Memory beyond the heroic

How neighboring nations make use of history for their co-existence

Wojciech Przybylski Editor-in-chief
16 September 2013

It is remarkable that Agnieszka Holland, a director from Poland, was the first to make a non-documentary film based on the story of Jan Palach, a Czech student who committed  suicide by self-immolation in a protest against the Prague Spring (the HBO mini-series Burning Bush, 2013). Tellingly, the script writer and producer of the film were very young – not yet 30. They and their audience seem to be mouthing the same question, “What was it really like?”. In this volume of Visegrad Insight we look at how this new generation seeks out such knowledge.

Memories of Cold War imprisonment are already beginning to show signs of wear. Until recently, contemporary graduates in the region were deprived of access to unbiased history teaching about this past. History curricula usually ended with the trauma of the Holocaust. Teachers were therefore released from the difficult task of explaining the world of their own youth, leaving politicians to fight over the meaning of the recent past. But new education reforms have brought further challenges. How to teach about friends and enemies in a shared Europe?

History textbooks are controlled by the state everywhere in the world. History is an extension of official ideology (democratic or authoritarian) that is designed to shape common memory about the past and serve as the root of collective identification. Whether we are speaking about the memory of speeches  by Martin Luther that demand social equality or Jan Palach’s deed in the name of freedom, all such events are inscribed in history textbooks to define who we are. Hardly anyone questions the political significance of history, but few are interested in its significance in light of Visegrad cooperation.

We therefore look beyond hero-enemy narratives to bring attention to how neighboring nations make use of history for their co-existence. We report on changes in history education, on the politics of memory and on the economies behind it all. The problems and promises associated with common history textbooks are also explored. Can we expect a common Visegrad history textbook in the future? This issue of Visegrad Insight asks what possibilities rest on the as-yet-unseen horizon.