European Remembrance Symposium: 2016 Budapest

The year 1956 was a year that “shook the world”. The events of 1956 showed how much people of Eastern Europe wanted to overthrow the communist dictatorships. After Stalin’s death in 1953, the crisis within the Eastern Bloc became imminent. After the uprisings in Berlin and Poznań events reached their climax on October 23, 1956 in Budapest, with the first armed battle against Soviet troops and communist leadership. This confrontation had an impact on the history of the whole Eastern bloc and became a benchmark for other movements in countries under Soviet dominance striving for self-determination and freedom and. It also anticipated the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989 and its legacy is present in contemporary memory in Europe and beyond.

Next year marks the 60th anniversary of these events. To commemorate the Eastern Europeans’ struggle for independence, the European Network of Remembrance and Solidarity and its partners, the Hungarian Committee of National Remembrance and the Hungarian Academy of Sciences have decided to dedicate the next European Remembrance Symposium, which will take place in May 2016 in Budapest, to the events of 1956 and their legacy.

The European Remembrance Symposium is intended to serve as a platform for high-level discussions by government representatives, academics, and professionals from both NGOs and public institutions which are active in the field of remembrance in Europe, dedicated to regional and global remembrance, and willing to meet contemporary challenges in historical education and memory.

Participants will be confronted with the questions of what Stalinism and De-Stalinization in Eastern Europe was like and why these periods differed so much from country to country. Much attention will be given to the description of societies in Eastern Europe under communist rule and the techniques that communist regimes used for handling crises in their countries (including international comparisons, e.g. the ‘successful’ – from a communist point-of-view – crisis management in Poland compared to the 1956 revolution in Hungary). The impact of Stalinism on everyday social life will also be debated.

It will also be important to examine the processes that led to 1956 on a regional level: Stalin’s death in 1953, the Uprising in Plzeň, the East German uprising, the 20th congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and the events in Poznań, Warsaw and Budapest. Both regional (Eastern European) and global aspects of 1956 will be put in the spotlight. Although the significance of 1956 is widely acknowledged as a turning point of Eastern European history, its global impact continues to be a controversial issue among historians. The Symposium will be an opportunity to discuss the global framework of 1956 and the relation of the 1956 events to other forms of struggle between the Eastern and Western Blocs, like the Suez Canal crisis or the situation in the Far East and Africa.

Another key issue of the discussions will be the comparison between 1956’s short-term and long-term impacts and the analysis of 1956’s effects on Western Europe; how was the thaw and its consequences perceived in Western Europe? What kind of communication and reciprocal influence, existed between “East” and “West”? In particular, participants will consider U.S. foreign policy, Western communist parties, the effects and the perception of dissidents and emigrants from East Central Europe, and finally the Holy See’s Eastern Bloc policy.

The Symposium will allow participants to investigate the direct and indirect consequences of 1956, including retribution, emigration, and various forms of repression. Both short- and long-term impacts will be discussed, including the post-1956 “refining” of communist dominance. This may encompass methods that rulers used to enforce power and to mobilize the people for an ostensibly better future as well as to ensure popular obedience, such as threats of Soviet invasion, law as a tool of subordination, and the surveillance of religious groups and institutions.

The contemporary meaning and the legacy of 1956 will also be given much attention. Participants will analyse 1956’s influence on present-day art, literature, film, political culture and historical memory.

Finally, a frequently debated topic is how European societies come to terms with totalitarianism/ authoritarianism, communist crimes, and how images of freedom tend to differ by country. The organizers would like to give participants an opportunity to discuss the differences in perception of freedom between countries of Eastern and Western Europe, as well as to weigh the accomplishments of various institutions and NGOs which try to keep the memory of the struggle for freedom alive.

The Symposium is one of the principal projects of the European Network Remembrance and Solidarity, which aims to research, document, and promote the remembrance and the study of totalitarianisms, dictatorships, and wars in 20th century Europe through the inclusion of the most recent academic discourse and multilateral dialogue concerning the different experiences of the past era.