Poland vs. History

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Sign marking the entrance to the Museum and Memorial Park of Westerplatte.

6.05.2016

In early 2017, Poland was supposed to unveil what is perhaps the most ambitious museum devoted to World War II in any country. A striking cantilevered tower of glass and red cement is now rising above the completed subterranean chamber that will hold the museum’s 37,000 objects. The largest of these—an American tank, a Soviet tank, and a German railway car—had to be installed with the help of cranes during construction. In its exhibitions, the Museum of the Second World War promised to tell the story of the 1930s and 1940s in an entirely new way. Unlike other museums devoted to history’s most devastating war, which tend to begin and end with national history, the Gdańsk museum has set out to show the perspectives of societies around the world, through a sprawling collection gathered over the last eight years, and through themes that bring seemingly disparate experiences together. It is hard to think of a more fitting place for such a museum than Poland, whose citizens experienced the worst of the war.

Yet the current Polish government, led by the conservative Law and Justice party, now seems determined to cancel the museum, on the grounds that it does not express “the Polish point of view.” It is hard to interpret this phrase, which in practice seems to mean the suppression of both Polish experience and the history of the war in general. The new government’s gambit has been to replace the nearly completed global museum with an obscure (and as yet entirely non-existent) local one, and then to claim that nothing has really changed. The substitute museum would chronicle the Battle of Westerplatte, where Polish forces resisted the German surprise attack on the Baltic coast for seven days in September 1939. Heroic though it was, substituting this campaign for the entirety of World War II means eliminating the record of how Poles fought for their country and their fellow citizens over the succeeding five-and-a-half years. Such a move also means throwing away a historic opportunity to redefine the world’s understanding of the war.

World War II remains the crucial conflict of the modern era, but until now no institution has attempted to present it as global public history. Unlike most comparable museums, the Gdańsk museum does not accept a conventional national history of the war, or follow a patriotic chronology of battle that is convenient for the elaboration of this or that official national memory. It commences well before the German-Soviet attack on Poland in 1939 and even before the Japanese attack on Manchuria in 1931—events that are usually taken as the starting points of the Europe and Asian conflicts, respectively. Instead, the museum begins with the crisis of world order after World War I: militarism in Japan, Stalinism in the Soviet Union, authoritarianism in Europe (including in Poland itself), fascism in Italy, and National Socialism in Germany. It devotes serious attention to the diplomatic crises of the late 1930s: the struggle for China, the Anschlussof Austria, the partition of Czechoslovakia, the Spanish Civil War, and the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact—the 1939 alliance between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union that gave Hitler the green light to attack Poland.

As István Deák has stressed in his recent study of the war, Europe on Trial, appeasing Hitler before the war led to collaborating with Hitler during the war; Stalin’s choice to placate Hitler in 1939, he notes, was not exceptional but emblematic. In its impressively sober approach to the issue of collaboration, the Gdansk museum presents wartime societies as groups of individuals who had to make decisions, even when the range of possible choices was limited to bad ones. Some degree of accommodation is an almost universal experience of war, the more so when the occupation is unusual, as these were, in the depth of the occupiers’ political and economic ambitions. That the same populations—including Poland’s—often collaborated with multiple regimes might challenge our intuitions about good and evil and the importance of ideology. But it is also an everyday truth about war that emerges from an approach that takes account of all the different aggressors and occupations.

Treating the bombing of civilians as a global theme, as the museum does, can unsettle stories of the war that are limited to one national perspective. Germans generally associate the bombing of civilians with the end of the war, with the devastation of German cities like Hamburg and Dresden by British and American air raids. Some Germans use these bombings as a kind of counter-balance to German atrocities in the war. Yet a global history of bombing civilians demonstrates that Italians were doing the same in Ethiopia much earlier, following standard European imperial practice. It was Germany itself that brought the imperial practice of mass bombing of civilians to Europe, during the Spanish civil war and then, massively, during the invasion of Poland. As German forces entered Poland in September 1939, the Luftwaffe experimentally bombed defenseless towns, and killed about 25,000 people in Warsaw alone. The American photographer Julien Bryan, who was in Poland at the time, caught on film German planes strafing fleeing civilians, or simply civilians who were at work in the fields. His camera is in the museum’s collection. But if bombing European cities was a German innovation, Americans will hardly be exonerated in this exhibit, which concludes with Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

How the different powers treated prisoners of war is another theme of the planned museum that brings out crucial insights about the conflict. Here the museum gives special attention to a major German war crime that is almost entirely forgotten. After Hitler betrayed Stalin and invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, German forces deliberately starved three million Soviet prisoners of war. Here and throughout the museum, it is the curators’ insistence on a global and comparative setting that allows a shocking crime to take on an apprehensible form. The German effort to annihilate millions of captured Soviet soldiers makes no sense without some understanding of Nazi racism and Nazi obsessions with food security, which are the subjects of neighboring exhibits. Similarly, the museum will examine the starvation siege of Leningrad, in which another million Soviet citizens perished. One of the texts featured in this section is the heartbreaking diary of a Russian girl, Tanya Savicheva, whose family perished around her: “Only Tanya is left.”

The idea of a radical restructuring of society through war was common across Europe and Asia in the 1930s and 1940s. The planned museum will highlight the different approaches to occupation of the Soviets (before 1941, when the USSR becomes prey rather than predator), the Japanese, and the Germans, while showing that all three sought to rapidly transform the lands they conquered on a very large scale. Once again, German war crimes emerge more clearly in this comparative setting. The German intention to starve tens of millions of east Europeans, known to historians as the Hunger Plan, and German colonial settlement schemes of the early 1940s, known asGeneralplan Ost, take on new meaning when juxtaposed with Soviet transformations of the very same territories in the 1930s (which brought famine to Soviet Ukraine and mass shooting actions in 1937 and 1938) and Japan’s efforts to pursue its own vision of economic autarchy and political domination over a large swath of Asian territory.

The Holocaust of European Jews is a theme of its own. The Gdańsk museum’s presentation of this singular atrocity is informed by these prior themes and by the most recent scholarship. The killing begins with the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, and continues as a series of shooting campaigns throughout the war. The technique of gassing by carbon dioxide is used to murder most of Poland’s Jews in 1942. The vast majority of the victims of the Holocaust are Polish and Soviet Jews; practically everyone who dies in the Holocaust either called Poland or the Soviet Union home before the war or was sent to German-occupied Poland or German-occupied lands of the USSR to be murdered. Because the Holocaust involved a number of stages that related to the progress of a complex war, and touched victims throughout Europe, an international museum of the war may be able to show its course more clearly than museums devoted to the crime itself.

Perhaps for Poland’s current leadership, this is the problem. For a full understanding of the Holocaust makes it very difficult to divide European nations simply into perpetrators and victims. The idea of Polish national innocence, which the current government seeks to enshrine, is far from innocent itself. If Poles were merely victims of Nazi aggression, then how do we account for episodes in the war in which Poles themselves were collaborators or perpetrators? What do we do, for example, with the keys of the murdered Jews of Jedwabne? In July 1941, when they were forced to gather in a public square by their Polish neighbors, the Jews of Jedwabne brought their keys. They assumed, of course, that they would soon be going home. Instead they were marched to a barn and burned to death. Their keys remained, and have been gathered by the museum. If the museum is cancelled, they may never be seen.

At the same time, the cancellation threatens the many artifacts that document the suffering of Polish families themselves by German or Soviet oppression. Consider the Wnuk family, where one brother was executed by the Germans and another by the Soviets, both in 1940. Bolesław Wnuk managed to leave a note for his family hours before his execution: “Today I will be shot by the German authorities. I die for the Fatherland with a smile on my lips, but I die innocent.” This text, written on his handkerchief, was passed by a Polish prison guard to the Wnuk family. Seventy years later the Wnuk family gave it to the Gdańsk museum. It is among the more than ten thousands objects donated to the museum for display and safekeeping. If the museum is prevented from opening, this artifact, like thousands of others, will be withheld from the public.

For all the government’s misgivings, there will be plenty of Polish heroism on display in the museum. Poland never surrendered to Germany, and the underground resistance known as the Home Army receives abundant attention. It was established in 1942 and fought its major campaign in 1944; redefining the museum to deal exclusively with the events of 1939 removes all this from view. Taken away as well would be the stunning contribution of Polish pilots to the defense of London from the Luftwaffe in 1940, and the work of Polish mathematicians to understand the German cryptography system known as Enigma. Very few people in the West know that two crucial elements of the British war story, the Battle of Britain and Bletchley Park, depended on Polish help. Without the Gdańsk museum, which has an Enigma machine to display, these Polish contributions are likely to remain in obscurity.

Telling a global history of the war is essential to showing the full extent of Poland’s plight and the Polish resistance. The First Polish Armored Division, for example, was formed in Britain, landed at Normandy, liberated villages and towns across France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, and fought its way across northern Germany. If Europeans knew that Poland had a victorious tank division, the stereotype of feckless Polish cavalry charging German armor might begin to recede. More dramatic still was the fate of the Polish Second Corps, patched together from men who were exiled to the Soviet east after the USSR invaded Poland in 1939. Allowed by Stalin to fight on the western front after Germany invaded the USSR, its men fought and died under British command in the battle for Italy in 1944. The charges on Monte Cassino, a moment of legendary physical courage were, for many of them, the last steps in what was already an inconceivable trail of tears. These soldiers’ story—Poland and defeat, Siberia and exile, the Middle East and marching, Italy and glory—is itself a global snapshot of the war.

Perhaps the greatest surprise in the Polish government’s decision is the implicit alliance with current Russian memory policy. The move to limit the Polish history of World War II to the week-long engagement with Germany at Westerplatte in 1939 follows a Russian script that is entirely on the record. In a speech at Westerplatte in 2009, Vladimir Putin accepted that Poland, and not the USSR, was the first victim of German aggression. But there was an important proviso, which he has amplified several times since. The German attack on Poland, Putin asserts, was a consequence of Poland’s own dealings with Nazi Germany before the war, rather than a result of the Soviet-German alliance of 1939 (which explicitly called for the division of Poland by the two powers) and the Soviet invasion that occurred in the same year.

The major Soviet oppressions of Polish citizens that resulted from the German-Soviet alliance and the Soviet invasion of Poland in September 1939 took place in occupied eastern Poland in 1940. Half a million Polish citizens were deported from Soviet-occupied eastern Poland to the Gulag in 1940. And the Gdańsk museum has collected the stars from the uniforms of some of the 22,000 Polish officers murdered by the NKVD in the Katyn massacre in April 1940, a humble reliquary of those Soviet death pits. Once the museum is out of the way, the Kremlin can be confident that no one else in Europe (beyond the Baltic states) will make the attempt to inscribe the Soviet aggression of 1939 and the occupation regime of 1939-1941 within the public history of the war.

A generation from now no one will care about the political feuds that animate Warsaw today. But it is certain that thousands of Polish families will remember that their precious gifts of family heirlooms were accepted and then refused. And when the cranes come a second time and remove the American tank, the Soviet tank, and the German railway car, dismantling the Polish and international history of the war, this too will leave a lasting impression, as well as some spectacular photographs. Most seriously of all, the effects of suppressing national memory could be of critical importance to Poles in coming decades, and to a global audience that has yet to fully absorb the complicated lessons of World War II. In some measure at least, how rising generations of Poles see themselves, democracy, and Europe will depend on whether they can have ready access to their country’s complicated experience in World War II. The collapse of democracy, the museum’s first theme, could hardly be more salient than it is right now. And the presentation of the conflict as a global tragedy could hardly be more instructive. The preemptive liquidation of the museum is nothing less than a violent blow to the world’s cultural heritage.

Timothy Snyder is the Housum Professor of History at Yale University and a Permanent Fellow of the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM). Among his publications are: Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning (2015); Thinking the Twentieth Century: A Conversation with Tony Judt (2012); Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin (2011); The Red Prince. The Secret Lives of a Habsburg Archduke (2008); and Sketches From a Secret War: A Polish Artist’s Mission to Liberate Soviet Ukraine (2005).

From The New York Review of Books Daily

Copyright © 2016 by Timothy Snyder.

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  • David Petruccelli

    PhD candidate in History, Yale University
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  • Alexander von Plato

    Alexander von Plato ist ein deutscher Philosoph und Historiker. Er gründete das Instituts für Geschichte und Biographie an der Fernuniversität Hagen, das er bis 2007 leitete. Von 1996 bis 2000 war er Sekretär der International Oral History Association, von 2006 bis 2008 deren Vizepräsident. Er ist Mitherausgeber und Redakteur von BIOS – Zeitschrift für Biographieforschung, Oral …
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  • Andrei Plesu

    Andrei Plesu ist Rektor des New Europe College, Bukarest. 1989- 1991 war er rumänischer Kulturminister und 1997- 1999 rumänischer Außenminister.   Print

  • Martin Pollack

    Martin Pollack, geb. 1944 in OÖ, studierte Slawistik und osteuropäische Geschichte. Er war von 1987 bis 1998 Redakteur des “Spiegel” in Warschau und Wien und lebt heute als Schriftsteller und literarischer Übersetzer in Wien und Bocksdorf im Südburgenland. 2011 erhielt er den Leipziger Buchpreis zur Europäischen Verständigung und 2012 den Stanislaw-Vincenz-Preis. Zuletzt erschien von ihm …
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  • Krzysztof Pomian

    Krzysztof Pomian is Professor of History at the Nicolaus Copernicus University (Toruń) and Academic Director of the Museum of Europe in Brussels.   Print

  • Romano Prodi

    Romano Prodi war von September 1999 bis November 2004 Präsident der Europäischen Kommission.   Print

  • Lipin Ram

    PhD candidate and teaching assistant in Anthropology and Sociology of Development, Graduate Institute, Geneva
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  • Mykola Riabchuk

    Senior Research Fellow, Institute of Political and Nationalities’ Studies, Academy of Sciences, Kyiv
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  • Edelbert Richter

    Edelbert Richter ist deutscher Theologe, Politiker und war Mitglied des Deutschen Bundestages.   Print

  • Paul Ricoeur

    Paul Ricoeur ist Philosoph und war Professor Emeritus an der University of Chicago und an der Sorbonne. Er war Mitglied der Académie Francaise und Mitglied des Wissenschaftlichen Beirats des IWM. Er starb 2005.   Print

  • Michel Rocard

    Michel Rocard, former First Secretary of the French Socialist Party and a member of the European Parliament for 15 years, was Prime Minister of France from 1988 to 1991.   Print

  • Akos Rona-Tas

    Akos Rona-Tas is professor at the Sociology Department of the University of California, San Diego and a research associate at Met@risk, INRA, Paris. He is the author of the books Plastic Money: Constructing Markets for Credit Cards in Eight Postcommunist Countries (with Alya Guseva, 2014) and Surprise of the Small Transformation: Demise of Communism and …
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  • Lew Rubinstein

    Lew Rubinstein lebt als Poet und Essayist in Moskau. Nach dem Studium der Philologie war er als Bibliothekar tätig. Seit Ende der 1960er-Jahre verfasst er poetische Arbeiten, seit 1974 serielle Textzyklen als so genannte Kartotheken. Zusammen mit Andrej Monastyrskij, Dimitrij A. Prigov und Vladimir Sorokin gilt er als wichtigster Vertreter des Moskauer Konzeptualismus. Print

  • Jacques Rupnik

    Geschichte und Politikwissenschaft, Paris
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  • Claudia Šabi?

    Claudia Šabi? ist Politikwissenschaftlerin und Ethnologin. Seit 1998 ist sie Wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiterin an der Goethe-Universität, Frankfurt am Main. Print

  • Ranabir Samaddar

    Distinguished Chair in Migration and Forced Migration Studies, Calcutta Research Group
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  • Paul Sanders

    Paul Sanders is a historian and management scholar. He is a full-time professor at Reims Management School in Reims, France. He has published across the disciplines of history, international relations and leadership.   Print

  • Karl Schlögel

    Karl Schlögel war Professor für Osteuropäische Geschichte zuerst an der Universität Konstanz, dann an der Europa-Universität Viadrina in Frankfurt/Oder. Nach seiner Emeritierung arbeitet er an einer Archäologie des Kommunismus und einer Geschichte des Wolgaraumes. Zurzeit ist er City of Vienna/IFK Fellow am IFK in Wien.     Print

  • Thomas Schmid

    Thomas Schmid is the publisher of the WELT Group, Berlin. He worked for various newspapers, among them as editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung. From 2006 to 2010 he was Editor-in-Chief of Die Welt.   Print

  • Margit Schratzenstaller

    Margit Schratzenstaller is senior researcher at the Austrian Institute of Economic Research (WIFO) and is currently coordinating (together with Karl Aiginger and Stefan Ederer) ‘WWW for Europe’, a 4-year research project within the 7th Framework Program funded by the European Commission.   Print

  • Dieter Segert

    Dieter Segert ist Professor für Transformationsprozesse in Mittel-, Südost- und Osteuropa am Institut für Politikwissenschaft der Universität Wien. Seit September 2007 ist er Mitglied des Vorstandes des IDM Wien, seit Juni 2008 Mitglied der Leibniz-Sozietät der Wissenschaften zu Berlin.   Print

  • Victoriya Sereda

    Sociologie, Ivan-Franko-Universität, Lviv
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  • Michel Serres

    Michel Serres ist Philosoph und Mitglied der Académie Française.   Print

  • Anton Shekhovtsov

    Visiting Fellow, Ukraine in European Dialogue
    (January 2016 – December 2017)
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  • Marci Shore

    Associate Professor of History, Yale University
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  • Sławomir Sierakowski

    Director, Institute for Advanced Study, Warsaw; Founder, "Krytyka Polityczna" movement
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  • Sara Silverstein

    Ph.D. Candidate in Modern European and International History, Yale University
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  • Ondřej Slačálek

    Assistant Professor of Political Science, Charles University, Prague

    Jan Patočka Junior Visiting Fellow
    (January – June 2017)
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  • Aleksander Smolar

    Political Science, Paris
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  • Timothy Snyder

    IWM Permanent Fellow
    Bird White Housum Professor of History, Yale University
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  • George Soros

    George Soros is a pioneer of the hedge-fund industry, investor and philanthropist, he is the author of many books, including Financial Turmoil in Europe and the United States: Essays (2012), The Soros Lectures: At the Central European University (2010), The Crash of 2008 and What it Means: The New Paradigm for Finance Markets (2009).   …
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  • Robert Spaemann

    Robert Spaemann ist Professor em. für Philosophie an der Universität München.   Print

  • Pawel Spiewak

    Associate Professor of Sociology, Department of Sociology and Philosophy, Warsaw University
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  • Wilfried Stadler

    Wilfried Stadler ist Unternehmensberater, Wirtschaftspublizist und Honorarprofessor an der Wirtschaftsuniversität Wien. Bis 2009 war er Vorstandsvorsitzender einer österreichischen Spezialbank für Unternehmensfinanzierung.   Print

  • Rudolf Stamm

    Rudolf Stamm war von 1975 bis 1988 Korrespondent der Neuen Zürcher Zeitung für Osteuropa und Österreich, anschließend bis 1999 für Italien, dann bis zu seiner Pensionierung 2002 für die USA mit Sitz in Washington D.C. Er starb 2010 in der Schweiz. 1985 erscheinen seine NZZ-Reportagen aus Osteuropa in dem Band Alltag und Tradition in Osteuropa. …
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  • Paul Starr

    Paul Starr ist Professor für Soziologie an der Princeton University und Mitherausgeber von The American Prospect. Er ist Pulitzer-Preisträger.   Print

  • Martina Steer

    ÖAW APART Fellow (History)
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  • Kristina Stoeckl

    Research Director
    APART Fellow, Austrian Academy of Sciences; Department of Political Sciences, University of Vienna
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  • Roman Szporluk

    Roman Szporluk is Professor em. of Ukrainian History at Harvard and Professor em. of History at the University of Michigan. He is a foreign member of the National Academy of Sciences in Kiev, Ukraine. His research focuses on modern Ukrainian, Russian, and Polish history, and on Marxism and nationalism in Eastern Europe.   Print

  • Charles Taylor

    IWM Permanent Fellow
    Professor em. of Philosophy, McGill University, Montréal
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  • Maria Teteriuk

    PhD candidate in Mass Communications and senior lecturer in Media Studies, National University of 'Kyiv-Mohyla Academy', Ukraine
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  • Philipp Ther

    Junior Professor of Polish and Ukrainian Studies, Europa-Universität Frankfurt / Oder
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  • Maria Todorova

    Professor of History, University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign
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  • Balázs Trencsényi

    Balázs Trencsényi, Ph.D., is Associate Professor at the Department of History, CEU. His research focuses on the comparative history of political thought in East Central Europe and the history of historiography. He is co-director of Pasts, Inc., Center for Historical Studies at CEU and Associate Editor of the periodical East Central Europe (Brill). He was …
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  • Stefan Troebst

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  • Marius Turda

    Lecturer in the Education Abroad Program, Eötvös Lorand University, Faculty of Humanities, Budapest
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  • Andreas Umland

    Andreas Umland ist Wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter am Institut für Euro-Atlantische Kooperation Kiew sowie Herausgeber der Buchreihe Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society, ibidem-Verlag Stuttgart. Print

  • Victoria Vasilenko

    Assistant Professor of Contemporary History and International Relations, Belgorod National Research University
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  • David G. Victor

    David G. Victor is a Professor at the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies at the University of California, San Diego, where he directs the Laboratory on International Law and Regulation.   Print

  • Harald Welzer

    Harald Welzer ist Forschungsprofessor für Sozialpsychologie an der Universität Witten/Herdecke und Direktor des Center for Interdisciplinary Memory Research am Kulturwissenschaftlichen Instituts Essen.   Print

  • Karolina Wigura

    Adjunct of the History of Ideas, University of Warsaw; Co-Editor of Kultura Liberalna
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  • Volodymyr Yermolenko

    Volodymyr Yermolenko is a Ukrainian philosopher and essayist. He has a degree in Political Science from the EHESS, Paris, and teaches at Kyiv Mohyla Academy in Kyiv. He is the author of the book Narrator and Philosopher: Walter Benjamin and his time (2011, in Ukrainian). Print

  • Oksana Zabuzhko

    Free-lance writer, Kiev
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  • Tatiana Zhurzhenko

    Research Director, Russia in Global Dialogue / Ukraine in European Dialogue
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