National Histories, Imperial Memories: Representing the Past in Interwar Central Europe

In the successor states of the Habsburg Empire, official narratives of history tended to downplay the imperial context and highlight the continuous, distinct history of the nation. Nevertheless, while 1918 was undoubtedly a watershed moment, it did not suddenly obliterate the shared past. The built and artistic heritage of the Empire was still present and had to be dealt with, whether through appropriation, destruction, or reinterpretation. The nationalities of the former Empire were in constant interaction with each other, whether politically allied or opposed, and they still lived together in multiethnic territories such as Slovakia or Transylvania. Commemorations and representations of the national past were conceived with an eye on the ‘others’. Remembrance was polyphonic, with different groups forming their own narratives, even if these were not always officially recognised.

The seminar series National Histories, Imperial Memories will examine how visual culture in interwar central Europe engaged with the shared imperial past. It will feature papers on topics ranging from the postwar fate of pre-1918 public monuments and built heritage to  representations of the past in film, and from commemorations of war to idealised depictions of rural life.

The events will take place on Zoom, every fortnight starting on 21 September 2021 and concluding on 14 December 2021. The sessions will begin at 18.00 CET.

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Eternal and Blissfully Unaware: Unser Land mit Unsern Augen (1949) and Austrian Cultural Amnesia after 1945

Our Artwork of the Month in April 2020 was Columbus in der Slovakei (1936), a cultural travel guide by Leopold Wolfgang Rochowanski (1888–1961) that introduced Slovak modern art, architecture and, mainly, folk culture to the unaware German-speaking reader. This post is a follow-up: though Columbus was a financial disaster, and almost drove its publisher EOS-Verlag into ruin, Rochowanski pursued the idea of publishing more travel guides of the same sort. Writing to various institutions and government agencies across Europe, he proposed travel guides to the Czech Lands, the Sudetenland, Austria, and the Netherlands in the late 1930s, all of which were rejected amid growing political tensions and a dire economic situation. However, the author eventually succeeded after the Second World War, publishing a cultural travel guide to Austria with the Österreichische Buchgemeinschaft (Austrian book club) in 1949. At this point Austria, whose population had eagerly supported National Socialism, yearned to reinvent itself in an effort to overcome the past, and officials such as Chancellor Karl Renner focused on promoting an Austrian identity that was separate from that of Germany. Against this background, Rochowanski’s second travel guide, Unser Land mit unsern Augen (Our Land with our Eyes), shows that the theme of continuity and rupture, which the CRAACE project focuses on around 1918, recurred around the historical break of 1938–1945. Given that the book had already been written in 1938 but was only published later, as its epilogue reveals, it raises some important questions about new beginnings and a lingering past, which bring to light striking continuities in Austria before and after 1945.

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Place, Memory, Propaganda: The 1930 album Justice for Hungary!

When we think of history, we think of it as unfolding in time. The historical events we remember sit somewhere in a chronology, and we think of them as having causes and effects, laid out neatly in the timeline. History also has a spatial dimension: the locations where the events took place are integral to their memory; but, paradoxically, this often means that their geographical reality dissolves into an abstraction. Mohács, for instance, was the scene of a battle between Hungarians and the Ottoman Turks in 1526. In the nineteenth century, the disastrous defeat suffered by the Hungarian army came to be seen as a singular national tragedy, which led to the subsequent Turkish invasion of a large part of the Kingdom. ‘Mohács’ became a metaphor. Although the town had its own local commemorations, the battle was essentially remembered in the same way everywhere in Hungary. Its physical location played no role in its national remembrance; the main thing was that it was part of the great national timeline – the national narrative of history.

The standardisation and centralisation of historical memory was part of the nineteenth-century process of nation-building. After 1867, the now semi-autonomous Hungarian state promoted the ideas of continuous Hungarian statehood and the legitimacy of Magyar hegemony in the Carpathian Basin through paintings, murals, sculptures and public monuments across the Kingdom. Monuments were sometimes erected to mark important historical locations, but at other times their locations were not relevant to the historical events they commemorated. It did not matter: all of these places, whether historical or not, were part of the country. They were in a synecdochical relationship with what was seen as most important: the nation, its territory, and its history as one integral whole. But what happens to historical memory when that integrity is suddenly broken? Continue reading