revolutionary process in our life” were not included in the congress’ final resolution.25 Nevertheless, the Congress, together with the protests led by university students (mainly in Prague and Bratislava), was the first open confrontation between the Communist power and society after the 20th Congress of CPSU. All speeches held at the congress were published in the extraordinary issues of the writers’ weekly newspaper Literární noviny [Literary newspaper] in Czech lands and Kultúrny život in Slovakia. At the same time, Démon súhlasu [Demon of agreement] by Tatarka was published in Kultúrny život in serial form.26 His prose belongs to the works of alignment with the period of Stalinism in Central and Eastern Europe, like the prosaic works by Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Vladimir Dudintsev in Russia, and Jerzy Andrzejewski, Kazimierz Brandys, and Adam Ważyk in Poland. The main message of the prose is a call for a return to human individuality and a thorough deconstruction of the mechanisms of hypocrisy among the people, who “lost their personality”27 in the period of Stalinism.

The first reactions of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of CPCz to the Congress, which was discussed during the session on April 25, 1956, were negative. According to the Bureau, the congress had become a “palace revolution against the Party leadership.” But they were mostly concerned with the speeches that had been held by Czech writers. Subsequently, the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the CPCz discussed the work and results of writer´s congress on May 21, 1956. According to Jiří Hendrych, the Party Secretary responsible for ideological affairs, “most of the writers remained unconvinced, and they oscillated.” He stressed the expression of “wrong opinions” and “hostile invectives.” According to the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the CPCz, the congress became an “extraordinary valuable… big political verification of our writers.” Among the Slovak writers, only Mináč and Lazarová won recognition. Hela Volanská was characterized in a negative way.28

The position of the pro-reform intellectuals within the Union of Slovak Writers was strengthened after its Plenary Session on June 1, 1956. The first secretary of the Slovak branch of the Union, Štítnický, who supported the official politics of the CPCz, suddenly adopted the pro-reform stance after the Congress. In his speech, he demanded the rehabilitation of the Slovak communist intellectuals who were associated with DAV, a left-leaning journal published between 1924 and 1937. At the beginning of the 1950s, they were accused of being “Slovak bourgeois nationalists,” and they were even sentenced in the political trials in 1954. Štítnický condemned censorship.29 Tatarka demanded the ideological differentiation of the literary journals.30 The result of the plenary session was the appointment of Špitzer as the new editor-in-chief of Kultúrny život. At the time, Špitzer gave voice to criticism of the Stalinist cultural policy, and he advocated a principle of plurality of views published in the journal, although in 1950–51 he was one of the main promoters of Stalinism in Slovak art, and he actively participated in the Stalinist purges among the writers.31 The most important outcome of the plenary session was the decision to establish a new literary journal entitled Mladá tvorba [Young creation], focusing on the younger generation of writers. Poet and journalist Milan Ferko was appointed as the first editor-in-chief of the new journal.

On May 2, 1956, the Political Bureau of the CPCz, due to the intervention of the Embassy of the USSR in Prague, decided to stop the “discussion,” i.e. the short-term liberalization. Already the General Party Conference, which had been held on June 11–15, 1956 instead of the extraordinary congress of the CPCz, condemned any demands for substantial changes of the official course in order to avoid any requirements for personnel changes. Only the “ideological front” had been identified as a crucial point in the struggle against the “class enemy.” One of the most sharply criticized members of the Political Bureau of the CPCz, Václav Kopecký, the most emphatic representative of the rigid ideological stance, described the writers’ congress as “passionate exaltations in the spirit of pure liberalism.” He equated Literární noviny with Radio Free Europe, and he appealed to writers “to clarify their attitude to the speeches presented at the congress,” i.e. to disavow the congress. Subsequently, he stressed that only the Union of Writers would be held responsible for it.32 In fact, Kopecký was the first party official who publicly condemned the congress and the student revolts, along with Antonín Zápotocký (who had been serving President of the Czechoslovak Republic since Stalin’s death in 1953) and Zdeněk Fierlinger (Speaker of the National Assembly of Czehoslovakia), who attacked the discontented writers immediately during the congress debates. Kopecký held his speech without having consulted with other members of the Party leadership. Therefore, initially, at the first session of the Political Bureau since the General Party Conference on June 30, 1956, he was criticized not only by A. Zápotocký, but also by Antonín Novotný, the First Secretary of CPCz. On the other hand, another member of the Political Bureau, Czechoslovak Minister of Interior Rudolf Barák, backed Kopecký up. Finally, the Czechoslovak Party leadership gave its support to Kopecký.33

In the summer and autumn of 1956, Kultúrny život published editorials written by the former Secretary of the Central Committee of the CPS (1944) and the President of the Slovak Academy of Sciences Ondrej Pavlík, who criticized the Party policy towards intellectuals and reform of education system in 1953 prepared by the Commissioner for Education and Culture Ernest Sýkora, representative of the hard-liners within the CPS.34 However, Pavlík was known not only as the author of some of the abovementioned articles indirectly attacking the members of the Slovak Party leadership. Several times, he had expressed his support of the rehabilitation of the communist victims of Stalinist political trials, namely in the case of Gustáv Husák and Ladislav Novomeský, who had been accused of “Slovak bourgeois nationalism” and sentenced in 1954.35 The resistance of the group of writers connected with Kultúrny život would probably have been impossible without close informal contacts with some of the members of Central Committee of the CPS apparatus, such as Ladislav Ťažký (who was also a writer), Ján Komiňár (instructor of the Central Committee of the CPS for literature), and philosopher Ján Uher (assistant to Augustín Michalička), who supported the pro-reform initiatives.36 Uher was the author of a noticeable article in which he inspired intellectuals to communicate with other social strata.37 However, the activities of these intellectuals and their informal meetings and discussions were monitored by the state security forces, and the state security officers sent regular information about them to the CPS leadership.

The leadership of the CPS discussed the activities of Slovak writers only in autumn 1956, on the eve of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. The report of the state security forces from September 1956 characterized Špitzer as a “saboteur.” According to the document, Špitzer and his collaborators “fight consciously, but in a sophisticated way, not only against certain party officials,38 but against the party leadership in general.”39 Novotný put pressure on Bacílek as well. He participated in the session of the Bureau of CPS on October 18, 1956, at which he stressed the “uneven development of the understanding of results of 20th Congress in Slovakia and in Czech lands.” According to him, there had been no open attacks against the party leadership in the Czech lands, but “[they] continue in Slovakia.” At the same time, he appealed to the leadership of the CPS to solve the “shortcomings in Kultúrny život.” Bacílek preferred a successive approach to a frontal attack. He considered removing Špitzer from Kultúrny život, strengthening censorship, and organizing a talk with Kupec. If they wouldn’t renounce their views, disciplinary measures would be taken. However, Novotný accused Bacílek of adopting a defensive approach. As a consequence of his intervention the report focusing on the ideological issues in Slovakia, which had been prepared by Bacílek, was rejected by the Bureau, which meant the weakening of the position of the First Secretary of the CPS. Subsequently, the so-called “Slovak bourgeois nationalism” was proclaimed the main political threat, and the campaign against it was resumed. Špitzer, according to Bacílek, was the “elder statesman,” i.e. an informal leader among the writers. As he said, Kupec was perceived by the CPS leadership as a man with “anti-Marxist” views, together with some other former interwar surrealist poets (Vladimír Reisel, Štefan Žáry, Pavol Bunčák) and novelist Bednár. The alliance of the rebelling intellectuals with some former Communist politicians (Špitzer, Plávka) was perceived by Bacílek and Pavol David as a threat to their power. According to Michalička, the Union of Slovak Writers became a “center of revisionist ideas,” and he stressed that not Špitzer, but the Secretary of Union Štítnický was the main source of their inspiration.40

Events in Hungary and Poland in October 1956 and the Suppression
of the Writers’ Resistance

The uprising in Hungary in October 1956 postponed a prepared intervention against the Union of Slovak Writers. Although the so-called “Polish October,” i.e. the appointment of the former victim of Stalinist persecutions Władysław Gomułka to the position of First Secretary of the Polish United Workers’ Party and the consequent liberalization of public life, was perceived by the CPCz leadership in a negative way, many Slovak intellectuals sympathized with the changes taking place in Poland. Tough censorship, however, did not allow them to publish any articles opposing the anti-intellectual stance of the CPCz leadership or the speech of Kopecký. Not only Mňačko, but also Mináč were not allowed to publish their articles or open letters reacting to Kopecký’s speech at the Party Conference in June 1956.41

At its session on October 24, 1956, the Party Group within the Union of Slovak Writers did not accept the interpretation of “Polish October” presented by Bacílek. According to its members, the “slowness of democratization, not the democratization itself, caused the events.” Špitzer considered preparing a protest against the dissolution of the Union of Hungarian Writers, but poet Ján Kostra, playwright Peter Karvaš, and Štítnický were against such a step.42 Finally, on October 26, 1956, the leadership of the Union of Czechoslovak Writers decided to condemn the Hungarian uprising “after the intervention of the Party.” Even writers who presented critical attitudes towards the official politics of CPCz before October 1956 participated in the discussions with the citizens living in southern Slovakia, organized by the CPS leadership, including Štítnický, Špitzer, Mináč, Ferko, and others. The aim of these discussions was to prevent the anti-communist mobilization of the members of the Hungarian minority in Slovakia in support of the Hungarian revolution.43

In spite of these intentions, Kultúrny život was criticized by the head of the Board of Commissioners Rudolf Strechaj because of the alleged misguidedness of the Hungarian revolution. In November 1956, similar statements were made during the informal meeting of Bacílek, Michalička, and other Party officials with writers at the premises of the Central Committee of the CPS. The criticism of some Czechoslovak writers to the official policy of CPCz didn’t mean their support to the Hungarian revolution. Therefore, Mňačko in March 1957 joined the delegation of Czechoslovak writers, together with Bohumil Říha, Jiří Marek (from Czech lands) and Viktor Egri (Hungarian writer from South Slovakia)44 to Hungary to conduct a meeting with Hungarian writers Pál Szabó and Pétér Véres. Their mission was to persuade Hungarian writers to support the regime of the new head of Hungarian Socialist Worker’s Party János Kádár.45

In December 1956, the CPS leadership started to use tougher language addressing the Slovak writers. This was in line with the new campaign against “revisionism,” i.e. attempts at political liberalization in the Soviet bloc. On December 15, 1956, Bacílek threatened to prohibit the insubordinate from publishing. David, as the main hardliner within the CPS leadership, quoted the slogan pronounced by Klement Gottwald: “We will not allow subversion of the republic,” which meant the direct threat of violent persecutions.46 Hečko, who by this time was the chairman of the Union of Slovak Writers and remained committed to the official stance of the CPS, fell into full isolation within organization. He was no longer able to control it, although the party leaders expressed appreciation for his loyalist positions several times. This was the reason for his resignation. In the letter addressed to the CPS leadership on 31 December 1956, he stressed that his resignation was a “protest against the ideological distortions and revisionist tendencies within the Union of Slovak Writers and in all their facilities.” He announced his withdrawal from the Union as well. Lazarová followed Hečko, and she withdrew from all duties within the Union of Slovak Writers as well, but she remained a member of organization.47

In spite of the increasingly open threats to the writers and the intervention of the official censorship, Kultúrny život pushed to continue its previous course. The editorial in the New Year issue in January 1957 confirmed the commitment of the journal to the 2nd Congress of Czechoslovak Writers. Kultúrny život was sharply attacked by the pro-regime writers, such as Miloš Krno48 and poetess Krista Bendová.49 Ideological Secretary of the Central Committee of the CPS Michalička was entrusted with the task of preparing a report on the situation in Kultúrny život and suggesting appropriate personnel measures. On the grounds of the reports of the state security forces, a new “categorization” of the Slovak writers and intellectuals was prepared. Hečko, Plávka, Mňačko, Lajčiak, Lazarová, Krno, and Bendová, along with philosophers Ladislav Szántó, Andrej Sirácky, and Michal Topoľský, literary scientist Andrej Mráz, historian Miloš Gosiorovský, and actor Andrej Bagar were evaluated in a positive way as loyal and committed to the Party. The second group of writers, who were not “on the platform of Socialism and Socialist Realism,” was, according to respective reports, represented by Špitzer, Tatarka, Kupec, Smrek, Reisel, Pavlík, Štítnický, poet Pavol Horov, literary scientist Alexander Matuška, etc. The third group, represented by poets Kostra and Vojtech Mihálik and novelist Ferdinand Gabaj, was characterized as “neutral.”50 However, the division of writers and intellectuals was more complicated. Some members of the first group were people who had joined the Communist Party before World War II or before the communist coup in February 1948, such as Szántó, Július J. Šefránek, Krno, Lajčiak, Sirácky, Plávka and Bagar, but some of them joined the Communist Party only after 1948, either out of of fear (Matuška) or for reasons of professional ambition, as in the case of Hečko, Gosiorovský, Mráz, Mihálik, Kostra, and others. Some of the intellectuals, who were mentioned in the category of “loyal” party members, already adopted a more critical stance with regards to the official course of CPCz, namely Mňačko and Lazarová. However, Mňačko, in spite of his critical remarks concerning official politics, maintained a close personal friendship with Bacílek,51 and Lazarová was a secret informant of the state security forces. Some writers (Horov, Matuška) manifested their critical stance towards the politics of the CPCz only in private conversations, but the state security forces were well informed about these conversations. By that time, Smrek and Lukáč had been sent into “internal exile”. Before the establishment of communist rule, they had been prominent poets, but due to their political engagement or non-Marxist ideological orientations they were essentially not allowed to publish their works.52

Bednár, who was not a member of the Communist Party and expressed his critical stance towards Stalinism, had been assumed to be the exemplary victim of the planned repressive measures, announced by David. His book Hodiny a minúty [Hours and Minutes], (1956) contained critical reflections on the moral failures of some active participants in the anti-fascist resistance after World War II and during the period of Stalinism. He wrote about misuses of power, careerism, etc. The book was published during the short period of political “thaw” in 1956, when censorship was more relaxed. The official daily of the CPS, Pravda [Truth], published a review by an official of the Central Committee of the CPS apparatus Viliam Šalgovič (who was a former officer of the state security forces). According to him, Bednár was on the same platform as the people “we had fought against in the past,” i.e. on the platform of the fascists and enemies of Socialism.53 The state security forces considered imprisoning him, but the Party group in the Union of Slovak Writers in autumn 1956 refused to persecute Bednár. His book was reviewed in a positive way by many other writers and literary scientists, including Mňačko, Michal Chorváth, Ján Rozner, and others. In fact, none of the intellectuals was willing to publish a negative review, which would have contributed to his eventual imprisonment. On the other hand, the Commissioner of Interior Oskár Jeleň stated that the content of Bednár’s book was “scary” and aimed “against our regime.” He pointed out that the editors of Kultúrny život regularly submitted articles with “doubtful content,” and they tried to persuade the officials of the STD to allow them to be published. Other members of the Bureau of the CPS urged the adoption of rigorous measures. David stressed that the conflict with Kultúrny život had to be solved at least before the CPS congress, scheduled for April 1957.54 The Slovak leadership put economic pressure on the Union of Slovak Writers as well. They reduced the circulation of the literary journals Kultúrny život, Mladá tvorba, and Slovenské pohľady [Slovak views], all of which were published by the Union, allegedly because of a “shortage of paper.”55 Whereas Bednár managed to publish his book in the short period of thaw, the publication of a volume of short stories by Mináč entitled Z nedávnych čias [From the recent past],56 which was prepared for release in 1957, was forbidden.

The presidium of the Union of Slovak Writers initiated an informal meeting with Zápotocký. The head of the Union’s delegation was the chair of the Party group within the Union, translator Zora Jesenská. Špitzer was also a member of the delegation. He tried to explain to the president the arguments of the discontented writers. He rejected the notion that there was any connection between the “discussion” in Czechoslovakia and the Hungarian revolution, but he also disputed the official interpretation of the events in Hungary. According to him, the mere lack of the free exchange of ideas was the reason for the conflict. Zápotocký, however, did not make any changes to the hardline cultural policy. He stressed that the Party would not allow any discussion “aimed to destroy the target: socialism.” “You can discuss at the closed meetings, we can admit even heretical views there, but not in public.”57

The Slovak Party leadership decided on March 22, 1957 to establish a special commission at the Bureau led by Jeleň. At the same time, before the establishment of the commission, the members of the Bureau of the CPS decided to indicate Pavlík as an “ideological leader” of the “group” around the Kultúrny život, Kupec and Tatarka were indicated to be the main representatives of the “wrong views.” Špitzer was accused of being responsible for the publication of their works, and Štítnický was blamed for alleged “dodging and temporizing” within the leadership of the Union of Slovak Writers. Although Tatarka was criticized several times by the high-ranking party official, at least he was not identified as a member of this “group.” The purpose of the commission was to force the abovementioned intellectuals to deliver “self-criticism.”

The target of criticism was not only the Union of Writers and the literary journals Kultúrny život and Mladá tvorba, but also the Section of the Social Sciences in the Slovak Academy of Sciences, some other publishing houses, the Faculty of Arts of the Comenius University in Bratislava, and the journal Slovenské pohľady.” David suggested accusing the “group” consisting of Pavlík, Špitzer, Kupec and Štítnický of “bourgeois nationalism.” “We didn’t fight against them enough,” he contended.

The members of the commission established by the Bureau of the Central Committee of the CPS accused Pavlík and his colleagues of being the Slovak version of the “Petöfi circle,” the Hungarian forum of intellectual dissent in 1956. Jeleň compared the activities of Kultúrny život with the attempts to create a “second ideological center,” and the head of the Board of Commissioners accused Pavlík of ambitions to play the role of Imre Nagy in Slovakia. Initially, the Bureau of the CPS did not intend to expel the discontented intellectuals from the Party. However, the Czechoslovak Party leadership decided on April 9, 1957 to expel Pavlík from the Communist Party. Other members of the so-called “group,” i.e. Špitzer, Kupec, and Štítnický, were removed from their positions within the Union of Slovak Writers. Pro-regime poet Plávka was appointed as the new secretary of the Union of Slovak Writers. However, in his reply to a question of Novotný regarding the scope of the “group,” Bacílek insisted that Tatarka and Mináč were involved, in part. He stressed the existence of the close ties with other former Slovak high-ranking Communist politicians, namely Edo Friš, Samuel Falťan, and Anton Rašla.

In spite of the political and economic pressure put on the Union of Slovak Writers by the CPS leadership, the Party organization at the Union did not accept the resolution against Pavlík and Kultúrny život. Ján Prohácka became the new editor-in-chief of the journal. The campaign against the writers continued in June 1956, after the plenary session of the Central Committee of CPCz, which focused on ideological issues. Secretary of the Central Committee of CPCz Hendrych stressed that the CPCz leadership would not allow a “hostile crusade as a token of the struggle against so-called Stalinism, that is, an attempt to destroy the revolutionary foundations of our Marxist-Leninist doctrine.” He refused any manifestations of so-called “revisionism,” and he identified the major task as “discovering and disarming” all of its expressions permanently.58 Kopecký addressed his speech directly to the Union of Czechoslovak Writers. He demanded explicit distancing from the speeches that had been given by Hrubín and Seifert at the Congress in April 1956. He accused Mináč and Tatarka of “liberalism.”59 Subsequently, at the plenary session of Czech writers on June 26, 1957, the leaders of the Union of Czechoslovak Writers delivered a self-critical report, in which they rejected all “wrong tendencies.”60 The resolution of the plenary session contained a condemnation of the statements made at the Congress in 1956. Although the Slovak Union of Writers was only the regional branch of the single centralized writers’ union in Czechoslovakia, its reactions to Hendrych’s and Kopecký’s speeches were different. The leadership of the Slovak organization unanimously approved the thesis of Hendrych’s report, but they did not adopt any resolution condemning the writers’ congress or the activities of Kultúrny život. The enlarged session of the Party group at the Union of Slovak Writers convoked on September 18–19, 1957 in the presence of Bacílek, Jeleň, and Michalička with the aim of condemning the congress did not meet the expectations of the organizers. In fact, only Krno, Hečko, and the representative of the group of Ukrainian writers living in Slovakia supported the speeches of the official representatives of the Communist Party. The rest of writers present either did not say anything or rejected the persecutions against Kultúrny život, for instance Špitzer, Kupec, Mňačko, Štítnický, Mináč, Karvaš, and even the writers considered loyal pillars of the official cultural policy, such as Kostra. Some members of the Bureau of the Central Committee of CPS analyzing the results of the session said that the CPS did not have any “core” within the writers’ organization. The Slovak Party leadership considered the results of the meeting with the writers a clear failure. Therefore, the plenary session of the entire Union of Slovak Writers took place only on December 19–20, 1957, but the issue of the writers’ congress in April 1956 was not discussed.61 In February 1958, Tatarka was forced to withdraw from the Committee of the Union of Writers as well. The reasons were his articles published in Kultúrny život.


The rebellion conducted by some of the Czechoslovak intellectuals in 1956 was suppressed. However, whereas in the Czech lands the Czechoslovak Party leadership successfully managed to compel or persuade writers to capitulate, i.e. to distance themselves from the 2nd Congress of Czechoslovak Writers in April 1956, in Slovakia they did not enjoy the same success. Although the Slovak writers were not more radical in their requirements than their Czech colleagues, they resisted more efficaciously. The leadership of CPS was forced to restore control over the writers’ union and literary journals through administrative measures, although they tried to avoid it. One of the very important results of the short-term liberalization of cultural policy in Slovakia in the spring of 1956 was the establishment of the new literary journal Mladá tvorba. The new journal provided a forum for the publication of several “generation layers”62 of younger poets and writers who had not been able to or had not wanted to publish their works after 1948, because the works in question had not conformed to the obligatory style of “Socialist Realism.” From this perspective, the new milestones in Slovak literature were not only the novels and short stories by Bednár or “Demon of Agreement” by Tatarka, but also the publication of the first collection of poetry by Milan Rúfus (Až dozrieme, or “When We Grow Mature,” 1956), which became a signal of the comeback of lyrical poetry based on the individual’s reflections on the surrounding world. At the same time, the poetry of Kupec (Nížinami, výšinami, 1955) was a signal of the return to the sensualist poetry characteristic of the interwar avant-garde movements. The “thaw” in 1956 brought the first attempts to return to literature by non-communist authors, which had been forbidden since 1948. However, the process of the “rehabilitation” of the Slovak non-communist literary heritage took a long time, and it continued well into the second half of 1960s. In spite of the strengthening of censorship, which began in the summer of 1956, the volume of the new poetry of Smrek was published in 1958 (Obraz sveta, “Image of the World”), which contained several allegorical allusions to communist ideology and politics.

The most significant change was a discreet, unspectacular change in the relations between intellectuals and power. This process had already begun in 1955, thus, the 20th Congress of the CPSU was not so much a new spark as it was an event that catalyzed and accelerated discussions among the Slovak writers. Very strong informal ties persisted between pro-communist intellectuals, who remained committed to the official ideology in spite of having criticized the cultural policy of the regime and the lack of the freedom of speech. This was true of writers such as Mňačko, Štítnický, Mináč and Špitzer. On the other hand, if the ruling elites wanted to restore their control over the Union of Writers and the journal Kultúrny život, they could not rely on the loyal writers within the union and the literary community. They were forced to take administrative measures. Due to the low support among intellectuals, but also due to the exhaustion of the rigid style known as Socialist Realism, it was impossible to restore the esthetics and power relations in the field of culture that had prevailed in the period before 1956. The mechanisms of direct control and censorship were still applied, but to a lesser extent than in the first half of 1950s. In addition to these mechanisms, mechanisms of “negotiation” were often applied, especially in terms of censorship. The lack of any direct confrontation between the communist power and intellectuals in 1956 contributed to the gradual liberalization of cultural policy during the second wave of de-Stalinization in Czechoslovakia, which began in 1963. Although the “cultural ferment” in Czechoslovakia and, in particular, in Slovakia was in many ways connected with the processes underway at the time in Poland and Hungary, it was an autonomous movement. In the case of postwar Czechoslovakia, it is significant that even the clashes between the intellectuals and power took place, to a large extent, separately in the Czech lands and Slovakia.

Archival sources

Archív Asociácie organizácií spisovateľov Slovenska [Archives of the Association of the Organization of Writers of Slovakia], fond II. zjazd Zväzu československých spisovateľov.

National Archives in Prague (NA), Archives of Central Committee of Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (A ÚV KSČ), fond 01 – Plenary sessions of the Central Committee of CPCz.

National Archives in Prague (NA), Archives of Central Committee of Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (A ÚV KSČ), fond 02/2 – Presidium of the Central Committee of CPCz.

Personal Archives of Dalma Špitzerová.

Slovak National Archives (SNA), Archives of the Central Committee of Communist Party of Slovakia (A ÚV KSS), fond – Presidium of Central Committee of CPS (PÚV KSS).


II. sjezd Svazu československých spisovatelů 22.–29. 4. 1956, vol. I. (protokol) [2nd Congress of the Union of Czechoslovak Writers, 22–29 April 1956, vol. 1. protocol], edited by Michal Bauer. Prague: Akropolis, 2011.

Bátorová, Mária. Dominik Tatarka: Slovenský Don Quijote [Dominik Tatarka: The Slovak Don Quijote]. Bratislava: Veda, 2012.

Bednár, Alfonz. Sklený vrch [The glass hill]. Bratislava: Slovenský spisovateľ, 1954.

Choma, Branislav. “Literatúra a naša doba” [Literature and our era]. Kultúrny život 11, no. 15 (1956): 4

Chorváth, Michal. “Pred plenárkou slovenských spisovateľov” [Before the plenary session of Slovak writers]. Kultúrny život 12, no. 35 (1957): 1–4.

Drug, Štefan. “Premeny umeleckého života po roku 1948” [The changes in an artistic life after 1948]. In Umenieslužbách totality 1948–1953 [Art in the service of totalitarianism], edited by Štefan Drug, 17–38. Bratislava: Ústav slovenskej literatúry, 2000.

Ferko, Milan. “Z diskusie na II. sjazde československých spisovateľov” [From the discussion at the second Congress of Czechoslovak Writers]. Kultúrny život 11, no. 19 (1956): 4.

Hečko, František. Drevená dedina [The wooden village]. Bratislava: Slovenský spisovateľ, 1951.

Hečko, František. “To je to, v čom sa rozchádzame” [This is the substance of our split]. Kultúrny život 10, no. 51 (1955): 6.

Hečko, František, and Mária Jančová. Denníky 1938–1960 [Diaries 1938–1960]. Bratislava: Marenčin PT 2011.

Kaplan, Karel. Mocní a bezmocní [Powerful and powerless]. Toronto: Sixty-eight Publishers, 1989.

Kopeček, Michal. Hledání ztraceného smyslu revoluce [Seeking the lost sense of revolution]. Prague: Argo 2009.

Krno, Miloš: “Zastieraním nesprávnych názorov nepomôžeme literature” [We won’t help the literature by concealing the wrong views]. Kultúrny život 12, no. 5 (1957): 6.

Kupec, Ivan. “Na obranu poézie” [In defense of poetry]. Kultúrny život 10, no. 44 (1955): 4–5.

Kupec, Ivan. Nížinami výšinami [Through the lowlands, through the highlands]. Bratislava: Slovenský spisovateľ, 1955.

Lajčiak, Milan. “Diskusný príspevok Milana Lajčiaka” [Contribution of Milan Lajčiak]. Kultúrny život 11 no. 3 (1956): 6.

Lazarová, Katarína. “Z diskusie na II. sjazde československých spisovateľov” [From the discussion at the 2nd Congress of Czechoslovak Writers]. Kultúrny život 11, no. 19 (1956): 3–4.

Leikert, Jozef. Taký bol Ladislav Mňačko [This was Ladislav Mňačko]. Bratislava: Luna, 2008.

Matejovič, Pavel. “Mináč ako záhadný autor?” [Mináč as a mysterious author?]. In Mináč, Vladimír. Zakázané prózy [Forbidden works of prose], 9–18. Bratislava: Kalligram, 2015.

Matejovič, Pavel. Vladimír Mináč a podoby literárneho diskurzu druhej polovice 20. storočia [Vladimír Mináč and the shape of the literary discourse in the second half of the twentieth century]. Bratislava: Kalligram, 2013.

Matuška, Alexander. “O slovenskej poézii” [On Slovak poetry]. Kultúrny život 11, no. 16b (1956): 6–10.

Mináč, Vladimír. “Kríza kritérií” [The crisis of criteria]. Kultúrny život 10, no. 49 (1955): 6-7.

Mňačko, Ladislav. “Z prvých dní diskusie” [From the first days of discussion]. Kultúrny život 11, no. 17 (1956): 11.

Petrík, Vladimír. Hodnotypodnety [Values and impulses]. Bratislava: Slovenský spisovateľ, 1980.

Rúfus, Milan. Až dozrieme [When we mature]. Bratislava: Slovenský spisovateľ, 1956.

Seifert, Jaroslav. “Z diskusie na II. sjazde československých spisovateľov” [From the discussion at the 2nd Congress of Czechoslovak Writers]. Kultúrny život 11, no. 18 (1956): 3.

Shore, Marci. “Engineering in the Age of Innocence: A Genealogy of Discourse Inside the Czechoslovak Writer´s Union, 1949–67.” East European Politics and Societies 12, no. 3 (1998): 397–441.

Smrek, Ján. Obraz sveta [The image of the world]. Bratislava: Slovenský spisovateľ, 1958.

Štítnický, Ctibor. “Za úspech II. Sjazdu čs. Spisovateľov, za ďalší rozkvet slovenskej literatúry” [For the success of the 2nd Congress of Czechoslovak Writers, for the further development of Slovak literature]. Kultúrny život 11, no. 7 (1956): 3–4.

Štítnický, Ctibor. “Úlohy slovenských spisovateľov po II. sjazde československých spisovateľov” [The tasks of Slovak writers after the 2nd Congress of Czechoslovak Writers]. Kultúrny život 11, no. 22 (1956):1, 3–4.

Tatarka, Dominik. Démon súhlasu [Demon of agreement]. Kultúrny život 11, no. 15, 16, 17 (1956)

Tatarka, Dominik. “Diskusný príspevok Dominika Tatarku” [The discussion contribution of Dominik Tatarka]. Kultúrny život 11, no. 2 (1956): 4.

Tatarka, Dominik. “Slovo k súčasníkom o literature” [Talk to the fellows about literature]. Kultúrny život 10, no. 47 (1955): 6–7.

Tatarka, Dominik. “Malé vysvetlenie” [A little explanation]. Kultúrny život 11, no. 25 (1956): 3.

“Treba posilniť podiel tvorcov pri formovaní nášho života” [The share of creators in the shaping of our life should be strengthened]. Kultúrny život 11, no. 9 (1956): 3.

Uher, Ján: “Problémy a úlohy našej inteligencie” [Problems and tasks of our intelligentsia]. Kultúrny život 11, no. 34 (1956): 9.

“Zo snemovania Sväzu čs. Spisovateľov” [From the session of the Union of Czechoslovak Writers]. Kultúrny život 12, no. 27 (1957): 1, 3, 6.

1 Shore, “Engineering in the Age of Innocence,” 399, 407.

2 Bednár, Sklený vrch.

3 Kupec, Nížinami výšinami.

4 Kupec, “Na obranu poézie,” 4–5.

5 Hečko, Drevená dedina.

6 Tatarka, “Slovo k súčasníkom o literatúre,” 6–7.

7 Mináč, “Kríza kritérií,” 6–7.

8 Hečko, “To je to, v čom sa rozchádzame,” 6.

9 Kultúrny život – weekly newspaper issued by the Union of Slovak Writers.

10 Tatarka, “Diskusný príspevok Dominika Tatarku,” 4.

11 Ibid.

12 Slovak National Archive (SNA), A ÚV KSS [Archive of the Central Committee of Communist Party of Slovakia], f. [fond] PÚV KSS [Presidium of Central Committee of CPS], kr. [box] 931, Zasadnutie BÚV KSS October 18,. 1956. Niektoré ideologické problémy práce strany na Slovensku.

13 Kopeček, Hledání ztraceného smyslu revoluce, 114.

14 Matejovič, Vladimír Mináč a podoby literárneho diskurzu druhej polovice 20. storočia, 280.

15 Kopeček, Hledání ztraceného smyslu revoluce, 114.

16 “Treba posilniť podiel tvorcov pri formovaní nášho života,” 3.

17 Štítnický, “Za úspech II. Sjazdu čs. Spisovateľov, za ďalší rozkvet slovenskej literatúry,” 3–4.

18 Choma, “Literatúra a naša doba,” 4.

19 Lajčiak, “Diskusný príspevok Milana Lajčiaka,” 6.

20 National Archive in Prague (NA), A ÚV KSČ [Archive of Central Committee of Communist Party of Czechoslovakia], fond (f.) 02/2 – Presidium of Central Committee of CPCz, box (sv.) 88, archival unit (a. j.) 106, point (bod)3.

21 Seifert, “Z diskusie na II. sjazde československých spisovateľov,” 3.

22 II. sjezd Svazu československých spisovatelů 22–29. 4. 1956, vol. I. (protokol), 243–49.

23 The official name of this institution in Slovak is Hlavná správa tlačového dozoru (HSTD). The name of its Slovak branch was Authority of Press Control (Správa tlačového dozoru, STD).

24 Lazarová, “Z diskusie na II. sjazde československých spisovateľov,” 3–4.

25 Archive of the Association of the Organizations of Writers of Slovakia (Archív Asociácie organizácií spisovateľov Slovenska), fond (f. ) II. zjazd Zväzu československých spisovateľov, box (kr.) B/1.

26 Tatarka, “Démon súhlasu,” 15, 16, 17.

27 Bátorová, Dominik Tatarka: Slovenský Don Quijote, 107.

28 SNA, A ÚV KSS, f. PÚV KSS, kr. 123, zasadnutie BÚV KSS April 25, 1956. Hodnotenie II. zjazdu československých spisovateľov.

29 Štítnický, “Úlohy slovenských spisovateľov po II. sjazde československých spisovateľov,” 1, 3–4.

30 Tatarka, “Malé vysvetlenie,” 3.

31 Drug, “Premeny umeleckého života po roku 1948,” 32–37.

32 Kopecký, Václav. “Povzniesť na vyššiu úroveň ideologickú prácu celej strany” [Enhance the ideological work of the entire Party to a higher level]. Pravda, June 16, 1956, 5–6.

33 NA, AÚV KSČ, f. 02/2, sv. 108, a. j. 126, b. 1.

34 “O problémoch a úlohách našej inteligencie,” 3.

35 SNA, A ÚV KSS, f. PÚV KSS, kr. 945, BÚV March 27, 1957. Stenografický záznam zo zasadnutia komisie ÚV KSS so spisovateľmi.

36 Interview with Ján Uher, by the author of this article.

37 Uher, “Problémy a úlohy našej inteligencie,” 9.

38 Karol Bacílek, Augustín Michalička and Ernest Sýkora.

39 SNA, A ÚV KSS, f. P. David, kr. 2248, a. j. 320. Poznatky o Jurajovi Špitzerovi a spol. (1956).

40 SNA, A ÚV KSS, f. PÚV KSS, kr. 931, BÚV KSS October 18, 1956. Niektoré ideologické problémy práce strany na Slovensku; Kaplan, Mocní a bezmocní, 317.

41 SNA, A ÚV KSS, f. P. David, kr. 2267, a. j. 43. Uznesenie Sekretariátu ÚV KSS zo dňa 9. novembra 1956 o kultúre; Leikert, Taký bol Ladislav Mňačko, 144.

42 SNA, A ÚV KSS, f. P. David, kr. 2248, a. j. 319 Správa o slovenských spisovateľoch (1956).

43 SNA, A ÚV KSS, f. P. David, kr. 2267, a. j. 40. Maďarsko, Poľsko.

44 In 1956 and in the later period writers Říha, Marek, and Egri were loyal to the official politics of the CPCz.

45 SNA, A ÚV KSS, f. PÚV KSS, kr. 947. Zasadnutie BÚV KSS December 4, 1957. Informatívna správa o práci delegácie československých spisovateľov v Budapešti.

46 Pavel David, “Proti zvyškom buržoáznej ideológie” [Against the remains of bourgeois ideology], Pravda, December 18, 1956, 4.

47 SNA, A ÚV KSS, f. PÚV KSS, kr. 963, Zasadnutie BÚV KSS November 1, 1957. List s. Františka Hečku Byru ÚV KSS zo 17. 10. 1957. Since the spring of 1956, Hečko had not taken part in the activities of the Union of Writers, because of his isolation from other writers and because of his health. Hečko and Jančová, Denníky 1938–1960.

48 Miloš Krno, “So zvýšenou zodpovednosťou do nového roku” [With increasing responsibility to the new year], Pravda, December 29, 1956, 5; Idem, “Zastieraním nesprávnych názorov nepomôžeme literatúre,” 6.

49 Bendová, Krista. “Na okraj jednej polemiky” [Incidental remark to one polemic], Pravda, November 1, 1957, 7.

50 SNA, A ÚV KSS, f. P. David, kr. 2248, a. j. 319 Správa o slovenských spisovateľoch (1956); SNA, A ÚV KSS, f. PÚV KSS, kr. 946, BÚV KSS April 5–6, 1957 Návrh téz na rezolúciu ÚV KSS k aktuálnym otázkam medzi inteligenciou.

51 Matejovič, Vladimír Mináč a podoby literárneho diskurzu druhej polovice 20. storočia, 122–24.

52 At least Smrek enjoyed high standing among Slovak intellectuals, and he spread some of his poems, which often were anti-communist, among his friends without official permission. Some of his poetry from the pre-war period was published only in 1954. His new poems, written after 1945, were officially published only in 1958, although they had been prepared for publication in 1957.

53 Viliam Šalgovič, “Slovo čitateľa spisovateľovi Alfonzovi Bednárovi” [Reader’s word to the writer Alfonz Bednár], Pravda, April 25, 1957, 6

54 SNA, A ÚV KSS, f. PÚV KSS, kr. 942, BÚV KSS March 8, 1957 Informácia s. Jeleňa o nepriaznivých zjavoch v Kultúrnom živote - ústne.

55 SNA, A ÚV KSS, f. PÚV KSS, kr. 940, BÚV KSS February 1, 1957 List Zväzu slovenských spisovateľov BÚV KSS vo veci rozpočtu na rok 1957.

56 Matejovič, “Mináč ako záhadný autor,” 9–18.

57 Juraj Špitzer, “Diskusia u Zápotockého” [Discussion with Antonín Zápotocký – notes] (1957), manuscript. Inheritance of Juraj Špitzer, personal archive of Dalma Špitzerová (wife of Špitzer).

58 NA, A ÚV KSČ, f. 01, sv. 55, a. j. 57.

59 Ibid.

60 “Zo snemovania Sväzu čs. Spisovateľov,” 1, 3, 6.

61 Chorváth, “Pred plenárkou slovenských spisovateľov,” 1, 4.

62 Petrík, Hodnotypodnety, 274.

Volume 6 Issue 3 CONTENTS



Introduction to the Special Issue:
Migration and East Central Europe – a Perennial but Unhappy Relationship

Ulf Brunnbauer

IOS – Regensburg


In March 1929, the ambassador of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes sent a query to the Kingdom’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. His message concerned the repatriation of immigrants who were citizens of the country but were of Magyar or German ethnic background:

Since these people had left our Kingdom dissatisfied with the new conditions, and because they represent an alien ethnic element which is of no use to our national state – on the contrary, according to the embassy’s opinion it should be in our interest that there are as few of these people as possible, especially in the border areas –, the embassy kindly requests instructions from the Ministry as to whether the return of these people is opportune.1

Five months later, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs replied:

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has the honor of informing the Royal Embassy that requests for repatriation to the Kingdom by our citizens of Magyar and German nationality should be dismissed under whichever pretext. The return of these a-national elements to our country must be obstructed to the furthest extent possible.

Obviously, the government of the Kingdom wanted to impede the return of citizens who were not considered part of the South Slavic nation, while “Yugoslav” emigrants were encouraged to return. The same reasoning based on a notion of ethnic selection also applied to applications for permission to leave the country. In 1924, the Ministry for Social Policy, which was responsible for emigration affairs, informed its departments that the emigration of so-called “a-national” families should be encouraged, while “national” families should be denied permission to emigrate. In 1925, the same ministry sent a circular to the Department for State Security with the following declaration:

Regarding the emigration of national minorities the Ministry shares the view that their emigration must be favored. The relevant authorities have agreed and maintain their interest in this issue; from that it follows that this is the official line for implementing emigration policies.

In 1926, the director of the Kingdom’s Emigration Commissariat in Zagreb, Fedor Aranicki, joyfully reported to the Minister for Social Policy that almost half of the emigrants who had left the country over the course of the few years that had passed had been “a-national” elements, and he recommended setting higher goals for the future: “One of the tasks of our emigration policy is to exert influence over the emigration of the a-national minorities in the future as well, in order to return the affected regions to their original national character.”

Fast forward some ninety years and the region appears still to be obsessed with the connection between migration and ethnicity. Control of migration continues to be seen as a tool of nation-building, and officially spread fears of immigrants underpin the legitimacy of increasingly authoritarian governments. Today, though, attention is paid primarily to immigration. The Visegrád governments in particular excel in promoting xenophobic stances in their concerted efforts to prevent the immigration of people seen as innately alien and unassimilable. Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán uses his hardline policies against refugees from the Middle East to portray himself as the defender of Europe against imagined Islamization. Polish strongman Jaroslav Kaczynski claims that refugees and immigrants would spread unknown diseases, and in doing so he ironically employs stereotypes similar to those prevalent (and used) in Germany in the first years of the twentieth century, when the public began to grow increasingly concerned about the millions of Eastern Europeans (among them many Poles) traveling through Germany on their way to North America.

Similar to interwar Yugoslavia, East Central and Southeast European governments pursue a highly selective policy of entry: while they present non-European immigrants as mortal dangers, they invite co-ethnic citizens of neighboring countries to immigrate and generously extend citizenship to them. Hundreds of thousands of citizens of Moldova and Macedonia have enjoyed the privilege of receiving, respectively, Romanian and Bulgarian passports, only to use them to settle in one of the prosperous countries in Europe. Two things seem obvious: conceptualizations of international migration are highly ethnicized or even racialized. People’s alleged cultural or biological properties determine whether they are welcome or not, not for instance economic of humanitarian considerations. Second, public and political attitudes towards migration are closely tied to deep-seated anxieties, including fears of loss, alienation, domination, and marginalization, and these fears can be easily exploited by populist politicians.

One of the factors contributing to these fears is the demographic crisis in which all of the countries of the region find themselves, though to different degrees. What the Hungarian demographer Attila Melegh has pointedly termed “demographic emptying” underpins much of the hysteria about defending the nation and ensuring its survival (right-wing populists would rather see their nation die out than to let migrants in). Similar fears about emigration as a loss to the nation sparked attempts to restrict it a century ago. As Tara Zahra has persuasively shown in her recent book, political debates about international migration in East Central Europe and the Balkans have been closely tied to perceptions of marginalization and peripherality and visions of state development since the late nineteenth century.2

East Central and Southeastern Europe past and present offer textbook examples of what Sebastian Conrad examines in his seminal global history of the (pre-1914) German Empire:3 the globalization of the flow of labor, goods, and ideas breeds its own contradiction in the form of nativist responses, which define belonging not in terms of shared citizenship, but in terms of narrow kinship solidarity, i.e. “blood” vs. cosmopolitan ideas. This contradiction is hardly new. Transnationalism and nationalism flourish not only in tandem but even in a synergetic or parasitic relationship. These ironies, however, are usually lost on nationalists. In the most extreme case, this connection is not ironic but fatal: extreme nationalisms regularly produce waves of refugees, which generate new transnational entanglements, both on the level of everyday social interactions and on the level of high diplomacy.

Here again, the Balkans and East Central Europe offer a great deal of material for comparative research, for example on refugee accommodation strategies after World War One and today, resettlement practices in empires and nation states, and international relief efforts in the interwar period and after 1945. Large-scale refugee movements, such as the flight of almost 1.5 million Greeks from Turkey to Greece in 1923, were met with new patterns of state intervention. The Balkans and Central Europe in the interwar period and again after 1945 were essential laboratories for the development of international refugee protection mechanisms which still exist today and which we now see crumbling in Europe as, one by one, the countries of the region ignore their obligations according to the Geneva Convention. The politics of asylum is, unfortunately, terribly ignorant of its history.

The close link between nationalism, nation-building, and migration is not the only continuity in the rich migration history of the region. East Central European and Balkan societies have also faced an almost constant pressure to emigrate for economic reasons. With the exception of the period of communist rule, when voluntary emigration was banned or highly restricted in all of the states of Eastern Bloc (with the exception of Yugoslavia), significantly more people left the region than immigrated to it. Under communism, these streams were partially redirected to domestic destinations (for example, from rural settlements to larger cities or to areas from which German speakers had been expelled). This points to the structural position of the region in the international division of labor. It is a reservoir of relatively cheap labor from where, most of the time, workers go to places where capital can employ them, and not the opposite way round (though the inflow of foreign direct investment after 1989 has somewhat reversed this relationship). In many ways, the region can therefore be considered a laboratory for the study of the long-term (and also short-term) effects of migration and the ways in which the dynamics of economic migration interrelate with state-building and political change.

As a social process with manifold, complex and often contingent cultural, economic, and political consequences, migration has shaped the societies of East Central and Southeastern Europe in many, often unforeseen ways. It helped connect the region with global currents, but it also regularly was met with nationalistic backslashes which aim to reinforce borders and state control over movement. Yet despite the widely recognized significance of migration for the past and present of the region, the scholarship about it is still very unbalanced, with important lacunae, especially with regard to its history. This was motivation enough for the Hungarian Historical Review to solicit contributions for a special issue on the history of migration and refugee movement in East Central Europe and the Balkans. The editors hope that this initiative will be another step in firmly putting the region on the map of international historiography about migration. The late Holm Sundhaussen’s call to consider the history of Southeastern Europe as a history of migration (and to strengthen research efforts towards that goal) should not have been in vain.4

The articles in this issue explore a wide range of topics, and their geographic and chronological spread is also broad. Taken together, they not only highlight the importance of migration for the history of all the countries of the region, they also make clear that the current hysteria about migration is misplaced: first, because migration has been a fact of life for centuries and second, because societies prove remarkably successful in the integration of newcomers in the long term. Migration is one of the driving forces of cultural innovation, and more often than not, its economic benefits outweigh its costs. The articles also point to one of the many paradoxes of migration: while it is often a result of constraints, despair, or even violence, it also offers a chance for individual agency. Migration is linked not only to fears but also to hopes. Its consequences can never be predicted because each act of migration creates new social interactions, which in turn generate new dynamics which ultimately can change underlying social structures. But this is precisely the business of historians: to reveal the structural determinants of human life on the one hand and highlight the contingent practices enabled (and constrained) by these structures on the other. Hindsight teaches us at least one lesson: history never ends.

1 This and the following quotes are from Ulf Brunnbauer, Globalizing Southeastern Europe. Emigrants, America and the State since the 19th Century, (Landham, Md.: Lexington, 2016), 236–38. See also: Ulf Brunnbauer: “Emigration Policies and Nation-building in Interwar Yugoslavia,” European History Quarterly 42, no. 4 (2012): 602–27; Aleksandar R. Miletić, Journey under surveillance: The overseas emigration policy of the kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes in global context, 1918–1928 (Berlin–London: Lit, 2012).

2 Sebastian Conrad, Globalisierung und Nation im Deutschen Kaiserreich (Munich: Beck, 2010).

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

4 Holm Sundhaussen, “Geschichte Südosteuropas als Migrationsgeschichte: Eine Skizze,” Südost-Forschungen 65/66 (2006/2007): 422–77.

Volume 6 Issue 3 CONTENTS



Integration Through Confession? Lutheran Migration from Upper Hungary to Sibiu After 1671 – Isaak Zabanius

Sever Cristian Oancea

University of Frankfurt am Main

In Memoriam Prof. Krista Zach

This study addresses the Hungarian migration in the Early Modern Era from Upper Hungary to Transylvania, focusing primarily on the biography of the Slovak Lutheran theologian Isaak Zabanius. Beginning with current historiography debates and covering the spectrum of anthropologic social historical views, it follows the exile story of this migrant, beginning with his departure for Toruń and Danzig (today Gdańsk, Poland) until his final settlement in Sibiu (Hermannstadt). I address two main questions in this article: did Zabanius migrate to Transylvania for confessional reasons, or was he motivated by economic considerations? How did he integrate into Transylvanian Saxon society? The contemporary sources indicate that he came to Transylvania because of his social network and only after having been given a position at the gymnasium of Sibiu. His integration was a success: he and his offspring became part of the local elite by ascending into the highest church and occupying political positions. Social integration in this case also represented assimilation and Germanization.

Keywords: Early Modern Transylvania, confessional persecution, Upper-Hungarian exile, confessional migration, Isaak Zabanius

The period after the conspiration of Count Ferenc Wesselényi represents one of the darkest times of Hungarian Protestantism. The Habsburgs endeavored to follow the Bohemian model and forcefully implement the Westphalian (1648) credo, cuius regio eius religio. Hundreds of Lutherans were convoked and some of them were put on trial in Bratislava (Pressburg by its German name and Pozsony in Hungarian). They were arrested and coerced to admit having been part of a conspiracy against the Habsburgs. Protestant churches and schools were confiscated or closed, and Protestant services were forbidden.1 Even radical measures against the Protestants were not unheard of in the high Catholic clerical circles.2 Under these circumstances, protestants from Upper Hungary (the territory which today is the state of Slovakia), i.e. Lutherans and Calvinists, had only two alternatives: either convert to Catholicism or emigrate.3

Confessional (e)migration was a common and mass phenomenon in Europe in the seventeenth century.4 The exiled man [Lat. exul] was a familiar baroque personage, like the nobleman, the burgher, the priest, or the convert.5 This was an enduring phenomenon and was widespread in the Habsburg Monarchy in the Early Modern Era,6 as scholars have clearly demonstrated over the course of the past decade.7 Thomas Winkelbauer refers to hundreds of thousands of confessional émigrés between 1598 and 1660.8 Hungarian migration after 1670, to the extent that it has caught the attention of scholars over the course of the past ten years, was focused mostly on the German Lands. It was perceived as an important part of the confessionalization process9 meant to discipline disobedient subjects.10 Considered more from the social and cultural historical perspectives, it was defined by Eva Kowalská as a mostly elite and confessionally “motivated” movement.11 The lives of migrants in exile, the success or failure of their integration, and their self-perception became focal subjects of study for the reputed Slovak scholar.12 However, the subject of emigration from Upper Hungary and notably the Spiš region (Zips in German, Szepes in Hungarian, and Spiş in Romanian) to the so-called “blessed Land” (Paul Philippi) of Transylvania and especially the city of Sibiu (Hermannstadt in German, Nagyszeben in Hungarian] has been not integrated into the current historiographic debates. This sub-field of the scholarship on migration still suffers an acute “backwardness” compared to the scholarship on other areas of Central Europe.

Studies on Early Modern Spiš Lutheran migration to Sibiu in the seventeenth century are not a historiographic novelty. A list of the exiled pastors and theologues was drawn by Johannes Bureus13 and the phenomenon also captured the interest of Lorenz Sievert, teacher of mathematics and physics at interwar Sibiu. By focusing primarily on the life of the silversmith Sebastian Hann, Sievert reopened a path into this research area. He provides us with the names of some thirty emigrants from the Spiš region, and also their places of origin and professions. Moreover, he assessed their emigration as a phenomenon conditioned by confessional considerations.14 Later studies on this topic focused mostly on notorious craftsmen and artists already mentioned by Sievert, or on what current debates refer to as technology or cultural transfer.15 Reasons for confessional migration were reassessed, together with the policies adopted by the city to attract qualified people.16 The stress was put on the German ethnicity of these subjects, a thesis to which some nuance should be added. The question became a research topic in the frame of the Transylvanian Saxon publication “Siebenbürgische Familienforschung.”17 Still, during my last discussion with the recently deceased German scholar Krista Zach during a friendly meeting in Cluj (Kolozsvár in Hungarian, Klausenburg in German) in 2015, we agreed that there is still much to be done on this research area. The issue of religious mobility and the “real” reasons for emigration demand deeper analysis, as does the mere question of the number of emigrants. The journeys of the common emigrants to Sibiu and their lives there are a blank page in the history books, and the question of the welcomes these migrants were given by the local guilds and churches is still insufficiently researched. The theology and political stances of the emigrants have also been quite neglected.

This study addresses the migration of Lutherans from Upper Hungary to Sibiu from the point of view of a social historian. My approach is not exhaustive, as I intend only to address some of the questions raised above, primarily by relying on the biography of the Lutheran theologue Isaak Zabanius (1632–1707).18 Drawing on a model of analysis used in the field of social-cultural history and anthropology (i.e. motivations for migration and exile evolution, reception, integration, and “cultural transfer”), I assess the peculiar meanings of these terms in the concrete case of the Transylvanian Saxon Lutheran city of Sibiu. The published and unpublished sources (most of which are Church sources) and theology books on which I draw have allowed me to reevaluate the biography of Isaak Zabanius and, to some extent, to correct, revise, and add to our knowledge of this famous Lutheran theologue. My comparison of his life with the lives of other exiled theologues and craftsmen refugees in Sibiu integrates his exile story into the history of migration from Upper Hungary and the history of Slavic migration to Transylvania during the second half of the seventeenth century. As the sources are descriptive and leave generous interpretative space, I will construct my arguments on the issue of identities. In order to do this, first it is important to assess the significance of the fact that Zabanius was both an exile and a theologue. “Exile fellow” is a term of Lutheran origin initially meaning exiled man. The term “Exul Christi” is found in the theological literature and was connected to the abandonment of office or the expulsion of Lutheran clergy around the Augsburg Interim (1548). Later, it also was used to refer to other groups which explained their migration as a decision influenced at least in part by confession.19 According to Eva Kowalská, Hungarian contemporaries used this term to designate “people who were deprived of their offices as a result of governmental regulations and the direct actions of the authorities, and those who were banished from their parishes and from the country as religious outcasts and suffered poverty as a result.”20 The analysis must take into account the importance of the status of “exile,” but it also must not fail to consider the importance of Zabanius’ clerical identity, i.e. a special consciousness or what Luise Schorn-Schütte defined as “Sondernbewustsein.”21 Thus, we must keep in mind that “historical analysis must therefore hold on to both paths of knowledge, which act as mutual constraints, and try to determine, and thus to explain, the typical form of mental disposition, of social activity, and of institutional structures.”22 Applying this to Zabanius, I will answer the following questions: was Isaak Zabanius an exiled Lutheran theologue in Sibiu? Until now, literature has generally assessed his career success, but how easily did he move in an Orthodox Lutheran Transylvanian Saxon society? What was his political and confessional behavior after he had settled in Sibiu? Can we speak of his family’s integration as well?

A Town Sui Generis:
Transylvanian Saxons and Hungarian Lutherans in Sibiu

Sibiu is a city in southern Transylvania. It constituted the capital of the so-called Saxon Land or King’s Land, and it enjoyed a large degree of political and church autonomy since the Middle Ages.23 According to the town constitutions from 1598, only free Germans could be granted citizenship, as they had exclusive rights on the Saxon territory.24 The nobles were not allowed to settle, though the constitutions of 1598 made some exceptions for people from foreign countries and nations. Physicians, surgeons, and “procurators,” for instance, could be granted citizenship under specific conditions.25 Once having become a citizen of the town, one could buy a house, be admitted into the guild and the community of the one-hundred men [Hundertmannschaft], and even serve on the town council. The constitutions did not impose Lutheranism as a sine qua non, but the apology of Albert Huet clearly designates Lutheranism as a main “nation” feature. The Saxons adopted the Wittenberg reforms in the sixteenth century, and the “confessio augustana invariata” became a mandatory norm for all burghers of the Saxon Land, and any apostasy from this faith after 1621 could represent an act of treason against the Saxon nation.26 Whether this signifies a “Volkskirche,” as it is deemed by positivist historians (for instance Georg Daniel Teutsch), remains an open question, as it was years ago, when Krista Zach addressed this issue.27 Certainly, Sibiu represented a homogenous German Lutheran town with a well determined social structure as established by the cloth orders (Kleiderordnungen). The Orthodox Romanians and Greeks lived around Sibiu, but they did not enjoy any right to citizenship, very much like the Hungarian nobility in the seventeenth century. Although the Andreanum (1224) prescribed the theoretical equality of all burghers of this territory, the social stratification of the town became vertical in the Middle Ages and remained vertical well into the Modern Era.28 Beginning in the seventeenth century, the term “elite” designated primarily a member of the town council,29 whereas the Apafi Era brought about the emergence and rise of a new social class, the intelligentsia: town inspectors, outstanding guild masters, clergy and teachers.30 Still, most of the burghers were craftsmen and artisans, as the list of burghers from 1657 clearly shows.31 Did this confessional and social reality appeal to the persecuted and exiled Lutherans from eastern Upper Hungary?

Seventeenth-century migration to Transylvania32 and Sibiu was constant.33 Compared to other Early Modern European migration waves, we can assess only individual or family settlements in Sibiu. Lorenz Sievert refers to some thirty-three Spiš migrants in the time frame 1647–76. About eighteen of them migrated before 1672. Surprisingly, the period after the trials of Bratislava was not characterized by massive migrations. People did not migrate en masse. On average, there were only one or two migrants per year (including the family when it was the case). The accuracy of the data presented by Sievert still needs to be researched, but in the absence of the Lutheran register with the deaths in Sibiu during the second half of the seventeenth century, it would be very difficult to assess what the real number of the Spiš migrants was, or how many of them settled down permanently in Sibiu. In as little as we are informed about their towns of origin, we have on the list the relatively compact region of Spiš and its surroundings: Dobra (Kisdobra in Hungarian), Prešov (Preschau in German, Eperjes in Hungarian), Kremnica (Kremnitz in German, Körmöcbánya in Hungarian), Kežmarok (Käsmark in German, Késmárk in Hungarian), Levoča (Leutschau in German, Lőcse in Hungarian), and Rožňava (Rosenau in German, Rozsnyó in Hungarian). It is not always easy to determine someone’s “ethnic” background, but names like Elias Ladiver, Elias Nicolai, Andreas Rutkai, Jeremias Stranovius, and certainly Isaak Zabanius clearly suggest that, the interpretations found in the historiography up until now notwithstanding, the alleged German ethnicity of the migrants from Upper Hungary should be reassessed. The Slovak component should be taken into consideration, as should their assimilation and quick Germanization in the span of only one generation. Their journeys to Sibiu have only rarely been studied. Instead, the documents used by Sievert (church records, testaments, guilds registers) reveal the professions of most of the migrants. About thirteen of the migrants presented by him were craftsmen and guilds “servants” (Ger. Knechte, Geselle). Others were the two town riders, one carpenter, one book binder, one organ builder, a writer (scriba), a goldsmith, two musicians, a chemist, a pharmacist, and five literati, namely Johann Fabricius, Elias Ladiver, Georg Hirsch, Isaak Zabanius, and his eldest son, Johann Zabanius.34 These literati migrated to Sibiu after the trials of Bratislava. The extent of their acceptance on account of their confession into the Saxon community is little known. The contemporary church annals, chronicles, and diaries show scarcely any interest in these migrants, and in most cases mention only individuals. Thus, in his ecclesiastic annals, David Hermann refers to a letter from the Transylvanian Prince Mihály Apafi, who demanded the intervention of the Lutheran Superintendent with the kings of Denmark, Sweden, and the Saxon Elector in favor of the protestants of Upper Hungary, who were persecuted by the Catholic Clergy.35 There is little evidence of any confessional solidarity with the persecuted brothers from Upper Hungary. Thus, one must ask whether these migrants were really perceived as exiled protestants in Sibiu. Were there other reasons which would demand further investigation? As in the case of the conversion phenomenon in Early Modern Europe, the high number of people involved makes it impossible to identify every single “reason.” A more contextual analysis would be more supportive and might well yield some answers.

The Exile Story of Isaak Zabanius

The life of Isaak Zabanius offers an interesting case for the study of how a migrant to a new community perceived himself, how he was perceived by his contemporaries, and how he behaved in confessional and ecclesiastical contexts. Zabanius was born to a Lutheran family from Brodzany (Brogyán in Hungarian). His father was the Lutheran nobleman and pastor Johann Zabanius and his mother was Sophia Niecholcz. He attended the university of Wittenberg, where he received the academic title “Magister” under the dean Georg Caspar Kirchmayer (1657–59). After having returned to Upper Hungary, he received the office of gymnasium con-rector (1661) thanks to the intervention of Johann Bayer and the chair for polemical theology and theological worldly wisdom (1669) in Prešov. He lost his office due to the changes of 1670s, and, according to the sources, he ended up in penury. Three years later, his school in Prešov was closed. From this moment on, the choices he made suggest that he perceived himself as a persecuted and exiled Lutheran.36 He first fled to Toruń (Thorn in German), a Pomeranian town with many Lutherans from Upper Hungary. Some of them later left for Transylvania as well.37 From here, Zabanius went to Gdańsk (Danzig in German) in January 1674, a place where he strove to obtain an office, but as had been the case in Toruń, he failed.38 His experience in Gdańsk was typical of the exile, who faces an insecure future, as expressed in the exile exegetes for cases of other refugees.39 From this point on, his experience of exile was to change radically. His mobility was no longer a response to confessional constraints. Rather, he chose a destination where he would be confessionally secure. Unlike most of his fellow exiled fellow, he traveled to Transylvania and never returned home.

The contemporary Johann Burius situates Zabanius and other theologues from his circle as exiled fellows in Transylvania,40 an assessment that requires more profound explanations. Social networks and friendships functioned during the Early Modern Era just as they do today. Sources mention that Zabanius came to Transylvania thanks to the interventions of Georg Femger, a former colleague from Prešov and a pastor in Sebeş (Mühlbach in German, Szászsebes in Hungarian). Femger intervened on Zabanius’ behalf with the Saxon bailiff from Sibiu, Andreas Fleischer, who eventually approved Zabanius’ appointment as an instructor at the Sibiu gymnasium, and public funds were used to finance his voyage to Transylvania.41 Moreover, the sources suggest that his migration to Transylvania was mainly due to promptings by Elias Ladiver and Johann Fabricius, two of his former colleagues in Upper Hungary.42

Indeed, Zabanius presented himself as a persecuted Lutheran “exul,” but only until 1677, the year when he assumed his office at the Sibiu gymnasium: “cum in exilio vixis sum ad annum usque 1677” and “vis exillium passus.”43 Moreover, contemporary sources and the eighteenth-century Transylvanian Saxon historiography acknowledged his status as an exiled Lutheran, who had had to flee due to the persecution and hatred propagated by the Catholic or Pontifical clergy in Hungary.44 These assessments describe his flight to Toruń and Gdańsk, but his decision to come to Transylvania was a consequence of his “penury” in these Pomeranian towns. Had he not been offered the office of teacher, he might well not have come to Sibiu. This question might be worth raising, if not in the case of theologues who fled to Transylvania from the very beginning,45 at least in the cases of craftsmen who were usually described in the literature as persecuted protestants from Upper Hungary. Did they settle in Sibiu as part of a flight from persecution, or did they come to the relatively prosperous city in pursuit of stable livelihoods?

Eighteenth-century sources mention that Zabanius was welcomed in Sibiu and appreciated for his work at the gymnasium.46 There is little mention of his being regarded as a foreigner, a Slav, or a Slovak.47 Apparently, this was not an issue, much as it was not an issue in other cases when Slovaks were granted citizenship, perhaps only because of their profession and confession. Moreover, when he ran for the parish office in Hannersdorf in 1685, he lost to another village priest, as Zabanius was not considered a Slovak, but a German, he was not given the parish under the pretext that the community would not properly understand the sermons.48 He advanced in his career as a pastor only two years later, when he was ordinated pastor in Gârbova (Urwegen in German, Szászorbó in Hungarian) by his old Prešov schoolmate, superintendent Michael Pancratius.49 One can only guess whether his attainment of the parish office was connected to the fact that Pancratius had been elected superintendent only one year earlier and had supported Zabanius, but there is no direct evidence of any such link. Afterwards, Zabanius enjoyed a quick ascension in his career. He received the parish office of Sebeş in 1690, and one year later, he was given the parish office in Sibiu, a city which became the capital of the Habsburg Principality of Transylvania. Moreover, he was elected dean of the Sibiu Lutheran Chapter. He died in 1707.

Undoubtedly his life represents both a success story in exile and a paradox. Unlike Ladiver and many other Hungarian Lutheran theologues from the German Lands who returned to Upper Hungary, Zabanius remained in Transylvania even after the Habsburg occupation in 1687. Under these circumstances, we may assume that he stopped playing the role of an exiled Hungarian and assumed the position (or identity) of a Transylvanian Saxon clergyman with origins in Upper Hungary. Having come from a region where the main rival of the Lutheran Church was Catholicism and not Calvinism (as was the case in Transylvania), Zabanius imported the traditional polemics with the Jesuits from Košice (Kaschau in German, Kassa in Hungarian), and thus we can speak of a transfer of theological culture. He was hardly inclined to make peace with the Catholic fathers, as he had been described negatively in the book by Lucas Kolich.50 Moreover, unlike his colleagues from the other Saxon towns, he was more “experienced” in polemics. He continued his fights against the Catholic Church, including for instance the debates concerning the irenics (theology focusing on the question of reconciliation with the Church of Rome and the creation of Christian unity) and the Holy Spirit. The conflict with the Jesuits became personal. He openly criticized the Sibiu Saxon Count Valentin Frank von Frankenstein for having supported the Jesuits in the town,51 and through his clerical mission to defend what he perceived as religious truth, he ended up in a conflict with his own son, the Saxon mayor of Sibiu, Johann Zabanius.52 Nonetheless, his confessional encounter with the Hungarian Calvinists and Unitarians determined his alignment to the local confessional reality: he published a book on the debates between the Calvinists and Unitarians.53 Furthermore, Zabanius became the most energetic advocate of the Lutheran community of Cluj in debates with the Unitarians and Calvinists (1695). In addition to his apologia for the reestablishment of the Lutheran cult in Cluj, there is a very important mention of how he perceived the interconnection between Lutheranism and Saxons: “compositam esse rem inter Ecclesiam et Saxones Reformatos, dictum est heri; sed ubi est unitas, ibi comparatione opus non est,”54 i.e. the Saxons must be united. This sentence can be interpreted to suggest that he had come to consider himself a “Saxon.”

Unlike Hungarian Lutherans who emigrated to the German Lands, Zabanius did not write an apologia of the exiled clergyman in Transylvania. There is no sign indicating that he aligned himself with the ideology of Georg Lani or other exile theoreticians. There is little sign that the protestants from Upper Hungary remained a segregated theological group or unified minority in Transylvania, as Zabanius ended up in a personal conflict even with his old friend Elias Ladiver. They exchanged blows during a synod on the issue of the existence of atoms. Instead of assessing his membership in the group of persecuted Lutherans, I would rather assess his status as a representative of the Transylvanian Saxon clerical estate and a defender of its privileges. He continued old local disputes with the local potentati politici on behalf of the chapter, and he faced the new issues created by the advent of the House of Austria in Transylvania through the eyes of a Transylvanian Saxon pastor. Very expressive in this sense is his rejection of the demands of the Romanian United (Greek Catholic) clergy on the Saxon tenths, his manifold demands on behalf of the Sibiu Lutheran chapter (well documented in the sources of the Sibiu Chapter), and his constant quarrels with the Saxon count and Lutheran Superintendent concerning the issue of Sibiu ecclesiastic jurisdiction. He integrated into the Transylvanian Saxon Lutheran Church.

From a social point of view, his family also succeeded in fully integrating, not only into the Saxon society, but even into the local town elites. Integration was successful in many other cases of migrants from Upper Hungary, as genealogists have pointed out (for instance, the notorious exiled Lutheran Johann Vest managed to integrate, as did Johannes Löw and the aforementioned Elias Nicolai).55 Zabanius’ eldest son Johann, after studying in Tübingen and becoming Magister in theology (1688), married Elisabeth, the daughter of the Saxon bailiff Johann Haupt, in 1690. Instead of following the family tradition and becoming a theologian, he entered into the service of the town, and he ascended the professional ladder very quickly, much as his father had. He was appointed provincial notary in 1690, he represented the interests of the Saxon nation in Vienna in 1691, and he was ennobled by Leopold I and given the title Sachs von Harteneck. He was also elected mayor of Sibiu and later Saxon bailiff. Eventually, he became a martyr of the Transylvanian Saxons, after being executed in 1703 due to a conspiracy.56 His second son Jakob (later Sachs von Harteneck, 1677–1747) married Anna Maria Bakosch, the daughter of Sibiu town councilor Johann Bakosch, and became chair judge. His third son, Daniel Zabanius (later Sachs von Harteneck, 1680–1720), married Katharina Fabritius in 1701 and later Katharina Schirmer, the daughter of a pharmacist. He became a merchant. Zabanius’ daughter Rosina first married the pastor Johann Fleischer and later the pharmacist Michael Ahlfeld. As Harald Roth displayed in the genealogy, this family became part of the Transylvanian Saxon patriciate. They were integrated into the Sibiu political and social elites.57 The title Sachs von Harteneck is very revealing. It very clearly suggests that the family wanted to be “Saxon.” Moreover, eighteenth-century documents reveal that they abandoned the name Zabanius and remained known in collective memory as Sachs von Harteneck. In other words, they became a Saxon family.

The Catholic “seduction” of the eighteenth century also tempted members of Zabanius’ family: although most of the Harteneck family remained faithful to Lutheranism, a few members converted to Catholicism. This phenomenon was not uncommon. Indeed, it affected most of the patrician families of Sibiu, including the offspring of the notorious exiled Lutheran Johann Vest. Sebastian Vest converted to Catholicism in 1705 and thus became part of the Catholic patriciate.58

Final Considerations

Confessional migration to Sibiu during the second half of the seventeenth century differs in its meanings and motivations from the migration waves to the German lands. I am thinking of individual migrants and not large groups of migrants. Since Sibiu was Lutheran, “qualified” Lutheran subjects from Upper Hungary were well received. Their reasons for settling in Sibiu are open to interpretation, but I would suggest that economic considerations were more important than confessional ones. To the extent that it concerns his identity as a theologian, Isaak Zabanius’ status of “exile” applied more to the period before his arrival in Transylvania, i.e. the period when he lived in Toruń and Gdańsk. The insecure life in exile as presented by historians dealing with other European regions essentially matches his personal experience. Nonetheless, when he relocated to Sibiu, he ceased living a life in exile in the widespread understanding of the term, as he clearly pointed out after his arrival in Transylvania. His decision was influenced more by his social network and the help he was given by friends and colleagues from Prešov, as he came to Transylvania only after funds had been provided to cover the cost of his trip and he had been offered an office at the local gymnasium. He had the typical career of a successful Transylvanian Saxon Lutheran pastor, who fought for (what he perceived as) the theological truth. As an experienced polemist, he brought with him his earlier theological disputes with the Jesuits and accommodated to the local political and confessional reality, becoming an assiduous advocate of the Saxon Lutheran Church. His family represents a model of integration success à longue durée: it rose to the top of the Saxon social hierarchy, although the price was assimilation into the Saxon natio and a break with their Hungarian past. Certainly, the confession played an integrative role, as German and Slovak Lutherans were easier to assimilate than Catholic Germans in the eighteenth century. His profession also played a fundamental role. In revealing contrast, the masses of protestant peasants from Austria who were deported in the eighteenth century could not be integrated into the society of the town. His life story raises important questions concerning migration and integration patterns: had the migration of Lutherans from Upper Hungary to Sibiu in the seventeenth century taken place en masse, would it have been similarly successful? Had Catholic subjects migrated to Sibiu in the seventeenth entury, would the city have been so welcoming? These questions lead me to my conclusion: confession played an integrative role in Early Modern society. In this case, it also constituted a form and means of assimilation.


Archival sources


Arhivele Naţionale, Serviciul Judeţean Braşov [Romanian National Archives, County Archives of Braşov], Fond Colecţia de documente Biserica Neagră, Annales Ecclesiastici ab Anno Christi M.D.C.L.VIIII quo Cl. David suos finivit ad finem usque saeculi illius ex Documentis publicis adeoque authenticis et indubut continuata a Luca Graffio Ecclesiarum Augustanae Confessionis per Transilvaniam addictarum Superintendente. Descripti A 1762 diebus martii.

Arhivele Naţionale, Serviciul Judeţean Sibiu [Romanian National Archives, County Archives of Sibiu] (further quoted ANSJS), Fond Colecţia acetelor de stare civilă, 53

ANSJS, Colecţia de documente Brukenthal, B 1-5, no. 48: David Hermannii Annales Politici.

ANSJS, Colecţia de documente Brukenthal, H 1-5, no. 14: I.S.C. T., Von der Glaubens Verbesserung und ihrer Lehrern zu Hermannstadt in Siebenbürgen.

ANSJS, Colecţia de documente Brukenthal, H 1-5, no. 199.

ANSJS, Consistoriul Superior Evanghelic C.A., no. 1.

ANSJS, Episcopia Bissericii Evanghelice, Cutia 4, no. 123, 211.

Evangelisches Pfarramt Hermannstadt: Matricola Parochiae Cibiniensis

Zentralarchiv des evangelischen Kirche in Rumänien, Bestand Wilhelm Bruckner, Löw, 503/331.


Secondary sources


Albrich, Karl. “Die Bewohner Hermannstadts im Jahre 1657.” Archiv des Vereins für siebenbürgische Landeskunde NF 17 (1883): 256–90.

Bahlcke, Joachim. Gegenkräfte: Studien zur politischen Kultur und Gesellschaftsstruktur Ostmitteleuropas in der Frühen Neuzeit. Marburg: Herder Verlag, 2015.

Bahlcke, Joachim. Glaubenflüchtlinge: Ursachen, Formen und Auswirkungen frühneuzeitlicher Konfessionsmigration in Europa. Berlin: LIT Verlag, 2008.

Bobková, Lenka. Exulant.” In Člověk českého raného novověku, edited by Bůžek Václav, Král Pavel, 297–326. Prague: Argo, 2007.

Ďurovic, Ľubomir. “K životopisu Izáka Cabana.” Slavica Lundensia 8 (1980): 121–37.

Ďurovic, Ľubomir. O slovenčine a Slovensku. Bratislava: VEDA, 2004.

Fata, Márta. “Glaubensflüchtlinge aus Ungarn in Württemberg im 17. und 18. Jahrhundert Forschungsaufriss mit einer Dokumentation der Exulanten.” In Mindennapi választások, tanulmányok Péter Katalin 70. születésnapjára, edited by Gabriella Erdélyi and Péter Tusor, 519–50. Budapest: MTA Történettudományi Intézete, 2007.

Guy Marica, Viorica. Sebastian Hann. Cluj-Napoca: Dacia, 1972.

Gündisch, Gustav. “Die Oberschicht Hermannstadts im Mittelalter.”
Zeitschrift für siebenbürgische Landeskunde, 4 (1981): 3–21.

Gündisch, Gustav. “Soziale Konflikte in Hermannstadt um die Mitte des 17. Jahrhunderts.” Forschungen zur Volks- und Landeskunde 2, no. 3 (1959): 58–78.

Holzem, Andreas. Christentum in Deutschland 1550–1850: Konfessionalisierung – Aufklärung – Pluralisierung. Vol. 1. Paderborn: Schöningh, 2015.

István Juhász. “Az ellenreformáció és az erdélyi prédikátorok az 1671–1681 közötti évtizedben” [The Counter Reformation and the Transylvanian Preachers in 1671–1681]. Theologiai Szemle 17 (1976): 186–92.

Kolich, Lukács. Apologia Pro Domo Dei, Quae est Ecclesia Dei vivi, Columna, & firmamentum Veritatis. Prague: typis Univ. Carolo.-Ferd. In Coll. Soc. JESU ad S. Clementem Anno 1719.

Kowalská, Eva. “Confessional exile from Hungary in 17th century Europe: The problem of mental borders.” In Imagining frontiers, contesting identities, edited by Steven G. Ellis and Lud’a Klusáková, 229–42. Pisa: Pisa University Press, 2007.

Kowalská, Eva. Exil als Zufluchtsort oder Vermittlungsstelle? Ungarische Exulanten im Alten Reich während des ausgehenden 17. Jahrhunderts.” In Glaubensflüchtlinge: Ursachen und Auswirkungen konfessioneller Migration im frühneuzeitlichen Osteuropa, edited by Joachim Bahlcke, 257–76. Berlin: LIT Verlag, 2008.

Kowalská, Eva. “Georg Lani – Ideolog des ungarischen Exils.” Paper given at the conference in Budapest, December 2013. Accessed October 10, 2017. https://www.academia.edu/6119821/Georg_Lani_Ideolog_des_ungarischen_lutherischen_Exils.

Kowalská, Eva. “Günther, Klesch, Lani und die anderen: Zur Typologie der ungarischen Exulanten des 17. Jahrhunderts.” Acta Comeniana 20 (2001): 49–64.

Kowalská, Eva. “Konfesia ako motivácia migrácie: (vnútro)uhorská migrácia protestantov medzi prinútením a pozvaním.” Acta Historica Neosoliensia 18, no. 1–2 (2015): 64–82.

Kowalská, Eva. “Seelenheil und Staatsmacht: Merkmale der Gegenreformation in (Ober-)Ungarn.” In Staatsmacht und Seelenheil: Gegenreformation und Geheimprotestantismus in der Habsburgermonachie, edited by Rudolf Leeb, Susanne Claudine Pils, and Thomas Winkelbauer, 347–56. Vienna–Munich: R. Oldenbourg Verlag, 2007.

Krasser, Harald. “Sigismund Möss: Bildhauer und Schnitzler in Hermannstadt.” In Sie prägten unsere Kunst: Studien und Aufsätze, edited by Brigitte Stephani, 117–40. Cluj-Napoca: Dacia, 1985.

Micae historico-chronologicae evangelico-pannonicae <...> collectae et adumbratae opera vigilaci diutina Johannis Burii, laureati poetae, tunc pastoris germanici Carponensis, nunc Jesu Christi exulis duodecennis, anno vero Christi MDCLXXXV et insequentibus in ordinem redigi coeptae: Jesu benedicente labori pio. Ex autographo Posoniensi edidit Paulus Lichner. Auf dem Umschlage lautet der Titel: Johannis Burii micae historiae Evangelicorum in Hungaria ab anno 1673. ad 1688. annum.

Mikles, Ján. Izák Caban slovenský atomista v XVII. storoči. Bratislava: Slov. Akad. vied a umeni, 1948.

Oancea, Sever Cristian. “Catholic seduction or Habsburg clientele? Confessional change in eighteenth-century Transylvanian Saxon society.” Colloquia. Journal of Central European History 15 (2008): 5–29.

Oancea, Sever Cristian. “Stehe Wanderer und beweine die Siebenbürger, die heute Freiheit und Privilegien verloren haben! Die ‘Wahl des Sachsengrafen Stefan Waldhütter von Adlershausen. Zeitschrift für siebenbürgische Landeskunde 38 (2015): 81–103.

Repčák, Jozef. Izák Caban, 1632–1707: personálna bibliografia. Prešov: Štátna vedecká knižnica, 1977.

Roth, Harald. “Einzelzuwanderungen nach Siebenbürgen.” Siebenbürgishe Familienforschung 4, no. 1 (1987): 18–31.

Roth, Harald. Hermannstadt: Keine Geschichte einer Stadt in Siebenbürgen. Cologne–Weimar– Vienna: Böhlau Verlag, 2006.

Roth, Harald. “Von den Hutteren zu den Landlern in Siebenbürgen.” In Glaubensflüchtlinge: Ursachen und Auswirkungen konfessioneller Migration im frühneuzeitlichen Osteuropa, edited by Joachim Bahlcke, 355–44. Berlin: LIT Verlag, 2008.

Roth, Harald. “Zur Geschichte und Genealogie siebenbürgisch-sächsischer Geschlechter. 5. Die Familie Zabanius Sachs von Harteneck.Siebenbürgische Familienforschung 3, no. 1 (1986): 1–12.

Schilling, Heinz. “Die frühneuzeitliche Konfessionsmigration.” IMIS Beiträge 20 (2002): 439–58.

Schorn-Schütte, Luise. “Prediger an protestantischen Höfen der Frühneuzeit: Zur politischen und sozialen Stellung einer neuen bürgerlichen Führungsgruppe in der höfischen Gesellschaft, dargestellt am Beispiel von Hessen-Kassel, Darmstadt und Braunschweig Wolfenbüttel.” In Bürgerliche Eliten in den Niederlanden und Nordwestdeutschland. Studien zur Sozialgeschichte des europäischen Bürgertums im Mittelalter und in der Neuzeit, edited by Heinz Schilling and Herman Diederiks, 275–36. Cologne–Vienna: Böhlau Verlag, 1985.

Schorn-Schütte, Luise. “Priest, Preacher, Pastor: Research on Clerical Office in Early Modern Europe.” Central European History 33, no. 1 (2000): 1–39.

Schuler von Lobloy, Friedrich. Materialien zur siebenbürgischen Rechtsgeschichte. 1. Merkwürdige Municipal-Constitutionen. Hermannstadt: Steinhausser, 1862.

Schunka, Alexander. “Emigration aus den Habsburgerländern nach Mitteldeutschland: Motive und soziale Konsequenzen.” In Staatsmacht und Seelenheil: Gegenreformation und Geheimprotestantismus in der Habsburgermonachie, edited by Rudolf Leeb, Susanne Claudine Pils, and Thomas Winkelbauer, 333–46. Vienna–Munich: R. Oldenbourg Verlag, 2007.

Schunka, Alexander. “Lutherische Konfessionsmigration.” Europäische Geschichte Online. Accessed January 31, 2017. http://ieg-ego.eu/de/threads/europa-unterwegs/christliche-konfessionsmigration/lutherische-konfessionsmigration.

Seivert, Gustav. Die Stadt Hermannstadt: Eine historische Skizze. Hermannstadt: Steinhaussen, 1859.

Sievert, Johann. “Sebastian Hann. Ein Beitrag zu seiner Lebensgeschichte.“ Mitteilungen aus dem Baron Brukenthalischen Museum N.F. 2 (1932): 5–36.

Steiner, Stephan. Rückkehr unerwünscht: Deportationen in der Habsburgermonarchie der Frühen Neuzeit und ihr europäischer Kontex. Vienna: Böhlau, 2014.

Szegedi, Edit. “Confesionalizarea” [The confessionalization]. In Istoria Transilvaniei Vol II (de la 1541 până la 1711) [History of Transylvania, from 1541 to 1711], edited by Ioan Aurel Pop, Thomas Nägler, and András Magyari. Cluj-Napoca: Centrul de Studii Transilvane, 2005.

Szinnyei, József. Magyar írók élete és munkái XIV [The Lives and Works of Hungarian Writers XIV]. Budapest: n.p., 1908.

Szirtes, Zsofia. “Andreas Gunesch: Fides Saxonum in Transylvania (1697): Történeti apológia az erdélyi Habsburg-uralom kezdetéből” [Andreas Gunesch: Fides Saxonum in Transylvania (1697). Historical apology from the beginning of Habsburg Rule in Transylvania]. Levéltári Közlemények 82 no. 2 (2011): 78–123.

Terpstra, Nicholas. Religious Refugees in the Early Modern World: An alternative history of the Reformation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

Trausch, Joseph. Schriftstellerlexicon oder biographisch-literarische Denkblätter der Siebenbürger Deutschen III. Kronstadt: Krafft, 1871.

Van Der Linden, David. Experiencing Exile: Huguenot Refugees in the Dutch Republic, 1680–1700. Fanham: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2015.

Várkonyi, Ágnes. “Az önálló fejedelemség utolsó évtizedei (1660–1711)” [The last decades of the independent principality (1660–1711)]. In Erdély története [The history of Transylvania] Vol. 2. 1606-tól 1830-ig [From 1606 to 1830], edited by László Makkai and Zoltán Szász. Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 1987:

Wagner, Ernst. “Zuwanderer aus der Zips und aus ‘Oberungarn’ nach Siebenbürgen bis zum Ende des 18. Jahrhunderts (I).” Siebenbürgishe Familienforschung 4, no. 1 (1987): 1–17.

Wagner, Ernst. “Zuwanderer aus der Zips und aus ‘Oberungarn’ nach Siebenbürgen bis zum Ende des 18. Jahrhunderts (III): Die Nachkommen des Orgelbauers Johann Vest.” Siebenbürgishe Familienforschung 7, no. 2 (1990): 83–85.

Winkelbauer, Thomas. Ständefreiheit und Fürstenmacht: Länder und Untertaner des Hauses Habsburg im konfessionellen Zeitalter. Vol 2. Vienna: Verlag Karl Ueberreuter, 2003.

Zabanius, Isaak. Amica Consideratio Eorum, quae Fratres Unitarii, in Apologia sua contra Reformatos, paucis ab hinc annis, publicae luci exposuerunt. Hermannstadt: n. p., 1705.

Zach, Krista. “Religiöse Toleranz und Stereotypenbildung in einer multikulturellen Region. Volkskirchen in Siebenbürgen.” In Das Bild der anderen in Siebenbürgen: Stereotype in einer multiethnischen Region, edited by Konrad Gündisch, Wolfgang Höpken, and Michael Markel, 109–54. Cologne–Weimar–Vienna: Böhlau Verlag, 1998.

1 See the general presentation at Fata, “Glaubensflüchtlinge,” 520–22.

2 Bahlcke, Gegenkräfte, 102–17.

3 Eva Kowalská refers to a crisis of conscience engendered in this context. See Kowalská,Seelenheil,“ 354.

4 For a typology of confessional migration in Early Modern Europe see the concise analysis by Schilling, “Frühneuzeitliche Konfessionsmigration,” 67–89. A generous description of the phenomenon as an alternative to the Reformation is found in Teprstra, Religious refugees.

5 Bobková, “Exulant,” 297–326.

6 See in this regard the book by Stephan Steiner, Rückkehr unerwünscht.

7 See the articles by Jörg Deventer, Eva Kowalská, Regina Pörtner, Harald Roth, Arno Strohmeyer, and Thomas Winkelbauer in the book edited by Bahlcke, Glaubensflüchlinge.

8 Winkelbauer, Ständefreiheit, 192.

9 This paradigm most recently revised with further literature in Holzem, Christentum, 7–32.

10 Fata, “Glaubensflüchtlinge,” 519; Kowalská, “Confessional exile,” 230.

11 Kowalská, Konfesia; Idem, Exil als Zufluchtsort.“

12 Kowalská, “Georg Lani.” For a typology of the Hungarian exile perception see also Kowalská, “Günther, Klesch, Lani,” 49–64.

13 Burius, Micae historico-cronologica, 170, 171.

14 Sievert, “Sebastian Hann,” 6-8.

15 Krasser, “Sigismund Moss,” 117–40; Guy Marica, Sebastian Hann.

16 Roth, Hermannstadt, 123.

17 Wagner, “Zuwanderungen I”; “Zuwanderungen III”; Roth, “Einzelzuwanderungen.”

18 Selected published biographies of Isaak Zabanius: Szinnyei, Magyar irók, Schriftssteller Lexikon, 513–32; Mikles, Izák Caban; Repčák, Izák Caban.

19 Schunka, “Konfessionsmigration,” 3.

20 Kowalská, “Confessional Exile,” 234.

21 Schorn-Schütte, “Prediger,” 284.

22 Schorn-Schütte, “Priest,” 6.

23 Roth, Hermannstadt, 3–56.

24 Seivert, Die Stadt Hermannstadt, 395: “...keine auswärtige Nation, es sei Ratzen, Walachen, Ungarn, Horvaten, Wallon, Spanier, Franzosen, Polacken oder dgl. zu keinem Hauskauf oder auch Bestand [zugelassen werden]… unsre Nation in deutschen Städten, Märkten und Stühlen wie auch in dieser Stadt nichts anders wünschen, begehren und suchen als Gottes Ehre, des Landesfürsten Nutz, züchtiges stilles Leben und wachsen beianander.”

25 Schuler von Libloy, Municipal-Constitutionen, 111.

26 Szegedi, “Confesionalizarea,” 257.

27 Zach, “Religiöse Toleranz,” 110–14.

28 See Gündisch, “Oberschicht,” 3–21.

29 Gündisch, “Soziale Konflikte,” 60.

30 Várkonyi, “Az önálló fejedelemség,” 837.

31 Albrich, “Bewohner,” 256–90.

32 See Roth, “Hutteren,” 335–44,

33 In the Sibiu chapter marriage records, I could identify only a few migrants for whom the place of origin is mentioned. Most of them were German servants (Knechte): ANSJS, 53.

34 Sievert, “Sebastian Hann,” 6–8. When Johann Zabanius emigrated to Transylvania, he was only fourteen years old. He could not have been a “literatus.”

35 Lucas Graffius, Annales, 14.

36 ANSJS, Consistoriul, 665.

37 Ďurovič, Slovenčine, 370–78.

38 Ďurovič,Izáka Cabana”, 121–37.

39 See for instance Van der Linden, Experiencing exile, or Schunka, “Emigration.”

40 Burius, Micae historico-chronologicae, 106.

41 Trausch, Schriftssteller Lexicon, 524.

42 I.S.C.T., Glaubensverbesserung, 107, 108.

43 ANSJS, Consistoriul, 665, ANSJS, Episcopia, IV, 123.

44 David Hermanii, Annales, “Hoc anno inter alios exules ex Hungaria, atroce a Clero Pontificio Persecutionem patiente celebrimi quoque viri M. Isacus Zabanius cum universa sua familia conjuge scil. tribus filiis magne filia, et Elias Ladiver in Transilvania se receperunt....,” Matricola Parochiae, 31: “Zabanius itaque hoc modo patria extoris Gedanum profectus est, incertus consilii, quo possimum se ac rem suam familiarem sustentsaret.”

45 For instance, the Calvinists from Eastern Upper Hungary, Juhász, “Ellenreformáció,” 186–92.

46 I.S.C.T., Glaubensverbesserung, 107, 108.

47 ANSJS, “Natione Sclavicis ex Hungaria,” 366.

48 ANSJS, Brukenthal, H 1–5, no. 199, 46.

49 ANSJS, Consistoriul, 665, ANSJS, Episcopia, IV, 123.

50 Kolich, “Praefatio ad lectorem.”

51 Szirtes, “Fides Saxonum,” 85.

52 ANSJS, Episcopia evanghelică, IV, 211.

53 Zabanius, Amica considersatio.

54 I.S.C.T., Glaubensverbesserung, 116.

55 Zentralarchiv, Löw, 503/331: Johannes Löw married in Sibiu in 1681. His daughter Maria married a craftsman from the town in 1700 and they had a daughter, Maria, who also married a craftsman.

56 Trausch, Schriftssteller Lexicon, 523–31.

57 Harald Roth, “Geschichte und Genealogie.“

58 For eighteenth-century conversions to Catholicism see Oancea, “Catholic seduction” and Oancea, “Stehe Wanderer.”

Volume 6 Issue 3 CONTENTS



From Forced Migration to New Patterns of Social Life: Bulgarian Refugees in Teleorman County, Romania, in the Nineteenth Century1

Stelu Şerban

Institute for South East European Studies, Bucharest

The aim of this paper is to discern the insertion strategies of the Bulgarian migrant waves to Wallachia, focusing on Teleorman County as a case study. The largest waves of Bulgarian migrants to Wallachia occurred in the first half of nineteenth century as a consequence of the two Ottoman–Russian wars. Teleorman County is a special case, as with its four urban centers, it had more such settlements than any other county in Wallachia. The Bulgarian migrants to Teleorman settled mainly in these centers. One must draw a distinction between the patterns of the upper social strata (which included city dwellers, merchants, and landowners) and the “common” Bulgarians, who lived in rural areas and worked in the fields and gardens. I focus on the urban strategies of insertion in the first half of the nineteenth century and on the ways in which these strategies persisted in the latter half of the century, with the foundation of the city of Alexandria as a privileged site. I offer sketches of the lives of important Bulgarophone families from Teleorman and contextualize their experiences in the framework of urban and economic development.

Keywords: Bulgarian migrants, Wallachia, social strategies, urban development


Bulgarians came to Romania as migrants over the course of several centuries, especially to the southern part of the country, Wallachia, where they settled on the boyars’ estates, becoming tenant farmers. However, the largest waves of Bulgarian migrants arrived in the first half of the nineteenth century during the two Ottoman–Russian wars.2

In this context, the case of Teleorman County is at first sight significant given the relatively large size of the Bulgarophone population.3 Thus, looking beyond some exaggerations concerning the number of such migrants,4 the statistics for 1838 indicate that, after the two Russo–Turkish wars, the number of Bulgarophone families in Wallachia reached almost 12,000,5 with 1,400 of them settled in Teleorman County.6

What is really significant, however, is the large number of families settled in the county’s four towns or townlets, namely, Ruşii de Vede (today Roşiori de Vede), Zimnicea, Alexandria, and Mavrodin. With its four urban centers, as shown by the 1838 census, Teleorman had more such settlements than any other county in Wallachia. The Bulgarian migrants who came to Romania in the first half of the nineteenth century settled mainly in these centers. Thus, of the 1,400 Bulgarian families that remained in Teleorman, 520 settled in the four towns of the county.7 Teleorman differed from other counties in this respect too, since between 1831 and 1848 it occupied the third place among the counties entitled to organize fairs (83 of them), after Vlaşca and Dâmboviţa Counties.8

The aim of this paper is to discern the insertion strategies of the waves of Bulgarian migrants who arrived in Wallachia in the first half of the nineteenth century, focusing on Teleorman County as a case study. The central contention is that the arrival of waves of Bulgarian migrants and the further consolidation and growth of their communities overlapped with the accelerated economic and urban development of the Wallachian principality. The Bulgarians made use of the incentives and opportunities generated by this wider process, and within two or three generations, they had integrated into Wallachian society. Moreover, though they lost their ethnic identity, they perceived their integration as a success. On the one hand, the Bulgarophone population was not exclusively focused on one type of modern economy linked to capitalism and social modernization. Furthermore, as the geographic dictionary authored by Pandele Georgescu,9 a former Teleorman prefect, shows, the Bulgarophone migrants who settled in villages adapted to the local subsistence economy. However, the migrants adopted these strategies only as means of adapting. On the other hand, there was a current of modernizing ideas, the promoters of which were foreign landowners and traders, like, in Teleorman County, the Serbian prince Miloš Obrenović and the Bulgarian merchants. The coping strategies adopted by Bulgarian migrants were largely based on this newly emerging urban network and of their increasingly significant place in the trading exchanges. A good illustration of this fact (i.e. the importance of the emerging urban network in the coping strategies adopted by the Bulgarian migrants) is the foundation in 1834 of the town of Alexandria, in which Bulgarian traders played significant roles. In the second part of this article, I examine the case of Alexandria in connection with two stories of successful Bulgarophone families.

Settling the Migrants

Apparently, there was a locality with a Bulgarian population in Teleorman County before 1700, but scholars have not reached any consensus on which settlement it actually was.10 It is certain, however, that in this area, as in fact was the case in all of Wallachia, in the first years of the nineteenth century localities with Bulgarophone populations suddenly seemed to emerge. Thus, there is evidence of one locality in Teleorman County before 1739, one between 1769 and 1774, and one between 1793 and 1806, to which 23 were added between 1806 and 1814 and 19 between 1828 and 1834. The total number of settlements with inhabitants originating from the eastern side of the Danube, Bulgarians in their majority, in the counties in Wallachia in the same periods of time was 6, 32, 14, 174, and 198, respectively.11 The aggregate number of 424 spots in all of Wallachia is impressive, even if we take into account the high mobility of the migrant population. This total number, as well as the evolution of the Bulgarophone population over the course of different time periods, proves that its emergence was caused by the Russo–Turkish wars of 1806–12 and 1828/29.

The reaction of the Wallachian administration was positive. With the assistance of the representatives of the Russian army, they attempted to keep the migrants in Wallachia with various fiscal incentives, the most common of which was an exemption for up to 10 years from property taxes.12 Still, these efforts were only partly successful, as only some of the Bulgarians decided to stay. The rest of them either returned to their homeland or was resettled by the Russian administration in southern Bessarabia.13

In addition to the upheavals caused by the wars, the policy of the Wallachian administration also facilitated the creation of this Trans-Danubian economic and social network. At the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth, the administration in Wallachia implemented a series of tax exemptions for commercial activities carried out in the capitals of the Ottoman rayas on the left side of the Danube, namely Brăila, Giurgiu, and Turnu, the commercial and social effects of which spread to the neighboring towns and townlets.14 Furthermore, due to the Adrianopole Treaty and the liberalization of trade on the Danube in 1829, these commercial and urban centers spearheaded social and economic change on both sides of the Danube.15 As for Teleorman, pair cities on both sides of the Danube emerged and grew, such as Turnu–Nikopol and Zimnicea–Svištov.

At the same time, the Wallachian administration also took a series of coherent steps in certain specific situations, such as the forced migration of the Bulgarophone population during the Russo–Turkish war of 1828/29 and the detailed regulations aimed at settling the immigrants coming from the right side of the Danube, which were debated and voted on in the Communal Assemblies of Moldova and Wallachia.16 They provided for the appointment of deputies of the immigrant Bulgarophone population who would participate in legislative assemblies and thus be able to present issues pertinent to this population. Later, the Bulgarophone population elected Vasil Nenovič, who was continuously and persistently active.17

The origin of these representatives is not accidental. The conditions favoring the development of trading activities in Wallachia, especially after 1829, enticed traders from the entire region of southeastern Europe.18 The Bulgarian merchants, who were important because of the size of the community they represented and their geographical proximity, played a significant role in the Wallachian economy and in internal and regional political networks. They often tried to change certain geopolitical contexts to their own advantage, for instance through their involvement in the events of the 1848 revolution in Wallachia.19 One might also think of the Georgiev brothers, very successful traders from Bucharest, who supported the unification of the two Romanian principalities after the Crimean War.20

In addition to the upper stratum of immigrants who brought forward evolution strategies, many local landowners hired the majority of the Bulgarophone population to work on their estates, thus integrating them into the local traditional family-type economy. I identified local landowners in 10 villages populated by Bulgarian immigrants in Teleorman County in the 1830s.21 In only two of these villages were the Bulgarians settled on monastery properties. The rest of the properties were owned by higher-ranking or lower-ranking rulers (so-called “dregători”)22 or by their relatives.

Most of these landowners, who were Romanian ethnics, owed their position and wealth to the social shifts which took place at the end of the eighteenth century, brought about by the Phanariote reforms. Their upward move on the social ladder was due to their appointment as “dregători” by the Phanariote rulers. Still, there were among them people who were not Romanian, including Greeks, Serbs, or Bulgarians. They had all come into conflict with the local boyars and members of boyar families before the start of the Phanariote era at the beginning of the eighteenth century. There was an intense and explicit opposition by the boyars to the appointment of newcomers to positions in the administration, which found expression at the end of the eighteenth century in many memoirs and the taking of public stands.23

The competition between these two top groups in Wallachian society was also based on the creation of often fictitious kinship and alliance networks intended to carry forward the surnames and properties. The cases of future Wallachian rulers, such as Gheorghe Bibescu or Barbu Ştirbei, who came to power after the removal in 1821 of the Phanariote rulers, are good examples in this respect. It should be added that the middle boyars used the same strategies.24

The presence of the Bulgarian merchants in these kinds of social networks in Wallachia is significant because it promoted the integration of the two waves of Bulgarophone migrants in the first half of the nineteenth century.25 Representatives like Vasil Nenovič belonged to a category well positioned in Wallachia’s social and economic structure, and they acted as political, social, and economic mediators in the process of integrating the Bulgarian immigrants.26 I will illustrate this in the case of Teleorman County with the examples of the Butculescu family, a native family which received many Bulgarian immigrants on its lands, and the Deşu family from Veliko Tuˇrnovo, according to some sources, or Pleven, according to others. In the early nineteenth century, members of the two families began to marry.

The most prominent member of the Butculescu family was Marin (1760–1830), a resident of Ruşii de Vede. Marin was a descendant of a modest family. His genealogy began with Mihai Butculescu (1505–68), also called Roşioru, an elite cavalry (roşiori) captain.27 Marin was born in Slatina, in the neighboring Olt County. In 1799, he married Maria Mihăescu, from an Olt County family which had never had a prominent place in the ruling hierarchy. In 1800, Marin Butculescu was a middle treasurer (biv treti vistiernic). He then became a grand serdar, an army commander member of the group of Divan boyars. Marin funded the painting of a church in Ruşii de Vede, in the founding of which his family had participated. The church had been erected in 1780 by Marin’s father, Ion Butculescu, and his father’s uncle, Radu Butculescu.28 In 1811, Marin Butculescu moved the entire townlet to the opposite bank of the Vedea River to protect it from frequent flooding.29 In 1829, Marin Butculescu was appointed prefect (ispravnic) of Olt County by the Russian administration, after having served as a tax executor (mumbaşir) in the Russian army in 1828.

Marin Butculescu had large properties in Teleorman and in the neighboring Argeş County as well, but he settled Bulgarophone refugees only on the two properties in Teleorman, in Sârbii Sfinţeşti, today Gratia, and Ţigăneşti Calomfireşti, near the future town of Alexandria.30 The origins of the two Teleorman estates are indicative of the strategies of the Butculescu family: one had been inherited (the one located at Sârbi Sfinţeşti), while the other (Calomfireşti) had been purchased by him in 1808, partly from the common land owned by free peasants (moşneni) and partly from the Bucharest monastery of Cotroceni.31

One of Marin Butculescu’s brothers, Gheorghe, born in 1765, also had a military position, that of şetrar, and was married to Manda Deşu, the daughter of Tudor Deşu, a Bulgarian settled as a postelnic in Ruşii de Vede at the end of the eighteenth century. Manda’s brother was Andrei Deşu, also known as “the Serb from Târnova”.

Andrei Deşu (1786–1882) offers the best example of the insertion strategies of the Bulgarian ethnics in the Wallachian social hierarchy in the first half of the nineteenth century. The son of a Bulgarian ethnic settled in Ruşii de Vede at the end of the the eighteenth century, Deşu extended its network of influence over the entire territory of the Wallachian principality. Deşu was appointed vice-treasurer (vtori vistier) by Grigore Ghica in 1827,32 against the backdrop of a large campaign aimed at “cleansing” the Wallachian administration of the Phanariote cadres.33 Grigore Ghica the IVth became in 1822 the first native ruler after the end of Phanariote period, which had begun in Wallachia more than one century before (1716). Holding the position of vice-treasurer, in the 1830s, Deşu acted as a mediator between the immigrant Bulgarian traders and the local landowners by purchasing portions of the Brânceni and Smârdioasa estates. The Bulgarian traders who immigrated in 1830 together with those who had immigrated two decades earlier were aiming to found the town of Alexandria. Nevertheless, although they expressed a strong interest in the estates purchased by Deşu, they feared that Deşu would attempt to swindle them. The traders rejected the offer, and Deşu was left with the estates.34 But he sold them later to Miša Anastasiević, an important figure of Serbian immigration to Wallachia.35

At the same time, Andrei Deşu became active in Wallachian politics in the first half of the nineteenth century. People said of him that he would have been a Wallachian or Serbian candidate for rule,36 but that seems an exaggeration. However, there is a lot of data suggesting that he organized the revolts against Ottoman rule in Brăila in 1841–43. He would have been the main provider of funds, along with the Serbian envoys of Miloš Obrenović.37 For these acts he was put in prison until 1848 at the Telega salt mine. This is why he did not participate in the 1848 revolution in Wallachia, but of his sons, Ionuţ, a land leaseholder himself in Teleorman and holder of a minor administrative position (that of pitar), fired his weapon in 1848 at the Organic Regulations (hanging on a wall) in the main square in Ruşii de Vede.38

Still, in terms of family alliance strategies, Deşu preferred local connections, first with the Butculescu family, which, as mentioned above, was highly influential in Teleorman and, moreover, was important in the settlement of the Bulgarian immigrants. Also, Andrei Deşu became related through his wife, Bălaşa, to another highly influential Teleorman family, the Depărăţeanus. The three related families, Butculescu, Depărăţeanu and Deşu, funded the construction of the main Ruşii de Vede parish churches,39 a very telling sign of their social position.

The case of Andrei Deşu illustrates the subsequent evolution of the Bulgarian ethnics against both the precise backdrop of the waves of Bulgarian immigrants and the larger backdrop of their adaptation to Wallachian society. They used the emerging urban network, the importance of trading exchanges, and new networks of power and influence. As we will see in the next sections, the opportunities these latter frames offered were used by the next generation of Bulgarian immigrants, though the social, political, and economic context changed. In this sense, the foundation of the town of Alexandria constitutes a telling example.

In Search of an Urban Life

In the second half of the nineteenth century there were no longer large waves of Bulgarian immigration across the Danube, in spite of the outbreak of two new Russo–Turkish wars between 1853 and 1856, the Crimean War, and the 1877/78 war. Having participated in these two wars, even indirectly, or in the preceding events, the Bulgarophone people already had important social and economic positions. Moreover, the powerful Bulgarian intellectual and economic diaspora in Wallachia ended up making a bridgehead for the Bulgarian movement for empowerment in the face of the domination of the Ottoman Empire, including through shadow governments capable of leading the new Bulgarian state.40

Bulgarian immigrants held such important positions because they had adopted successful economic and social strategies, as shown in the previous section of this essay. After 1850, the second generation of immigrants would continue the same strategies, adapting them to new social contexts. One of the most efficient ways in which these strategies were used was through the settlement of the Bulgarian population in the Wallachian urban area. As I argued at the beginning of this paper, the case of Teleorman County is relevant in this respect.

Still, after 1850, the Bulgarian immigrants had to cope with two questions linked to the more general context of social change in the entire Wallachian principality. The first concerned the removal of the bureaucratic system of ranks and functions (dregătorii) of the Phanariote era. This measure, which was mentioned in the political program of the 1848 revolution in Wallachia, was achieved in the following decade in spite of the revolution’s failure. A string of reforms implemented by Barbu Ştirbei, the new Wallachian ruler, and the express introduction of these measures in the peace treaty signed after the Crimean War in 1856 led to the replacement of the Phanariote bureaucratic system by a model inspired by the modern bureaucracies of West European countries.41 The Bulgarian community of immigrants, which used (as exemplified by the case of Andrei Deşu) the Phanariote system of appointment in administrative positions, had to adapt its social strategies accordingly. And it did so successfully, engaging in local competitions for politic and bureaucratic positions. The cases mentioned below of the Repanovici and the Noica families are good examples of this.

The second aspect stems from the economic modernization of the Wallachian principality triggered by the post-1829 liberalization, which continued throughout the nineteenth century. The mushrooming of the trading network (a process in which Teleorman County occupied a leading place), the circulation of goods (including real estate properties), and the demand for monetary capital to fund such activities was exploited successfully by immigrants from southeastern European countries, including Bulgaria. One could mention, for instance, Serbian immigrants active in Teleorman County, such as the aforementioned Miša Anastasiević or the former Serbian ruler Miloš Obrenović, or even members of the other Serbian ruling family, Karageorgević. They all owned large estates purchased with funds obtained from various commercial activities, while another portion of the funds was lent, including the Wallachian government.42 Since the eighteenth century, loans had also been given to the boyars and the government by Bulgarian traders, a practice which continued into the next century.43

The founding of the town of Alexandria illustrates and embodies the link between the migration of the Bulgarian population into Teleorman County and the shift of the region’s political economy towards relative urbanization and the adoption of market economy relationships. The town was founded in 1834 with the active involvement of Bulgarian traders and craftsmen. The town’s administration was made up from the outset of a group of 52 individuals, who pooled together the amount of money necessary to purchase the land on which the town was founded. Half of the founders originated from the townlet of Mavrodin, which itself had been founded in 1810 in part by traders who had immigrated from Svištov after the destruction of Svištov by fire. The other half originated from Zimnicea, where traders who had immigrated in 1810, also from Svištov, lived. The ethnicity of the town’s founders is not mentioned. Some of the Alexandria monographers argue that they were Bulgarian,44 although one finds among them people whose names sound Romanian and even Aromanian.45 They had the official permission of the ruler Alexandru Ghica, who in 1840 issued a deed in which he acknowledged the privileges of the new town. As a matter of fact, the town’s name was given in the honor of and as an act of gratitude for the ruler. The initial group was organized as a council with preferential rights in favor of the founding members, such as the preemptive right, and collective decision-making procedures.

Another urban project, this time a failed one which nevertheless merits mention, since in a way it mirrors the foundation of Alexandria, was the aforementioned attempt to establish a town on a portion of the Mavrodin estate by the Serbian prince Miloš Obrenović.46 Mavrodin was established as a townlet in 1810, when the şetrar Constantin Mavrodin won, after a long lasting and extremely controversial trial, portions of the surrounding estates. By establishing the townlet, he thought, as Constantin Gane puts it in his work dedicated to the Mavrodin family (a family with many branches), of helping “the poor Shishtovians,” but he had in mind the idea of profiting from tax cuts for goods sold there.47 In 1825, Constantin Mavrodin died suddenly, and the estate was taken over in exchange for a debt by a man named Hristofor Sachelarie, who was married to a member of the Bălăceanu family, to whom the Mavrodin family was related. The two families also owned neighboring estates in the northern part of Teleorman County. Sachelarie sold the estate in 1835 to prince Miloš Obrenović. The prince had a cadastral survey made in 1850 for his share of the Mavrodin estate with the intention of building a new urban settlement. He submitted an application to the Romanian government in 1860, but the spot he had requested was not given governmental approval. Instead, a nearby place on the right bank of the Vedea river was offered as the new site. Land sale announcements in the Official Gazette followed. The name of the new town should have been Cuza, after the name of the ruler of the two Romanian principalities, which had just been unified. But the ruler disagreed. Miloš died in 1860, and his son Mihail carried on with the project, which was continued under the name town Buzescu. But Mihail was assassinated in 1868, and the project failed. In 1885, Mavrodin was a village inhabited by only 320 families.48

Having as the town of Alexandria as a center, the Bulgarians succeeded in gaining top positions in the social and economic life of local society. The town enjoyed considerable local autonomy until the administrative reform of 1864.49 Instruction in most of the schools was in Bulgarian, and this reflected the predominance of the Bulgarian population in the town.50 On the one hand, the Bulgarian population was cosmopolitan, with connections throughout southeastern Europe. This explains why education here was organized by figures like Hristo Zlatovič.51 On the other hand, there was an internal conflict with regard to attitudes towards Ottoman power between the radical Bulgarian groups, represented by Hristo Botev (who taught in the school) and some traders on the one hand and the descendants of the čiorbadzia, traders themselves as well, but mostly landowners, on the other.52

After 1875, the majority of the population became Romanian and Romanian cultural institutions developed.53 Subsequent demands by the Bulgarian population to reinstate education in Bulgarian were turned down.54 Under these circumstances and after the declaration of the Bulgarian autonomous state, which polarized a segment of the Bulgarian local elite, the Bulgarophone population, descendants of the immigrants who came in the first half of the nineteenth century from Alexandria and all of Teleorman County, preferred to declare themselves Romanians. This decision seems to have been strictly pragmatic, motivated by the political strategies of property capitalization and social development.55 Whatever the case, they proved successful once again. Two cases of Alexandria families support this argument: the Repanovici family and the Noica/Noikov family, both of which contributed to the town’s foundation in 1834.

Apparently, Avram Repanovici was the most enthusiastic of Alexandria’s founders, since he was the first person to erect his house on the territory of the future town. He also immigrated after the destruction of Svištov in 1810, and along with Genku Noikov/Noica and a few other representatives, in 1832 he negotiated the purchase of the land on which the town was built. Thus, he was one of the town’s founders.56 His son Anghel Repanovici took over his father’s business, by the mid-1860s he had become the most important merchant in Alexandria.57 His commercial connections included business with the Georgiev brothers in Bucharest.58 Still, he did not go beyond strictly commercial relations, as he did not extend his economic activities with agricultural land purchases. Anghel Repanovici got involved politically, developing connections with the Bulgarian radical militant Giorgi S. Rakovski, whom he supported in his work as editor of the newspaper Budušnost (“The Future”). He did not espouse radical options, however, and between 1870 and 1873 he was the town’s mayor.59

After 1880, Repanovici was a member of the Conservative Party, on behalf of which he ran several times in the local elections. As someone who held an important position in the party’s local branch, he was elected municipal council chair between 1889 and 1891, and he wrote a series of articles on the town’s Bulgarian past for the local party gazette, Vedea. The local liberal opponents often stigmatized him, referring to his ethnic origin and the links he maintained with Bulgarians from across the Danube.60

Much like Andrei Deşu in Ruşii de Vede, Anghel Repanovici remained a notable of the town in which he lived, Alexandria. Although the socio-political contexts are profoundly different in the two cases, they are examples of the plasticity and adaptability of the strategies espoused by the members of the two waves of Bulgarian immigrants in the first half of the nineteenth century to the north of the Danube. I conclude this paper with the case of the Noica family, descendants of Genku Noikov/Noica, himself a founder of the town of Alexandria. This case also constitutes an example of the various adaptation strategies adopted by the Bulgarian immigrants, from family alliances to competition for political positions and the accumulation of land.

From Merchant to Landowner

The Noica family became famous because of Constantin Noica (1909–87), a philosopher and prominent personality in Romanian public life. He and his family’s biography deserve consideration, even if Constantin Noica himself ignored this subject. Genku, his great grandfather, was among the participants in the foundation of the town of Alexandria, as Constantin Noica himself confessed.61 In truth, Genku Ilie Noica (1790–1858)62 is at the top of the list of the 52 traders and craftsmen who founded the town. Genku Noica came from the aforementioned Mavrodin, a townlet at the time, where he settled after immigrating along with a significant group of merchants after the destruction of Svištov in 1810.63

Seemingly, Genku Noica’s ethnicity was more a matter of trajectory than inheritance. Some of the authors of local monographs contend that he was of purely Bulgarian origins (though they offer no persuasive arguments in support of this contention), i.e. part of the significant group of Bulgarians who founded the town of Alexandria.64 What really matters, however, is that Genku Noica was strongly attached to the Bulgarian national cause, since his name was on the list of those who in 1842 ordered the book authored by I.N.Velinin, Zaradi vŭzrozhdenie novoi bolgarskoi slovenosti ili nauki (“For the rebirth of the new Bulgarian literature and sciences”).65 The book had been translated from Russian into Bulgarian, and it was intended to mobilize the Bulgarian intelligentsia which had emigrated to Wallachia. At the same time, Genku Noica knew Bulgarian, and he drew up the town’s administrative deeds.66

It was also argued that Genku Noica was an Aromanian,67and that he had been adopted by a Romanian family from Svištov, Ilie and Anica Dogaru. Genku was the biological son of Anghel Gigantu, a brother-in-law of Anica. The Gigantu family was Aromanian, according to an oral statement made by Emanuel Văcăreanu (1884–1916), the first person to draw up the Noica family tree. Ilie Dogaru acknowledged the adoption through a testament clause dated February 10, 1825.68 The Dogaru family emigrated from Svištov to Zimnicea and then to Mavrodin, where Genku came into conflict with his adoptive father. He subsequently left for Alexandria.

Genku Noica had two wives, Niculina,69 with whom he had three daughters, and Maria Constantinescu. Neither of Genku’s wives had prestigious social backgrounds. Iacovache, born in 1828 in Mavrodin, was Genku Noica’s son from his second marriage.70 In the testament concluded on February 1, 1857, the three daughters from his first marriage are mentioned, namely, Paraschiva, Teodosia, and Chiriaca. According to the will, he “[bequeathed] them movable assets and money, as much as I wish, and I agree with my sons-in-law according to the customs, by means of marriage contracts... as per my sons-in-law’s desire, and no other movable or immovable asset can be taken.” At the same time, he left Iacovache, his only son from his second marriage, “all the movable and immovable assets... and he will have to pay to whomever I owe something and receive from whomever owes me... and must organize and pay for my funeral and memorial services up to three years from my death.71 The bequeathed assets are not mentioned, but as I discuss below, when Iacovache died in 1890, a hotel that his father had left him in 1857 still existed.72

If Genku Noica’s ethnic origin is uncertain or simply multiple, since he belonged to a southeastern European culture in which multiethnic identities were not rare, especially with regard to elites, his son Iovache Noica nonetheless came to be one of the Teleorman liberal leaders in the 1880s. The notice of his death published in the local liberal journal Jos reacţiunea on October 14, 1890 (Iacovache died on October 5) says almost everything about the “adoption” of the Noica family: “He (Iacovache Noica) was a significant landowner with many town assets as well, he served twice as a deputy in the Parliament, a knight of the Royal House of Romania, and vice-chair of our local committee.” Unlike cases such as that of the conservative deputy Anghel Dumitrescu, who was censured in the local liberal press for having Bulgarian origins,73 Iacovache Noica’s ethnic origin was not questioned. Iacovache Noica was married twice,74 fathered 17 children, had daughters-in law, sons-in-law, etc. about whom one finds many references in the local press, including the conservative press. We can infer that he was a highly reputed local figure and had extended family connections.

In addition to being a political personality, he was also a real estate investor. The division of his inheritance in 1892, two years after death, reveals that Iacovache had accumulated significant and large land acreage, two estates—Frăsinetu and Schitu/Poienari, the first of 1,700 ha, the second of 570—a hotel in Alexandria (as it so happens, the only one in town), a residential house also in Alexandria, and granaries in the city of Giurgiu. This inheritance would be split in 12 equal portions, 9 corresponding to the two estates and three to the other three properties, and would be divided up by lots by the legal heirs.75 The resolve to invest in land seems to have been one of Iacovache’s later decisions. The first plots of the Frăsinetu estate were bought in 1881,76 through the purchase was only completed in 1888, when Iacovache acquired the debts that the previous owners had to the Rural Credit House.77

Among Iacovache Noica’s sons, three continued their father’s strategy, following both a political career and making investments meant to capitalize their wealth. Two of these sons, Andrei and Paraschiv, were initially members of the liberal party, though they switched sides and went over to the conservatives. Andrei Noica became conservative in 1897.78 He then served twice as the mayor of Alexandria,79 while Paraschiv Noica was already a member of the conservative party. Grigore Noica, Constantin’s father, opted for the conservatives from the very beginning. But he was not as dedicated to politics as his other two brothers. He authored articles on agriculture in the conservative newspaper Alexandria, which was published for a short period of time in 1903, and he also edited an independent agronomical journal intended for the large landowners of Teleorman County.

All three brothers were interested in capitalist investments in agriculture. In order to settle their father’s bequest and also to avoid having to fragment the estates, Andrei and Paraschiv Noica purchased half of the Vităneşti estate, which they ceded to their elder brother Grigore in 1904 in exchange for 280 ha as inheritance rights from their father.80 One year after having acquired the Vităneşti estate, Grigore Noica married Clemenţa Casassovici, who would later give birth to Constantin Noica.81 Whether intentionally or not, here too family affiliation was decisive. Clemenţa’s paternal grandfather was Ivanciu Casassovici, an Aromanian trader, according to the family history, and also a founder of the town of Alexandria after his 1810 emigration from Svištov to Zimnicea.82 The Vităneşti property was enlarged by Grigore Noica up to almost 2,000 ha, and it proved sufficient to sustain the family, which would live partly in the countryside and partly in Bucharest.83

The exchange with Grigore was for the estates from the Frăsinet village. These estates were first purchased by Iacovache Noica in 1881. Andrei and Paraschiv owned this property jointly, as they did in the case of other properties as well, until 1917. The division was forced by the arrest of the two brothers, who chose to remain at their estates after the government retreated to Iaşi as Romania became involved in World War I.84 As it so happens, Andrei Noica died a year later. The division deed included, along with the Frăsinet estate (which had been reunited by means of agreements like the ones concluded with Grigore), other land properties acquired together by the two brothers: two estates in the neighboring Vlaşca County with an aggregate area of 4,250 ha, two other estates in Teleorman County with an aggregate area of 1,420 ha, a mill and the Alexandria residence and hotel inherited from Iacovache, which had been overhauled and extended.85

The difference between the properties owned by the grandfather, Genku, the father, Iacovache, and the three brothers, Andrei, Paraschiv, and Grigore, illustrates the success of the Noica family’s economic strategies. Moreover, Iacovache’s sons engaged in local matrimonial alliances meant to strengthen and stabilize their growth. Grigore married a descendant of the Cassasovici family (a founding family of Alexandria which enjoyed similar success in climbing the social ladder), and Andrei Noica and Dimitrie Noica (the latter also a son of Iacovache) married either members of former local boyar families, such as Depărăţeanu and Burcă of Roşiori de Vede, or members of economically successful families, such as the Capră family, a former land leaseholder family members of which in 1900 worked large properties in Teleorman County.86 The Noica family case is also significant as an example of the traditional pattern of Bulgarian migration across the Danube as workers on agricultural holdings. Paraschiv Noica, for instance, often hired Bulgarian workers skilled in handling water extraction hydraulic equipment to work on his estates.87


The main stimulating factor which made the Bulgarophone population settle permanently in Teleorman County, as it did in all of Wallachia after 1800, was its inclusion in the area’s political economy and urbanizing social milieu. On the one hand, it was the active policy of the Wallachian government to integrate the Bulgarian migrants. As I have shown at the beginning of the first section in this article, the government took a range of measures to keep the Bulgarian migrants on Wallachian lands. This is even more obvious in the case of the second wave of migrants, whose arrival overlapped with the economic liberalization underway after the Adrianopole Treaty. The reasons for these policies were economic, but not related to the development of the rural areas and agriculture. The main target of the government policies was rather the groups of merchants, big leaseholders, and intellectuals who were able to participate actively in the urban and capitalist development of the principality. In this respect, the case of Teleorman County is telling, since at the time it was one of the most urbanized Wallachian counties. On the other hand, the Bulgarophone population easily entered the dense fabric of social and economic relations created by the vertical stratification of the landowners, land workers, and rural dwellers and also by the horizontal relationships of the large landowners. This population was made up of “common people” hired as tenants or simple agricultural workers and individuals engaged in land-related commercial and ownership relations. Particularly in the second half of the nineteenth century, this latter group became significant landowners who often hired members of the Bulgarophone population, either locals or migrants coming from the far side of the Danube. The motives brought forward by the novel economic relations gave rise in the first half of the century to collective projects undertaken by the Bulgarophone economic and social elites, such as the project of founding urban centers. This is how the town of Alexandria took shape, creating opportunities which were used by the Bulgarophones in the second half of nineteenth century to forge new adaptation strategies.



Archival sources

DJANG – Arhivele Naţionale ale Romaniei. Direcţia Judeţeană Galaţi/Romanian National Archives. Galaţi County Departament. Fond Inspecţia Fluvială/River Inspection Fund

DJANTr – Arhivele Naţionale ale Romaniei. Direcţia Judeţeană Teleorman/Romanian National Archives. Teleorman County Departament. Fond “Paraschiv Noica”/ “Paraschiv Noica” Fund


Alegătorul liber / Free elector, National Liberal Party journal, Alexandria, 1905.

Jos reacţiunea / Down with reaction, National Liberal Party journal, Turnu Măgurele, 1889–1901.

Vedea, Conservative Party journal, Alexandria, 1893–1898.


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1 I pursued the research on which this article is based within the framework provided by the Institute for South East European Studies, Bucharest. I warmly thank Ms. Sanda Stavrescu, who allowed me to study the family archive of her grandfather Paraschiv Noica, and my colleague Andrei Sora for several bibliographical suggestions.

2 Velichi, “Emigrarea bulgarilor în Ţara Românească,” 27–57; Velichi, “Emigrări la nord şi la sud de Dunăre,” 67–116; Kosev, Paskaleva, and Diculescu. “Despre situaţia şi activitatea economică ,” 253–82; Roman, “Aşezări de bulgari şi alţi sud dunăreni în Ţara Românească,” 126–43; Trajkov and Jechev, Bulgarskata emigratsija v Rumunija; Mladenov, Bulgarskite govori v Rumunija.

3 According to the Ottoman traditional concept of state border, the Danube was a buffer area where people of various ethnicities were colonized (Popescu, “Ester au XVIe siècle – nouvelles contributions,” 193–94; Molnár, “Borders of the Ottoman Empire: Theoretical Questions and Solutions in Practice (1699–1856),” 34–44). Thus, alongside the refugees (most of whom were Bulgarian-speaking), Romanians crossed the Danube as well. See for instance, Romanski, Bulgarite vuv Vlashko i Moldova, 70–76, 99–116.

4 The number of the Bulgarians in the nineteenth century in Wallachia, Moldova, and Transylvania was estimated at 800,000–900,000 (Trajkov and Jechev, Bulgarskata emigratsija v Rumunija, 154).

5 Velichi, “Emigrări la nord şi la sud de Dunăre,” 108.

6 Ibid., 114.

7 Ibid.

8 Penelea-Filitti, Les foires de la Valachie, 66–67, 160–63.

9 Georgescu, Dicţionarul geografic.

10 Stănescu and Preda, Licuriciu. 29; Roman, “Aşezări de bulgari,” 142.

11 Ibid., 129.

12 Romanski, Bulgarite vuv Vlashko i Moldova, 152–56.

13 Velichi, “Emigrarea bulgarilor în Ţara Românească,” 52–54.

14 Kosev, Paskaleva and Diculescu, “Despre situaţia şi activitatea economică,” 284–85.

15 Hardi, “Spatial structure and urban types,” 59–73.

16 Veliki and Trajkov, Bulgarskata emigratsija vuv Valahija, 84–88; Trajkov and Jechev, Bulgarskata emigratsija v Rumunija, 96ff.

17 Velichi, “Emigrări la nord şi la sud de Dunăre,” 100–03.

18 Diculescu, Iancovici, Danielopolu and Popa, Relaţiile comerciale ale Ţării Româneşti.

19 Velichi, “Bulgarii din Ţara Românească,” 266–70.

20 Davidova, Balkan transitions to modernity, 47–48.

21 Mladenov, Bulgarskite govori v Rumunija, 31–47; Donat, Pătroiu and Ciobotea, Catagrafia obştească, 70, 151–64.

22 For the definition of dregători see Sachelarie and Stoicescu, Instituţii feudale din Ţările Române, 174–75. Basically, they were state-appointed bureaucrats who in exchange for a given privilege performed various tasks in the local and central government.

23 Georgescu, Istoria ideilor politice românesti, 187–88.

24 Iancu, “Defining the Patrimony,” 56–60.

25 Velichi, “Emigrarea bulgarilor în Ţara Românească,” 48.

26 Romanski, Bulgarite vuv Vlashko i Moldova, 376; Kosev, Paskaleva and Diculescu, “Despre situaţia şi activitatea economică,” 297.

27 Sturdza, Familiile boiereşti din Moldova, 623–38; Chefani-Pătraşcu, Moşieri teleormăneni, 62. Mihai Sturdza claims Butculescu died in 1632.

28 Stroescu, Oraşul Roşiorii de Vede, 63.

29 Ibid., 24.

30 Donat, Pătroiu and Ciobotea et al., Catagrafia obştească, 152; Staicu, Aşezările judeţului Teleorman, 191.

31 Pascal, Carte de hotărnicie, 2.

32 Filitti, “Arhondologia Munteniei la 1822–1828,” 148.

33 Amongst 750 dregători enlisted in 1829, 342 were given their positions by Grigore Ghica. In this latter group, only 62 were foreigners, mainly Greeks, while 20 came from the big and middle boyar families, 110 from obscure boyar families, and 150 “new men...the trustees of the Principe Ghica and of the great boyars, the people educated in the Wallachian schools, etc.” (Filitti, “Arhondologia Munteniei la 1822–1828,” 152).

34 Velichi, “Emigrarea bulgarilor în Ţara Românească,” 49.

35 About Miša Anastasiević (1803–1885) see Iancovici, “Din legăturile lui Miloş Obrenovici,” 164–66; Brătulescu, “Maiorul Mişa Anastasievici,” 274–75; Chefani-Pătraşcu, Moşieri teleormăneni, 42.

36 Stroescu, Oraşul Roşiorii de Vede, 65.

37 Trajkov and Jechev, Bulgarskata emigratsija v Rumunija, 248; Velichi, “Bulgares, serbes, grecs et roumains,” 256–60.

38 Stroescu, Oraşul Roşiori de Vede, 65.

39 Ibid., 63–66.

40 Siupiur, Intelectuali, elite, 168–216.

41 Guţan, Istoria administraţiei, 23–24, 45ff.

42 Chefani-Pătraşcu, Moşieri teleormăneni, 47; Iancovici, “Din legăturile lui Miloş Obrenovici,” 164.

43 Iancu, “Stingerea familiei boiereşti,” 182.

44 Catalina, Oraşul Alexandria, 37, 79.

45 Nour, Istoricul oraşului Alexandria, 50.

46 Staicu, Aşezările judeţului Teleorman, 54; Chefani-Pătraşcu, Moşieri teleormăneni, 47ff.

47 Gane, Neamurile Mavrodineşti, 36.

48 Pătrănescu, Monografia comunei Buzescu, 45ff. Another town that Bulgarian migrants attempted to found was Noul Sliven (New Sliven), near Ploieşti. The same Hristofor Sachelarie intervened for land acquisition (Velichi, “Emigrarea bulgarilor din Sliven,” 302–08).

49 Trajkov and Jechev, Bulgarskata emigratsija v Rumunija, 124.

50 Georgescu, Dicţionarul geografic, 8–9; Catalina, Orasul Alexandria, 79. In 1844, a Bulgarian primary school functioned in Alexandria, where Mihail Hristidi/Hristov was one of the instructors (Trajkov and Jechev, Bulgarskata emigratsija v Rumunija, 295). The brothers Mihail and Simeon Hristidi were born in Stara Zagora and finished secondary school in Athena. They taught Greek in Bucharest and edited several books there as well (Ibid., 311; Davidova, Balkan transitions to modernity, 145–46).

51 He was the director of the Bulgarian school in Alexandria between 1855 and 1874. Zlatovič born in Provadia, near Varna, in 1816. He graduated in Athens, got Greek citizenship, and was hired in the 1840s in the service of the Greek government. He knew Romanian, as he had finished the Greek primary school in Bucharest. Between 1845 and 1853, he taught in Šumen and Anhialo (today Pomorje) (Geleleţu, Aspecte ale tradiţiei bulgare, 24; Trajkov and Jechev, Bulgarskata emigratsija, 295; Siupiur, Bulgarskata emigrantska inteligentsija, 215). After 1858, in accordance with Wallachian legislation, they maintained 44 Bulgarian schools to the north of the Danube ( Ibid., 30).

52 Geleleţu, Aspecte ale tradiţiei bulgare, 12–13. According some authors, the weak participation of the population of Alexandria in the 1848 revolution was due at least in part to this conservative attitude (Velichi, “Bulgarii,” 270).

53 Georgescu, Dicţionarul geografic, 8–9.

54 Mladenov, Jechev and Njagulov, Bulgarite v Rumunija, 102, 149–50.

55 On the local politics see my article, Şerban, “Obrazat na bulgarite v mestnite vestnitsi,”, 235–49.

56 Trajkov and Jechev, Bulgarskata emigratsija v Rumunija, 126; Nour, Istoricul oraşului Alexandria, 20

57 Trajkov and Jechev, Bulgarskata emigratsija v Rumunija, 141, 192.

58 Ibid., 192; Kosev, Paskaleva and Diculescu, “Despre situaţia şi activitatea economică,” 328–29.

59 Trajkov and Jechev, Bulgarskata emigratsija v Rumunija, 141. Mladenov, Jechev and Njagulov, Bulgarite v Rumunija, 24.

60 Jos reacţiunea, nos. 17 iunie 1890, 22 iulie 1890.

61 Liiceanu, Jurnalul de la Păltiniş, 188.

62 Chefani-Pătraşcu, Moşieri, 55.

63 Noica, Neamul Noica, 13–17.

64 Geleleţu, Aspecte ale tradiţiei bulgare, 8. The name Noikov was common at the time among Bulgarian migrants (Veliki, “Materiali ot rumunski arhivi,” 258).

65 Mladenov, Jechev and Njagulov, Bulgarite v Rumunjia, 68. The acquisition of the Bulgarian books was very common at the time in the entire Balkan space, representing a “symbolic geography of the Bulgarian identity” (Davidova, Balkan transitions to modernity, 145–46). The book in question was bought by 377 persons from 6 Wallachian towns (Bucharest, Brăila, Galaţi, Craiova, Ploieşti, Alexandria) and one Moldovian (Focşani). The number of volumes purchased was 1,290 (Mladenov, Jechev and Njagulov, Bulgarite v Rumunija, 60–69).

66 Noica, Neamul Noica, 17.

67 Ibid., 13.

68 DJANTr, Fond “Paraschiv Noica,” doss. 1/1992.

69 His first wife, Niculina “Sârba” [Niculina, the “Serb”] was definitely Bulgarian (personal communication with Ms. Sanda Stavrescu).

70 Noica, Neamul Noica, 22–28.

71 DJANTr, Fond “Paraschiv Noica,” doss. 2/1992.

72 Noica, Neamul Noica, 22. Genku Noica/Noikov preferred to lease the land only, while his son Iacovache decided to buy big properties. Thus, Iacovache “makes the step from leaseholder to landowner” (Chefani-Pătraşcu, Moşieri teleormăneni, 56).

73 Ecoul Teleormanului, no. 24, January 1888.

74 According the family oral testimonies, his second wife, Maria, was the daughter of Petre Câncea, a merchant who also fled from Svištov and participated in the founding of Alexandria. Still, his name is not found on the town’s list of founders, since he moved to Moldova and added to the original family name, which was very close to the Bulgarian name Kanchov, the name Ornescu, after the locality in which he settled (Noica, Neamul Noica, 30).

75 DJANTr, Fond “Paraschiv Noica,” doss. 9/1892, 2–6.

76 Nica, Studiu monografic, 92ff.

77 DJANTr, Fond “Paraschiv Noica,” doss. 9/1892, 7–12.

78 The news appeared in the Conservative newspaper Vedea, no. 12, October 1897.

79 Cristea, Ţânţăreanu and Avram, Alexandria, 24.

80 Pascal, Carte de hotărnicie, 4ff.

81 The wedding is announced in the liberal newspaper Alegătorul liber, no. 1, May 1905.

82 Gherman, “Inginerul Corneliu Casassovici,” 391–92.

83 Chefani-Pătraşcu, Moşieri teleormăneni, 61.

84 Ibid., 59.

85 DJANTr, Fond “Paraschiv Noica,” doss. 20/1917.

86 Chefani-Pătraşcu, Moşieri teleormăneni, 62.

87 Nica, Studiu monografic complex, 150. The local newspapers around 1900 are full of information about more or less illegal Danube crossings by the Bulgarian workers who sought to find employment on the big estates. The policies of the Romanian government reflect this situation, as well. For instance, around 1910, the main river firms which brought the migrant workers from the southern side of the Danube in Teleorman County were controlled by Bulgarians. This fact enraged the boatmen from Romania, and the Bucharest government was obliged to intervene and mediate in the conflicts (DJANG, Fond Inspecţia Fluvială, doss. 9/1910, doss. 13/1911).