Vienna’s War on Drugs: Refugee Crises and the Recriminalization of Narcotics


Vienna is awash in drug dealers. Since the beginning of the year, when a reform to the criminal code rebalancing the treatment of habitual criminals inadvertently made it more difficult to arrest drug dealers, people selling drugs have been a conspicuous part of the urban landscape. It is for this reason that a broad public and political consensus coalesced behind a reform to drug laws to make it easier for police to detain dealers and for courts to convict them. If the entry into force of these provisions on June 1 and the increased police presence at the major drug dealing sites along the U6 subway line and at Praterstern did not lead to a surge of arrests, the open drug dealing has already visibly diminished.

The public and press have broadly embraced the recent legislative reform and police crackdowns as necessary correctives to the unintended consequences of the recent penal reforms. Set against the broader trajectory of Austria’s – and the world’s – efforts to stamp out the scourge of drug addiction gives reason for pause. This is not the first time Vienna had garnered an unwelcome reputation as a safe place for drug dealers. In the 1920s, the capital of the new Austrian Republic emerged as a center of the international trade in drugs. This was a time when drugs were first subject to international controls, and Austria’s role in the drug trade would have a profound influence on the shape of the drug control system.

The Origins of the Global War on Drugs

 Before 1914, narcotics were lightly regulated and easily accessible in most of the world, marketed aggressively by many of the era’s leading chemical and pharmaceutical firms. Cocaine found its way into popular beverages and cough drops administered to children. In Vienna, Sigmund Freud came out as a strong advocate of the drug as a miracle cure for various physical and psychological afflictions. Opium and its derivatives were marketed in popular tonics, particularly to women. Concerns about addiction spurred calls for greater regulation but also, perversely, the development of more potent substances. Diacetylmorphine was first marketed by the German pharmaceutical firm Bayer under the brand name heroin as a non-addictive (and therefore “heroic”) alternative to its cousin, morphine. By the early 20th century, states in Europe and the United States began to restrict access to drugs, but such measures were slow in coming and unevenly enforced.

International drug controls sprang less from such domestic concerns than geopolitical ones. The sale of opium had fueled European imperial expansion into East Asia. In China, two wars over the right of Westerners to sell the drug, then illegal in the country, led to its carving up by European powers. By the end of the 19th century, a global anti-opium movement had emerged in protest of the trade, pointing to China’s deteriorating political situation as a sign of the evils of European imperialism. The American government called two meetings of interested parties in the first decades of the 20th century, leading to the Hague Opium Convention of 1912. The treaty called for states to control not only the trade in opium for smoking but also in the manufactured narcotics morphine, heroin, and cocaine. The convention proved as ineffective as it was ambitious. Few countries implemented its provisions in its first years, and it may never have entered force had the United States and Britain not written an obligation to ratify the 1912 treaty into the Treaty of Versailles and other agreements ending the First World War. The war’s victors granted the newly founded League of Nations with oversight over the trade in narcotics.

Anxieties grew after the war about the dangers of pharmaceutical narcotics. If the confident predictions that Europe’s soldiers would return from the front addicted to morphine proved mistaken, they gave way to fears of a wave of cocaine use that seemed spread from London and Paris eastwards across Europe over the course of the 1920s. The rise in the recreational use of medical cocaine was real, but the public panic also tapped into broader concerns about national degeneration, youthful hedonism, and social change in postwar Europe. Meanwhile, the use of potent pharmaceutical opiates, particularly heroin, seemed to be on the rise in China, the United States, and Egypt. The source of all of these drugs was clear. Europe’s major pharmaceutical firms, particularly from Switzerland and Germany, as well as Japanese ones were churning out narcotics at a huge scale, indifferent to their ultimate destination and use.

Mobilized by public opinion and charged with overseeing the drug trade, the administrators of the League of Nations set about crafting an effective system of drug controls. League officials took aim at excess pharmaceutical production. Limiting production by mostly European manufacturers, they reasoned, would cut off the supply leaking into the black market. The League oversaw the drafting of two ambitious international conventions, in 1925 and 1931, which introduced a distinction between “legitimate” medical and scientific uses of narcotics and “illegitimate” recreational ones, put in place a system meant to tie total global manufacture to the estimated “legitimate” demand, and established a set of international institutions meant to monitor the flows of raw material and narcotics and to impose penalties on transgressing states. The League system laid the foundations for the world’s drug control regime, both by building an international consensus behind a prohibitionist approach to drugs and by establishing the basic legal framework for controlling global supply that has been refined and expanded in the intervening decades.

Far from wiping out the black market in narcotics, the control system spawned the modern illicit trade. Various groups emerged during the 1920s to take advantage of loopholes in the control system by diverting legally purchased narcotics into the black market. As one country tightened its regulations or imposed fresh controls on pharmaceutical manufacturers or distributors, drug smugglers shifted their operations to another state with lax drug laws. In this way, Vienna emerged as a haven for drug traffickers from across Europe – and indeed the world.

The “El Dorado” of Drug Traffickers

By the late 1920s, Vienna had earned an unenviable reputation in international circles as the “El Dorado” of drug traffickers where many of the world’s most prominent drug smugglers gathered and planned their operations. There were several reasons for Vienna’s prominent role in the trade. Its central location in Europe, close to sites of opium cultivation in Southeastern Europe and the major pharmaceutical manufacturers in Germany and Switzerland made it attractive for smugglers. Austrian drug legislation produced in 1928 took aim at the small domestic trade in cocaine fraudulently obtained or stolen form pharmacies but failed to provide for effective punishment of large-scale trafficking outside of the country. Drug traffickers could operate in the city unconcerned about legal sanction.

And then there were Vienna’s Jews. Jews of Eastern European origin occupied a prominent place in the global drug trade between the wars. Their role in the business was clearly exaggerated by official antisemitism, but historical involvement in smuggling across imperial borders and trading in alcohol as well as broad diaspora networks conferred advantages in the drug trade. The large number of Jewish refugees who came to Vienna during and after the First World War made it a visible link in the Jewish trafficking chains. The stream of destitute and seemingly alien refugees had stoked fears of disease and criminality in Vienna, which persisted into the 1920s as the number of refugees dropped. The popular links between these Ostjuden and crime would shape discussions of the drug traffic both at home and abroad throughout the interwar period. The head of the Egyptian anti-narcotics service gave voice to this wider sentiment in 1930 when he reported of Vienna’s traffickers, “This group of Russians, Poles and Palestine Jews probably forms the greatest European organisation for the illicit distribution of drugs in America, Egypt and the Far East.”[1]

Vienna’s prominence in the international drug trade represented an opportunity for the city’s long-serving police president and two-time chancellor of Austria, Johannes Schober. In 1923, Schober had called an international police congress in order to encourage the reestablishment of ties between the disparate parts of the collapsed Habsburg Monarchy in response to concerns about the internationalization of crime as a result of the dislocations and redrawing of borders caused by the war. The meeting exceeded his ambitions, leading to the founding of a permanent body in Vienna known as the International Criminal Police Commission (ICPC). Initially made up mostly of officers from the former Habsburg lands, Germany, and the Netherlands, the gradually expanded to include police officers from across Europe and from a handful of states overseas. As the commission’s scope grew, so too did Schober’s ambitions. He came to see the commission as the lynchpin of an international system of policing. More than providing a forum for police officials to meet and exchange ideas, the commission would maintain a set of databases on international offenders in its Vienna headquarters. Schober’s frequent entreaties to the League of Nations to develop a common agenda on international crime fell on deaf ears for most of the 1920s. Discussions of the flow of illicit drugs through Vienna offered a new avenue to promote the ICPC’s agenda in Geneva.

In 1930, the League of Nations’ committee deliberating on international narcotics policy in Geneva, invited Austria to send a delegate in recognition of the country’s important role in the illicit traffic. Schober, then chancellor of Austria, sent one of the ICPC’s chief administrators, a Vienna police officer named Bruno Schultz, to represent him on the committee. Schultz would continue to take part in meetings in Geneva until Austria’s annexation by Germany eight years later. Schultz came to Geneva at a time when drug experts were increasingly receptive to arguments that this was a matter best left to law enforcement. In the 1930s, the regulatory approach emphasized in the previous decade had visibly run out of steam. Trafficking groups did not abandon the trade as an increasingly effective control system cut them off from pharmaceutical supplies. Instead, they set up secret factories in East Asia and Southeastern Europe that churned out narcotics on a large scale.

The prominent role of Eastern European Jews in world’s drug trade and the important place of Southeastern Europe as a site of illicit manufacture allowed Schultz to argue that the ICPC’s agenda was applicable not only on a regional but also a global level. In Geneva, he pushed for the official endorsement of the ICPC’s program on international policing, leading in 1936 to the signing of the League’s third major convention on narcotics based on a draft treaty submitted by the ICPC in 1931. The 1936 convention never garnered as many signatures as the League’s previous conventions, but it nonetheless marked a decisive shift in global narcotics policy. Whereas earlier treaties had focused on regulating a licit activity, the production and distribution of pharmaceutical narcotics, the new convention aimed at the criminalization and policing of an illicit activity, the traffic in drugs. And the treaty significantly broadened what was considered criminal, obligating adherents not only to criminalize the illicit trade but also unauthorized possession of narcotics. The treaty signaled the turn in the logic driving drug controls from economic regulation in the interest of public health to criminal policy aimed at maintaining public order.

It would be misleading to lay the blame for the punitive turn in global drug policy solely on interwar Austrian police officials. Washington has consistently pushed for a hardline prohibitionist agenda since the 1930s. And the logic of drug control itself pushed policymakers towards more repressive solutions as producers and traffickers invariably found ways to circumvent newly adopted restrictions. Nonetheless, Schober and his associates played a critical role ensuring the enshrinement of a punitive anti-narcotics program in international law and in building a consensus that drug control was properly understood as a matter of law enforcement. And they did so by exploiting Vienna’s reputation as a center of the largely Jewish illicit drug trade.

The interwar drug control regime would outlive the institutions that gave birth to it. After the Second World War, the United Nations picked up the narcotics agenda of the discredited League of Nations, amalgamating the previous treaties (except the 1936 anti-trafficking convention) into the landmark Single Convention on Narcotics Drugs of 1961. Subsequent treaties have expanded this system, including one signed in Vienna in 1988 which superseded the 1936 instrument.  For its part, the ICPC, which was integrated into the German police apparatus during the Second World War, was purged of its Austro-German background. Relocated to France in 1946 and renamed Interpol a decade later, it remains the world’s preeminent international police organization and continues to play a leading role in pushing for better policing of the drug trade. Since 1997, when the United Nations opened its Office on Drugs and Crime in Vienna, the Austrian capital has once more moved to the center of efforts to control the global flow of narcotics through policing and criminalization.

A New Front in the War on Drugs

In light of this history, recent discussions of drug dealing in Vienna take on greater significance. Unlike in the 1920s, the problem is now domestic dealers and not international traffickers. But as then, the issue is playing out against the backdrop of a refugee crisis. If fears of Jewish criminality once stoked anxieties about of drug traffickers, it is now the influx of Africans and Middle Easterners that has fueled feelings of a loss of public order. The most visible among Vienna’s dealers are Africans, to be sure, but this comes both at a moment of growing unease about the number of refugees moving through the country and in a city accustomed since the late 1990s to see the drug trade principally as a Nigerian business. Recent news reports uncritically perpetuate these assumptions, writing approvingly of police searches of “black Africans” (Schwarzafrikaner) in search of illicit drugs. Statistics of arrests and drug seizures are listed. Those of searches that turn up no drugs go unreported. Far from representing simply a necessary corrective to recent reform of Austria’s penal laws, the recent crackdowns are part of a broader efforts by the city’s government and public to grapple with rapidly changing demographics in the midst of a broader refugee crisis.

And as between the wars, we stand at a critical moment in the international treatment of drugs. Then, the drug control regime was first coalescing around a consensus that the drug trade was principally a criminal activity best left to the police. This consensus is now fraying, as governments question the punitive approach to drug control and opt instead to tackle the problem of addiction using the tools of public health. Austria was an early pioneer of this approach. Since the early 1970s, it has based its drug policies on the philosophy of “treatment over punishment,” offering addicts an alternative to the criminal justice system while maintaining harsh penalties for large-scale dealers. In recent decades, the Austrian case has been overshadowed by more radical experiments or official tolerance of decriminalization of drug use in countries such as the Netherlands, Portugal, Czechoslovakia, and Switzerland.

Drug reformers point to these experiments as harbingers of the end for the world’s century-long war on drugs. To be sure, the chief advocates of prohibition – the United Nations, Interpol, and the US government, among others – continue to defend the strict prohibitionist model. But they do so in the face of growing popular and political unease. Recent moves by Uruguay and the American states of Colorado and Washington to fully legalize marijuana certainly represent daunting challenges to the underlying logic of the system. The Austrian case sketches out an alternative path, one that medicalizes addiction but that reaffirms the system’s emphasis on criminalization and policing. This is not a path away from the war on drugs but a way to revitalize it.

The recent refugee crisis in Europe has resurrected many specters the continent thought it had banished. Calls for increased national sovereignty and a limitation on or dismantling of the EU, for an abandonment of multicultural policies and for strict immigration controls, have grown louder and more insistent. It may also revitalize the global drug control regime. Vienna’s efforts to stamp out the drug trade in the 1920s-30s helped birth the global war on drugs. The city’s efforts today may help save it.

David Petruccelli  is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Diplomatic Academy in Vienna and a former Junior Visiting Fellow at the IWM. He holds a PhD in History from Yale University.

[1] League of Nations, Advisory Committee on Traffic in Opium and Other Dangerous Drugs. “Illicit Traffic between Austria and Egypt (Joshua Friedmann case),” 27 November 1930, (League of Nations Document O.C.1284), 6.

© Author / Transit Online


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  • Andrei Pleșu

    Andrei Pleșu 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 Šabic

    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

    PhD in Political Science
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  • Marci Shore

    Associate Professor of History, Yale University

    Visiting Fellow
    (July 2020 – June 2021)
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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
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  • Aleksander Smolar

    Political Science, Paris
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  • Timothy Snyder

    IWM Permanent Fellow
    Richard C. Levin 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

    IWM Research Director, Russia in Global Dialogue and Ukraine in European Dialogue
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