1. Demobilising Europe, 1989-2009: Deconstructing and resuscitating Cold War historiography.

Pieter Lagrou (Université Libre de Bruxelles)

What did 1989 do to the way we write contemporary history ? There are a few obvious answers, all of them unsatisfactory. Of course, we have a different perception of the recent past and share an awareness of a rupture, throwing back the pre-1989 period into a distant past, no longer belonging to the present times we are living. The idea of 1989 as a closure can than be declined differently : closure of an epoch called the Cold War, which started in 1947 ; of an epoch called the Post War, chronologically almost coinciding with the former, but conceptually quite distinct ; closure of a short Twentieth Century, the departure date of which one can similarly date back to 1917 or 1914, depending on the conceptual focus ; or, ultimately, the end of History as we knew it since Hegel if not earlier. [1] There is thus a consensus on the sense of historical closure, and none of these coinciding closures are necessarily incompatible. Lots of things came to an end, after all, with the fall of the wall and the subsequent disappearance of the Soviet Union. But did this alter the way we write history : interpretative models, methodologies, institutional settings ?

There is another improbable answer : the archival revolution through the sudden availability of hitherto inaccessible sources. Convincing enough for the case of the history of the GDR, for sure, where an entirely new field emerged, seminal in its approaches and interpretations, but the impact of the access to East-German or other central European sources on the historical production of other historiographies, including that of the Federal Republic was limited, apart form providing unlimited ammunition for the destruction of individual reputations of influential figures in European intellectual history, a practice of which Milan Kundera seems to be temporarily the last casualty. Who would seriously pretend that it is the mere availability of Himmler’s Dienstkalender or similar Soviet held sources that transformed the historiography of Nazism ?

Ultimately, there is the disappearance of state controlled communist historiography, albeit with wildly varying institutional and intellectual repercussions, from the thorough purge of East-German history departments by purge committees composed of West German academics and the total dismantling of the GDR Academy of Sciences, to the partial but rapid resurrection of the model of Soviet historiography under Vladimir Putin, including its central myths and erratic and secretive archival policy.

To take up this last issue. The Cold War belongs fully to the age of Total War and, in a way, in the absence of the military engagement of a hot war, the social, cultural and ideological mobilisation of non-military sectors of society was the object of even higher priorities. On the scale of politically and ideologically sensitive disciplines, contemporary history has always ranked on top. Geschichte als Legitimationswissenschaft thus seems particularly relevant to the Cold War. It is hence obvious that communist regimes have invested in the production of a Cold War historiography - not a historiography of the Cold War, but one written during it, moulded by its contingencies, ideological imperatives and political urgencies. However, if we admit that the Cold War was a war of sorts, it follows that, in order to wage war, we need at least two belligerent parties. The representation of a state controlled or « totalitarian » historical production East of the Iron Curtain and of a liberal democratic, free and untrammelled historiography West of it, is notoriously a theme of Cold War propaganda, and one that deserves a critical look, therefore, if, genuinely, we are the living in a post-Cold War world. After all, if we want to understand what the end of the Cold War did to contemporary history writing, we should first try to identify some characteristics of a Cold War historiography, in both belligerent camps.

Soviet-style historiography first. It should be underlined that 1989 in the first instance provoked a conceptual regression, a resurgence of themes dominant in the 1950s, but largely discredited by the late 1980s. The concept of totalitarianism, to which we will return, presented the advantage to discharge the « liberated » Central European societies of any form of historical responsibility for the state their nations found themselves in in 1989 and for any of the wrongs that had been committed between 1945 and 1989, much in the way the concept had operated in German society after 1945. [2] At the same time, it deprived them of any form of agency - as victims, Eastern and Central Europe had passively undergone the course of history - and profoundly delegitimised any form of accomplishment during the Cold War years, economic, intellectual or other. Brains had been switched off East of the Elbe between 1945 and 1989, especially in highly suspect places such as universities and academies of science, who had worked under the nose and eye of the omniscient regime. Since totalitarianism was supposed to have annihilated even the tiniest space of intellectual freedom, Cold War historiography could only have been the streamlined product of an authoritarian state, produced by faultlessly obedient clerks (those any less than faultless by definition having ended up in concentration camps or exile). At the most had there been room for Innere Emigration into the desert lands of Neolithic, medieval or, horresco referens, economic history. Only a total generational renewal could root out the evil of communist indoctrination and intellectual serfdom, by sending young students abroad or by transplanting the American academic model in the barren post-communist lands through the generosity of exile billionaires. Except for the case of the GDR, victim of unprecedented and instant Anschluss and Gleichschaltung, this conceptual regression was not so much the result of import and imposition as an avid adoption of a simple, all-encompassing answer to the need for a rapid and radical ideological overhaul after a both long desired and traumatic collapse.

The sudden renaissance of the totalitarianism doctrine even in its grossest simplifications was one indicator of the newfound unity of the European continent, since it affected the political and intellectual landscapes of France and Italy no less than those of Hungary and the Czech Republic, as exemplified by the monumental success of the Black Book of Communism. [3] More troubling was the fact that, with the totalitarianism doctrine, part of the racist propaganda of the 1950s also resurfaced. « Eastern » societies were naturally inclined to oriental forms of despotism, congenitally unfit for democracy. The supposed absence of « civil society », prohibited the success of a « democratic transition » ; the absence of entrepreneurship and individual initiative similarly compromised a capitalist transition. The anticipated result was thus chronic political instability, ethnic violence, the resurgence of even more evil forms of authoritarianism and, worse of all, the combined effect of the dismantling of the iron curtain and internal political and economic turmoil would set off a demographic tsunami of uprooted, hungry, angry and untrained « eastern » immigrants, savaging « western » peace, democracy and, especially, prosperity. The phantasmagorical and apocalyptic anxieties of Western European societies expressing their disorientation and bereavement due to the loss of the psychological comfort of the Iron Curtain, after half a century of Cold War propaganda on the Danger lurking in the East are an altogether related resurgence, responsible for the severe backlash of the European integration project, fuelled by the unpopularity of enlargement to the East. [4]

Totalitarianism thus does not seem to provide the whole answer to the question of the impact of the Cold War on contemporary history writing in communist states. Political control over historiography was unevenly spread over time and space. Next to the depressing display of political obedience, publications of the period also show individual inventiveness in circumventing or subtly subverting the doxa. Nor was « communist historiography » operating in total isolation from the West. As I have illustrated elsewhere, the antifascist master-narrative was widely shared, far beyond the inner circles of communist party militants and especially the historiography of the Second World War constituted a common epistemological threshold for discussing contemporary history in all parts of Europe. [5] But let us turn to Western Europe and the question of the nature of Cold War historiography in the anti-communist bloc.

As far as the historiographical landscape is concerned, until the early 1970’s at least, Eastern and Western Europe were not worlds apart, institutionally, nor intellectually. Basically, the Western model was more hybrid than the Eastern, while incorporating partly the same elements. [6] Schematically, we could oppose a statist and antifascist model to a mixed statist-pluralist and antifascist-antitotalitarianist model. Institutions first. It is not at first sight obvious that, for the individual professional historian, it did make all that much a difference whether one was working under a statist or a pluralist system. In both cases, political obedience was paramount, individual freedom limited and any interpretation incompatible with the doxa of their bread masters, professional suicide.

« Pluralism » in most West European countries in the post-war years translated into a strictly compartmentalised spoils system extending to all aspects of public spending, including mutual insurance, social holidays, sports and, especially, contemporary history. Called Proporz in Austria, lottizzazione in Italy or verzuiling in the Netherlands, is was basically the Western European attempt to domesticate the mass politics Europe had failed to master after 1918, using the carrots of the Welfare State and the stick of the Cold War to nationalise the masses in a conservative consensus. Loyalty to political parties, with their affiliated trade unions, youth organisations, banks, building societies, cultural foundations and archive centres was the cement of this post-war political construction. In this constellation, contemporary history occupied more than ever its role of Legitimazionswissenschaft, or, in other words, proportional representation - the dominant electoral system in Cold War Western Europe - applied to the representation of the past. The Foundations named after Konrad Adenauer, Friedrich Ebert, Charles De Gaulle, Maurice Thorez, Alcide de Gasperi, Giangiacomo Feltrinelli played a crucial part in the financing of contemporary history. By the early 1970s, Western Europe saw the creation of a host of private archive centres collecting the documents of parties, trade unions and politicians of their own political family. With public archives of the post-war period hermetically closed - another notorious characteristic of Cold War societies - they offered the only possibility to work on recent political history. More often than not, these institutions were then related to particular university departments, themselves part of the Proporz system, thus generating closed circuits of production and consumption of partisan histories in a perfect symbiosis between academics and politics. Helmut Kohl’s PhD. obtained in 1958 at the University of Heidelberg on the origins of CDU in Rhineland-Palatinate - coincidentally also his own electoral district - is an outstanding example of this, even if unfortunately unavailable for public consultation. Contemporary history - oral history in particular, interviewing party grandees - thus became a perfect initiation rite for a political career for a whole generation of West Europeans.

This is not to say that all contemporary history written until the mid-1980s in the context of the historiographical lottizzazzione was servile or worthless. Political loyalty was simply always obvious - obvious to the point, actually, of being tautological and, thus, never formally mentioned. Even for the most productive historians of the time, political affiliation provided the most elementary geography of the historiographical landscape. Henri Michel, Louis de Jong and Martin Broszat were socialists; René Rémond and François Bédarrida were Christian democrats. Ben Sijes, Roberto Battaglia, Yves Durand and Eric Hobsbawm were communists, even if not all were party members, and some, worse still, dissidents. The most defining divide ran along Cold War lines, between anti-communists and communists, thus clearly reflecting ideological mobilisation. Fundamentally, historiographic cleavages followed political cleavages. It is interesting to observe, for instance, that French contemporary historiography before 1958 contained in embryo the subsequent Italian development of lottizzazzione, with its complex “pluralist” geometry, while the constitutional change of the fifth Republic generated a binary, rather British, pattern of right and left - basically, in the French case until 1981, a governmental Gaullist tradition vs. an oppositional left-wing tradition, confirmed by a left-right cleavage of the university landscape, in which the situation of non-Gaullist non-communists was particularly awkward. This then goes a long way to explain the bitterness of academic anticommunism after 1989 in France, particularly with former leftists and those who had left the PCF in 1956, 1968 or thereafter.

Among the more obvious apologetic contributions to the standing of one’s political family was its role in the conquest of workers rights (who could take the credit for the granting of paid holidays, old age pension, family allowances, the 8 hour working day…), nationalist and anticommunist credentials (who ruined the Empire?) and, of course, the question of who did what between 1939 and 1945 (with a first period, until the mid 1970’s focussed on : who resisted most ? followed by a second : who collaborated most ?). Unsurprisingly, for a Cold War historiography, an inordinate amount of debate in all Western European was absorbed by the historical exegesis of the attitudes, pronouncements and publications of communist parties between September 1939 and June 1941. Which brings us to a second institutional setting, the statist historiography.

It was paradoxical for post-war governments denouncing the excessive statism of Popular Democracies and proselytising their own model of « pluralism » as the exclusive antidote to totalitarianism to create State Institutes of Contemporary History. Yet, between 1945 and the late 1960s, almost all West-European countries would create institutions dedicated to the history of World War II on the model of the Dutch precursor, created in October 1945 (the Rijksinstituut voor Oorlogsdocumentatie or state institute for war documentation), such as the Istituto Nazionale per la Storia del Movimento di Liberazione Nationale in Italia, the Dokumentationsarchiv der Österreichische Widerstand, the Institut für Zeitgeschichte in Munich, the Comité National d’Histoire de la Deuxième Guerre Mondiale, from 1980 onwards Institut d’Histoire du Temps Présent in Paris. [7] Much can be said on the role of these institutions, but in the framework of this article, we’ll simply point to two characteristics. First, the statist model was not incompatible with pluralism. The most remarkable example in this regard is the integral proportional representation applied to the recruitment of historians in the Brussels institute, created in 1967, the Centre d’Études et de Documentation pour l’Histoire de la Seconde Guerre Mondiale/Studie en Navorsingscentrum voor de Geschiedenis van de Tweede Wereldoorlog, which not only comprised of its fair share of Dutch and French speakers, socialists, liberals and Christian democrats, but also of a communist and a Flemish nationalist having served a prison sentence for war-time collaboration with the German occupier. Interestingly enough, it is these two « outcasts » of the Cold War setting, José Gotovitch and Albert De Jonghe respectively, who will jumpstart the scientific historiography of the Nazi occupation in Belgium, partly because of the intellectual freedom they drew from the marginal status of their political loyalties. But we’ll get back to this later. Second, these institutions, directly resorting under the Prime Minister or the Minister of Education, had a strongly legitimating role. Their task was triple : first to document the national participation in the anti-Nazi resistance, particularly through the collection of archival sources ; second to document the crimes of which their nation had been victim and for which redress or reparation could be claimed ; third and last to produce a national narrative of the war experience for both internal and external use.

A consensual and, if possible, glorifying narrative of the national contribution to the victory over tyranny was indispensable for strengthening national bonds and thus directly instrumental in the cultural mobilisation of the Cold War. A narrative for external use, legitimating the national conduct in the international arena was similarly imperative, even if carefully phrased for a different audience. The publications in English distributed by the Danish Foreign Office are most revealing in this regard, as a exercise in retroactive justification for a nation whose status as ally, enemy or ambiguous neutral was in doubt until the very last phase of the war in most allied capitals. Danish narratives of the rescue of Danish Jews ran very parrallel to Bulgarian narratives of its rescue of Jews. [8] In both the fate of their national Jewish population owed more to their State policies of collaboration with Nazi Germany than with unsparing heroism, but both cases equally served to document the postwar antifascist credentials of the country in its new Cold War alliance. The 29 volume official history of the Kingdom of the Netherlands during World War II, commissioned in 1955 and published between 1969 and 1991 probably surpasses any similarly monolithic publishing enterprise by any of the contemporary communist academies of science. [9]

Quite remarkably, by 1968, all these initiatives converged in the creation, by Henri Michel, of an International Committee for the History of the Second World War, with a bulletin and regular conferences, where historians from East and West would meet and courteously exchange the national narratives they had spent two decades to produce and polish, in a rather ritualised exercise of international détente. In many ways, the international committee, with its focus on military and diplomatic history became a stylised forum for the exchange of Cold War narratives until, and to some extent way beyond, 1989. Clearly, institutionally and conceptually, Eastern and Western historiographies were not incompatible. To some extent, they all spoke the same Cold War language.

Quite remarkably, by 1968, all these initiatives converged in the creation, by Henri Michel, of an International Committee for the History of the Second World War, with a bulletin and regular conferences, where historians from East and West would meet and courteously exchange the national narratives they had spent two decades to produce and polish, in a rather ritualised exercise of international détente. In many ways, the international committee, with its focus on military and diplomatic history became a stylised forum for the exchange of Cold War narratives until, and to some extent way beyond, 1989. Clearly, institutionally and conceptually, Eastern and Western historiographies were not incompatible. To some extent, they all spoke the same Cold War language.

Before moving to the concepts, one last institutional similarity : Innere Emigration. The setting described here above, with the multiple constraints of the Proporz was obviously not overly attractive, nor was it held in high intellectual esteem. The political credit contemporary history enjoyed was inversely proportional to its academic credit. Cold War historiography was mostly practiced outside traditional academia, through the foundations, private archive centres and state institutions dedicated to it, but not in prestigious university chairs in history, not in the mainstream academic journals, who were held by those who could afford to avoid contemporary history and its innumerable intellectual and political compromises. Interestingly enough, there was a short period between the end of the Second World War and the onset of the Cold War, when prominent historians with full academic legitimacy, such as Lucien Fèbvre and Nicolaas Wilhelmus Posthumus were tempted to take up the urgent task of writing the history of the war that just ended. The grim climate of the new times soon discouraged them from doing so, legating the enterprise to Henri Michel, socialist resistance fighter and member of the departmental liberation committee of the Var and Louis De Jong, socialist speaker on the Dutch war-time broadcasts of the BBC radio, respectively. The Annales school of Lucien Fèbvre and Fernand Braudel would ever more desert the despised histoire bataille and take refuge in the longue durée like so many of their East European colleagues - an intellectual choice incidentally not wholly unrelated to their own biographic trajectory during the war years. Even in Germany, the Zeitgeschichte and the Sozialgeschichte of the subsequent generation of Jürgen Kocka and Ulrich Wehler would focus on the long and so specifically German road to 1933 rather than on the history of the deroute that followed. Biography again had its weight through the avoidance of a confrontation with the tainted generation of their Doctorvater.

Finally, concepts. In a way, for farsighted historians, the available intellectual framework for the central object and challenge for Cold War historiography, the history of the last war, was probably no less off-setting than the institutional setting. The two competing paradigms constituted each an intellectual impasse in their own way. The antifascist model shared with their eastern European colleagues was by far the most influential in the late 1940s, through the 1970s. The interpretation of fascism as a by-product of the structural imbalances of the capitalist system had both analytic and prescriptive virtues. As time went by, however, the evolution of Western Europe seemed to belie the antifascist paradigm : the capitalist production system was not rooted out and still fascism did not resurface. Leaving capitalism unbothered, while amending some of its nastier side effects through the development of a Welfare State and a « pluralist » mass-democracy seemed to generate rather more political stability and prosperity than in those countries where the antifascist precepts were applied to the letter. The antitotalitarianism model, on the contrary, worked marvellously well as a tool for Cold War mobilisation, by stressing the identical nature of yesterdays and today’s enemies. As a tool for historical understanding, however, it was even more unrewarding than antifascism, since its very postulate was based on the evacuation of the historical specificity of Nazism and fascism. Nazi racism, genocide, the reactionary and profoundly anti-communist ideology of collaborationist regimes like Vichy were all incompatible with the base-line of totalitarianism, namely : brown or red dictatorships are basically more of the same, just different models from the same production line with an identical chassis.

More than anything else - except, probably, the temporary thaw of the Cold War glacis of the 1970s - this intellectual impasse of Cold War historiography hastened its demise. During the 1970s, one can witness simultaneously the apogee of the institutional development of the Cold War historiography and the first signs of their terminal crisis. The State and pluralist institutions are more firmly established than ever, their scholarly production reaches its peak and their social and political legitimacy is stronger than ever. Yet at the same time, the national myths, which was the almost exclusive form Cold War myths took, East and West of the Iron Curtain, began to be challenged. Attacking the war record of the generation of the establishment became a favourite sport of the new post 1968 generation. As Milovan Djilas had predicted for Tito’s Yugoslavia in 1953 already, French, German, Italian, Dutch … journalists, publicists and historians began to challenge the suffocating claims to political legitimacy of the war generation. Rather than the Gaullist image of a nation of 40 million resisters, France would rather have been a nation of 40 million collaborators - not a reassuring interpretation if really one thought that a Soviet invasion was imminent. The fissures in the national Cold War narratives created conceptual openings, which left not much standing of the antifascist and antitotalitarianist paradigms. A new generation of historians, benefiting of the first prudent declassification of war-time archives, plunged head first into the history of fascism and collaboration, developing a cultural and ideological historiography, exposing the national singularity and the deep historical roots of fascism in national political thought, but also showing the continuities in ideologies and political elites beyond 1945, thereby exposing the Cold War myth of a bright new dawn of democratic catharsis. [10] By the early 1980s, cultural demobilisation in the field of contemporary history was in full swing in Western Europe, thereby somehow anticipating 1989. The comparative decline of the popular democracies since the late 1960’s - their inability to generate a consumer society, to keep up with the arms race - had its cultural equivalent, in this case, the apparent inability to formulate a comparable critical national historiography, capable to accompany generational renewal of elites and prepare for an international order of détente (in spite of the new tensions of the 1980’s Reagan era).

To sum up. As I tried to show, Eastern and Western Europe have shared some common characteristics of a Cold War historiography: the constraints of political loyalty through State institutions and/or Proporz; the resulting avoidance of contemporary history by intellectual elites, a form of Innere Emigration to the greener pastures of the longue durée; the hegemonic role of the antifascist and/or antitotalitarian paradigms, in the medium term self-defeating in its prescriptive capacity for the former and in its analytic capacity for the latter. Was 1989 then a watershed, the year when everything changed, the ways of writing contemporary history, the places and institutions where it was written, the concepts used? We offer two hypotheses to explain our general failure to perceive or at least to clearly identify the watershed of 1989, inserting 1989 in two different temporalities. The first is anticipated cultural demobilisation, transforming Cold War historiography in Western Europe since the onset of détente in the early 1970s, accelerating generational change and a process of weakening political loyalties, replacing them by the emergence of a depoliticised form of historical expertise. When 1989 came around, Western Cold War myths were largely death and buried, including the application of the totalitarianism doctrine to the Eastern Bloc. The second is the surprising resurgence of this very doctrine after 1989, both in its avid adoption as a central prism for the self-understanding of traumatised post-communist societies and in the resurgence of the racist stereotypes the totalitarianism doctrine always carried in Western Europe. The spectacular social, economic and political evolution of Eastern and Central Europe since 1989, crowned by the enlargements of the European Union of 2005 and 2007 belied the cultural pessimism of the totalitarianism school, much as it had belied antifascism in Western Europe half a century earlier. However, if concepts of contemporary history are a measure, 1989 is still very much part of our present and cultural demobilisation, East and West of the Oder-Neisse, still an incomplete process.


[1] See Eric Hobsbawm, Age of Extremes : The Short Twentieth Century, 1914-1991 (London, Michael Joseph, 1994) ; Tony Judt, ¨Postwar : A History of Europe since 1945 (New York, Penguin Press, 2005) ; Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (New York, Free Press, 1992).

[2] See Abbott Gleason, Totalitarianism : The Inner History of the Cold War (New York, Oxford University Press, 1995)

[3] Stéphane Courtois (ed.) The Blakc Book of Communism : Crimes, Terror, Repression (Harvard University Press, 1995)

[4] See Pieter Lagrou, « La « Crise européenne » » in : P. Magnette et A. Weyembergh (eds), L’Union européenne : la fin d’une crise ? (Bruxelles, éd. de l’Université de Bruxelles, 2008) p. 14-24.

[5] The Legacy of Nazi-occupation. Patriotic Memory and National Recovery in Western Europe, 1945-1965. (Cambridge University Press, 2000 [2001], [paperback 2007]) 327 p

[6] « Cadrul institutional al istoriei recente. Exemple occidentale » in : Istoria Recenta în Europa. Obiecte de Studiu, surse, metode (Bucarest, New Europe College, 2002), pp. 242-277 ; « La storia del tempo presente nell’Europa postbellica. Come si sviluppa un nuovo campo disciplinare » Novecento. Per una storia del temp presente, vol. 11, juillet-décembre 2004 ; « L’histoire du temps présent en Europe depuis 1945, ou comment se constitue et se développe un nouveau champ disciplinaire » La Revue pour l’histoire du CNRS, n° 9, 2003, p. 4-15 ; « Historiographie de guerre et historiographie du temps présent : cadres institutionnels en Europe occidentale (1945-2000) » Bulletin du Comité d’Histoire de la Deuxième Guerre mondiale vol. 30/31 (août 2000), pp. 191-215.

[7] Ibid.

[8] See Ulrich Herbert, Best. Biografische Studien über Radikalismus, Weltanschauung und Vernunft, 1903-1989 (Bonn, Dietz, 1996) and Stefan Troebst, « Salvation, Deportation or Holocaust ? Bulgarian and European Debates on the fate of Bulgaria’s Jews in World War II » paper presented on the conference Clashes in European Memory. The case of communist repression and the Holocaust, organised by the , Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for European History and Public Spheres 22-24 September 2008 (to be published by Transaction Publishers, Studienverlag Innsbruck in 2009).

[9] Louis de Jong, Het Koninkrijk der Nederlanden in de Tweede Wereldoorlog (The Hague, Staatsdrukkerij- en Uitgeverijbedrijf, 14 vols., 1969-1991.

[10] Pieter Lagrou « Between Europe and the Nation : the inward turn of Contemporay Historical Writing » in : Konrad Jarausch and Thomas Lindenberger (dir.) Conflicted Memories. Europeanizing Contemporary Histories (Berghahn Books, New York/Oxford, 2007) p. 69-80.