Musealization of Memory - The Second World War and Nazi-occupation in Museums, Memorial Sites, and Monuments in Eastern Europe

Project director: Martin Schulze Wessel

Project time frame: Oktober 2008 – September 2012

Funding: Volkswagen Foundation (Funding initiative: Unity amidst Variety? Intellectual Foundations and Requirements for an Enlarged Europe)

The debates following the 60th anniversary of the war’s end in 1945 made it clear that in many states of Europe the Second World War and the years immediately following still form a central point of focus of the collective memory and of the national policies of history. Many of these debates focused on museums, historical exhibitions and memorials. Particularly in the post-communist states of Eastern Europe, the desire to adapt the presentations in museums of the war experience and the post war years to the changed political conditions led to several new history museums being founded. At the same time, many already existing memorial sites were newly interpreted; monuments dedicated to the occupation regime of the Second World War were sometimes newly constructed, in other cases they were removed from their original locations.

It is the goal of this project to examine presentations in museums, memorial sites and monuments relating to occupation politics and the experience of occupation during the Second World War and to shed light on their specific semantics, presentation logics and intentions. In the course of this examination the main question will be to discover which symbolic languages and processes of inclusion and exclusion help create a feeling of community. A central focal point of the examination concerns the differing tendencies of the recollection of the time of occupation in Europe: on the one hand the tendency of universalization, on the other hand the tendency of particularization of memories. In this context, it is necessary to distinguish between cross-national presentations of occupation, experiences of imprisonment, Shoah and the liberation from symbolisms that separate the various modes of memory in different European regions.

The research group, comprising an international group of young academics, will examine this question in several individual projects. These projects will focus on Belarus, Lithuania, Poland, Russia and the Czech Republic. A Europe-wide forum for discussion will be established by two international conferences.

Project Directors

  • Prof. Dr. Włodzimierz Borodziej (Universität Warschau)
  • Hon.-Prof. Dr. Monika Flacke (Deutsches Historisches Museum Berlin/Carl von Ossietzky Universität Oldenburg)
  • Prof. Dr. Etienne François (Freie Universität Berlin)
  • Prof. Dr. Irene Götz (Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München)
  • Prof. Dr. Peter Haslinger (Herder-Institut, Marburg/Justus-Liebig-Universität Gießen)
  • Prof. Dr. Miloš Havelka (Karls-Universität Prag)
  • Prof. Dr. Volkhard Knigge (Gedenkstätte Buchenwald/Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena)
  • Dr. Frithjof Benjamin Schenk (Universität Basel)
  • Prof. Dr. Bernd Schönemann (Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster)
  • Prof. Dr. Martin Schulze Wessel (Collegium Carolinum München/Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München)

Cooperation partners

  • Dr. Nicolas Beaupré (Université Blaise Pascal, Clermont-Ferrand)
  • Prof. Dr. Gustavo Corni (Universität Trento)
  • Dr. Jorunn Sem Fure (Universität Oslo)
  • Dr. Christian Ingrao (Institut d´histoire du temps présent Paris)
  • Prof. Dr. Krzysztof Pomian (Le musée de l´Europe – Jean Monnet, Brüssel/Universität Toruń)
  • Dr. Wassyl Rassewytsch (Ukrainische Nationalakademie der Wissenschaften, Ľviv)
  • Prof. Dr. Stefan Troebst (Universität Leipzig/Geisteswissenschaftliches Zentrum Geschichte und Kultur Ostmitteleuropas, Leipzig)
  • Prof. Dr. Olivier Wieviorka (Ecole Normale supériore de Cachan)


Medien zwischen Fiction-Making und Realitätsanspruch
Konstruktionen historischer Erinnerungen


Krieg im Museum
Präsentationen des Zweiten Weltkriegs in Museen und Gedenkstätten des östlichen Europa

War and remembering war in the museum. The Second World War in Polish exhibitions since the 1980s

Monika Heinemann

The project is concerned with the question how the presentations and interpretations of the Second World War as the essential point of focus of the national historical memory has developed in historical museums in the Republic of Poland since the political changes of 1989. Regional and municipal history museums as well as facilities that claim a national relevance will be the objects of examination. The concepts and contents of permanent exhibitions will be analyzed as well as the presentation techniques used in these exhibitions. A special focus will be placed on the diachronic examination of developments and changes in the presentation of individual topics and the usage of national, religious and political symbols in museum displays. Furthermore, the institutional and judicial framework of the organization of the national museum scene will be considered.

The central questions of this research project are: In how far can a development of a unified narrative within the history museums of various geographic ranges/orientations be observed; are there divergent regional or local patterns of interpretation? Which groups are included or excluded in the particular narratives? Which events are emphasized in the exhibitions, which are not mentioned at all? Can the development of a hierarchy within the museum scene with respect to interpretations be observed; what is the role of newly founded museums in this context? How do new scientific findings, debates in society and politics influence protagonists as well as contents and concepts of exhibitions?

Monika Heinemann

The Musealization of the German Occupation in the New Nation State: The Republic of Belarus.

Ekaterina Keding

In the context of the official Belorussian politics of memory, the commemoration of the time of occupation during the “Great Patriotic War” is not only presented as the calling card of the country, but is also understood to be an essential element in the national narrative of heroes and victims. This dissertation project examines the musealization of the German occupation in museums, memorial sites and monuments. The study is mainly focused on aspects of the presentation of partisan resistance because the emphasis placed on the role of the partisans was particularly distinct in the Belorussian Soviet Republic (in comparison to other states of the Soviet Union) and because the Republic of Belarus belongs to the few republics which have only marginally distanced themselves from the Soviet past since the end of the Soviet Union. In addition, the examination will take into account places commemorating the Holocaust and zerstörte Orte (places destroyed by the occupiers which where turned into memorial sites after the war).
The central questions of this research project are: What characterizes the presentations of the “Great Patriotic War” in the museums of the Republic of Belarus? How is a national narrative constituted and staged by the monuments for partisans, memorial sites and museums? What is the relation between the places of memory dedicated to partisan resistance and other locations dedicated to the German occupation? What symbols are used to remember, and represent, the Holocaust in museums since 1945? What is the role of these places in the context of historical education and tourism? The institutional framework and the presentation techniques of the institutions will be examined as well as social practices and commemorative initiatives outside of state policy. The project focuses on the breaks as well as the continuities which can be observed in the field of the musealization of the Second World War in the Republic of Belarus in the context of the political events of 1989/91.

Ekaterina Keding

Monuments, Memorials and the Culture of Remembrance Concerning World War II in the Czech Republic since 1945.

Petr Koura

Currently, several thousand monuments and memorial sites can be found on the territory of the Czech Republic which commemorate the history of the Second World War or the victims of this conflict. Many different types of memorials exist – from simple memorial plaques to monumental memorials, which were predominantly constructed during the time of the communist dictatorship and often interpret the historical events in the context of the then existing ideology. In turn, some memorials were removed because they did not comply with the existing political situation.

It is the goal of this project to analyze in which way the events of the Second World War (including the Holocaust) were commemorated in Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic after 1945. The language of the memorials will be examined – i.e. which expressions were used in the respective decades, how the language changed and how it was influenced by the ruling regime. It will be shown with which names the perpetrators and also the victims were labeled (e.g. “occupants”, “fascists”, “Jewish fellow citizens”), which groups of victims were preferred to others and which victims were not mentioned at all (e.g. in which way the resistance of the Sudeten Germans against national socialism is described). Furthermore, the visual design of the monuments (e.g. statues or reliefs of soldiers, crying women) and the question of symbols appearing repeatedly on different memorials will be analyzed. Special attention will be paid to the monuments which were removed or disappeared (mainly after 1948 and also after 1990).
Not only the memorials themselves will be examined, but also the context in which they were erected. Memorials created in communist times will be examined with regard to the extent to which historical facts were distorted (e.g. memorials in areas which were liberated by the American army but thank Soviet soldiers for the liberation). The project also endeavours to describe in which way the monuments affect the public discourse concerning the history of the Second World War and in which way they contribute to the formation of the collective memory of this period of history in Czech society.

Petr Koura

Visual Memory of the Shoah in Poland (since 1945).

Hannah Maischein

The visual dimension of the memory of the Shoah in the media of national representation and historical didactics (exhibitions in museums and at memorials, catalogues, history books and press publications) since 1945 is the topic of this study. The focus of the diachronic analysis is directed towards the Polish perception and representation of the Polish-Jewish relationship during the Second World War. Before the war, Poland was the centre of European Judaism; during the war it became the scene of its elimination by the national socialists. In the People’s Republic of Poland the suffering of the Polish nation as being the “first victim of national socialism” was commemorated. Since the system change in 1989, new historiographical studies have been published and the antifascist narrative has been reassessed; the resulting analysis of the martyrological interpretation of Polish history has led to fierce public debates. Especially the polyvalent relationship of Poles and Jews during the war is a source of dispute. The study also presents the breaks as well as the continuities in the visual representation of the Shoah occurring during the time of the transformation of the interpretation of history. An integral element of this project, which is situated between visual and social studies, is to provide a methodological contribution to the analysis of visual discourses.

Hannah Maischein

Remembrance on the Sites of Terror: Concentration Camp Memorials in Central Eastern Europe.

Piotr M. Majewski

The project is concerned with contemporary forms of commemoration in museums located on the sites of former concentration and extermination camps. The permanent exhibitions at the “State Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau”, the “State Museum at Majdanek” with its department in Bełżec, the “State Museum Stutthof”, as well as the “Museum of Struggle and Martyrdom” in Treblinka will be analyzed. At each of these institutions, interviews with the directors and with employees are to be conducted in order to gain detailed information on the establishment of the current exhibitions, their background, and future changes. Additionally, sites of extermination and of concentration camp memorials in other countries are to be examined. In this context, the main points of focus will be the exhibitions at the memorials in Terezín, Czech Republic, and in Buchenwald, Germany. These two non-Polish examples will be used to show how the musealization of the Holocaust is conducted in Poland’s neighbouring countries in order to demonstrate possible similarities and differences.

Piotr M. Majewski

The Memory of the Second World War in Museums, Memorial Sites and Monuments in Lithuania after 1989.

Ekaterina Makhotina

The central point of this research project is the question of the development of the presentation of the Second World War in museums in the context of the change of the politics of memory after independence from the Soviet Union. The symbols which dominated the historical discourse and the national culture of commemoration of the “Didysis Tėvynės Karas” (Lithuanian for the “Great Patriotic War”) during the times of the Soviet Union will be presented.

After the changes of 1989, the commemoration of military events of the war lost its potential in the memory culture of the country. It was replaced by an explicit anti-Soviet undertone. Furthermore, the commemoration now focused on the theme of Lithuania as a victim. At present, on a national level, the war is of relevance especially in the context of the commemoration of the Holocaust and is only presented visually and in substance at locations that are associated with the extermination of Jewish citizens. Noticeable is the visual juxtaposition, on the one hand, of the narratives of the victims of the Holocaust and, on the other hand, of the Lithuanian victims of Soviet terror, which are both based on emotionalizing didactics and which are to further identity development. At the same time, apart from state-supported narratives, discourses of other groups are discernible (such as veterans, transnational networks), which are defined by their own visual and ritual aspects. Finally, attention will also be paid to the musealization of the Second World War, focusing not only on the official historical perspective, but also on the non-governmental, social memory in today’s Lithuania.
Ektarina Makhotina

Conference 2009

Media between Fiction-making and Claims to Reality – Constructions of Historical Memory

Munich, 3 – 5 September 2009

Conference 2011

Between History und Politics: The Second World War in Museums and Memorial Sites in Western and Eastern Europe

Munich, 29 June – 1 July 2011
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