History has been one of my passions for a long time and this was one of the reasons I chose to study International Relations and European Studies. The conference 1914-2014: What if Europe fails? offered me the possibility not only to listen to some prominent European historians talk about the past and present of our continent, but to discuss thoroughly the events that marked Europe’s evolution.

Karl Schlögel is a very interesting person, with whom I had the chance to speak before the conference. I was so to say privileged to find out his ideas and beliefs before expressing them in front of the Romanian public.

Prior to becoming a Professor of Eastern European History at the European University of Viadrina, Karl Schlögel worked as a freelance translator, journalist and scholar in Germany, the United States and the Soviet Union.

He traveled to many countries and the main thing that he emphasizes during his speeches is that history cannot be taught without seeing the spaces where it took place.

From where did your passion for history emerge? Was there a certain person, a certain moment that made you choose this field of study?

I think I was interested in history from the very beginning, but there was a decisive moment in Germany, I think in the ’60s, when there were the student movements and we started to ask our parents and the generation of our parents what has happened in the Third Reich. Because in the ’50s and even in the ’60s there was a situation when Germany was mostly occupied with reconstructing the economy after the war, but the moral and the historic question about what has happened, what was the reason and what was the responsibility has not yet been discussed. The first time that we talked about the crimes from the Nazi times was in 1964, at the Auschwitz Trial, in Frankfurt-am-Main, and then in the ’60s we started the process of rethinking and discussing all these. This was quite a hard time, with clashes between the generations, my generation and my parents’ etc.

I had not decided from the very beginning to study history. I started with philosophy and sociology, because I wanted to know how the social system was working. But I was also in a school in West Germany, during my Gymnasium years, where I could learn Russian, so I was very-very early interested in Russian and East European history and even during my school time I organized expeditions exploring Eastern Europe and reaching to the Soviet Union. When I finished my classes in Gymnasium, I traveled hitchhiking to Bulgaria and Romania, for the first time in 1966, and I have very good memories about these two countries. I think I spent the night outside Bucharest, in the student dorms or the military barracks, which were open during the summer time for traveling students. So, I have memories from Bucharest dating back from the ’60s.

You said you traveled to the Soviet Union, can you tell us more about what you saw there? How were the people, how were they living? What impressed you there?

We were three students studying Slavic languages, who were traveling from Finland, Helsinki, up to the Iranian border for about three months. The preparation had to be done very thoroughly. You had to book the nights in the camping. This entire trip made a great impression on me, because travelling by car, individually, to many cities of the Soviet Union allowed me to meet different people, but there were a lot of things that I did not understand at that time. For instance, in many camping sites we met people from Lithuania, Estonia and they were always singing in their native languages traditional songs from their countries. They were always screaming and at that moment we did not understand why. It was because people from Estonia were meeting their relatives that were exiled in the ’40s to Siberia and the camping site was the place of meeting of the relatives of the Estonians in this case, but we met even Ukrainians. So, at that time, I did not understand what the reason of sorrow of these people was.

First of all, it was an encounter of the Russian culture, Russian people. There are many memories. For instance, we had a person in our group that had a friend in Moscow and a friend of this friend was in a hospital. We wanted to visit him, outside Moscow, and we traveled to Kashchenko[1], how this place was called, but when we entered the area of this hospital, it was quite clear that it was a psychiatric hospital. The militiamen, the policemen, told us to return to the highway, because we were not allowed to leave the highway, it was prohibited to enter the area of the hospital. It was obviously a politically dissident member that was put in this psychiatric hospital.

This was in the ’60s, but afterwards I visited again the Soviet Union, though not for political reasons. I was part of a student movement and, as part of our activities, we were opposed to the Soviet system and to the system established in the GDR.

Talking about your profession, because you are a History professor, how do you make the historical events more understandable for the young generations? We see now that the youth is not very impressed by history and regard it in a superficial manner. How do you make them understand the real “thing” about history?

I left the University last year, so I stopped teaching. But in the first part of my life I worked as a freelance writer, translator and journalist, so I always tried to transfer my impressions and what I knew to the people who read books. Before I started teaching at the University, I had published a couple of books, so I had a contact with the public and the audience. Concerning the students, even the young people have to read and they are interested in reading. Maybe they are more interested in looking at pictures and in the visual side of the historical events, but I think that it is very important to bring young people to places where history took place.

For instance, when I was teaching, almost every year, in every semester, I organized excursions to places where the history I was teaching took place. I was teaching in a University with a mixed professorial body, West Germans, East Germans, Polish and other East Europeans. We organized excursions to the monastery and to the camps of the Solovetsky in the White Sea, in the north of Russia. It is one of the oldest monasteries, from the 14th century, but in the ’20s it was the first concentration camp of the Bolshevik regime. So we organized excursions for German, Polish and Russian students and for three weeks we visited these islands, this Archipelago, so the people had an immediate impression of the Russian culture, of Russian colonization, of Russian nature (being situated on the Polar Circle) and of the history of the Soviet Union in the ’20s and the ’30s about violence, about prosecution, about the political system of totalitarianism.

On another occasion, I had a seminar on Jewish culture in Eastern Europe and we organized an excursion to Eastern Ukraine, Galicia and Eastern Poland and visited the centers of Jewish life. I once had a seminar on forced migration of the 20th century; as you may know, around 20 million German people were forced to leave their homelands in the former Eastern provinces of Germany. We visited then Kaliningrad (Konigsberg) and Wroclow, Breslau. We could study the dull face, the dull history of these places. As you can see, for me it is very important to show the students not only the events, but where they took place, where they could get an immediate impression: houses, cemeteries, the architectures, the different historic layers of the landscape.

We are in 2014, a moment that marks 100 years from the First World War’s start and 25 from the 1989 revolutions that led to the communism’s downfall. Which are, in your view, the most important lessons that the world has learnt from these past experiences?

I think that by dealing with history you can learn how historical events evolve, how people react, how they try to solve problems they are unable to solve, how they rather become victims of the events than direct them. So I do not believe you can take receipts from history to immediate ends, to take lessons. You can better understand present times if you know generations acted earlier and how they reacted in complicated situations. But to say that if you studied the First World War you know how to escape the Third World War, I would say, any situation is different and each generation has to solve a new problem and has to cope with these situations. So the lessons are very limited and restricted. So this is my rather skeptical view of the lessons. And it was the great philosopher Hegel who said All the things that you can learn from history is that you do not learn, because any situation is different. The danger to follow analogies is very great. The main ability that any political leader or any generation has to develop is how to manage the critical situations and studying history can help to understand situations, but history does not give you lessons on how to solve actual problems in the present time.

For instance, there is a discussion going on regarding the First World War that the diplomats did not succeed in communication, that the ambassadors did not communicate properly and that this is one of the reasons of slippery into the War. I would say today almost all of the presidents, prime-ministers are calling one another, and I mean Mrs. Merkel is calling very often to Putin, but to solve the problem hasn’t got to do with communication, it has to do with realm and the ability to find answers, and not to make a phone call.

It follows from here that you can learn, but not in the sense of getting recipes. You can better understand the historical situation, its complexity, the actions and reactions of people, but you cannot draw an immediate recipe.

In connection with the anniversary of the First World War, can you review for us the real causes that led to this conflict, behind the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand?

This event marked the start of a chain of reactions and of state involvement, because the states reacted as we know. There is an ongoing discussion that there were different actors and every one of them had its own contribution to the escalation of the conflict. We are discussing now a bit more critical that there was not only one nation that was responsible for the outbreak of the war, because in the ’60s there was a discussion in Germany that only Germany is responsible for the First World War. Now we have a more complex perspective of this event.

Of course, the Sarajevo attempt was just the explosion or the starter, but behind it, without giving now a history lesson on the First World War, that period was a booming time, it was a time of competition of great powers. It was a competition between the colonial powers, it was rivalry between the European empires, and it was the competition between the empires and the rising of the self-consciousness of nations. We are discussing about the seminal catastrophe of the 20th century, as George Kennan called it. I mean, for Poland, Romania, Serbia, the Baltic States, it was in a certain way the opening of the chances to get independent and the dissolution, the collapse of the empires was the pre-condition of getting independence and of even the creation of a sovereign state. For example, Czechoslovakia was made out of the fragments of the dull monarchy of Austro-Hungary. The rebirth of Poland is based on the collapse of the Russian empire, of the German empire and the Habsburg Empire. So there are different perspectives of the First World War: for some it was the collapse of the empire, of the former hegemony, and for the others it was the chance for the re-establishment of the statute, in the case of Poland, during the second republic of Poland.

To say in a formula there was only one reason for the War, let’s say nationalism, I would say it pertains to an oversimplification. I mean there was nationalism, rivalry between nations, but at the same time it was social overt mobilization in all of these countries. It was industrialization, the birth of the welfare states; it was, as we call it in Germany, the struggle for a place under the sun to get more of welfare, to get a better life. Millions of people hoped to get a better life, it was not their final dream to get into changes, to fight and to lose their lives. Their main motivation was the hope to get a better life.

Coming to more recent times, what do you think of the events of 1989, bearing in mind that they represented an important moment for the Eastern countries, but also for the Western ones, bringing a renewal of the idea of Europe?

For the Eastern countries it represented the collapse of the Soviet bloc and regaining the national independence and, in many cases, the opening to democratic reforms and to a better life, at least in the hope and aspirations of the people. For Europe as such it was the end of a great divide, the reunification of the continent which has been distorted and divided in the consequences of the Second World War and the Cold War. It was a moment of great hope and aspirations and, in many ways, how people made their way in some countries was not so successful. But I still think it was a great moment and, at least in the horizon of my generation, we had two great events: the ’60s – in a certain way the opposition to the Cold War and the strong youth movement – and 1989.

For me, it was not so surprising, because in the late ’80s I was almost all the time in Poland, Russia, Czechoslovakia and you could get a feeling about the change that was going on. But, nevertheless, when I saw, on 9th November, the Wall coming down, of course it was a great and unique moment.

After 1989, there was a lot of change going on. People in the West realized there is a world they did not know, because most people, at least my generation, had never been eastwards, they had never been in Warsaw, Budapest, Prague. Now, after the fall of the Iron Curtain, it was a great opening and discovery. A lot of people started to move, to look around. For the people in the East, for my friends, there was a radical shift, because they could move, they traveled a lot, they discovered the foreign countries and they were forced, even if they had a real chance, to reorganize their entire life. This was a radical shift for all people, for families, in school-life – everything had changed. I am full of admiration for how people managed to transform their individual ways of life and to cope with these situations.

Finally, I would to like know your opinion regarding Romania, both as a historian and as an individual. What do you think about the people, the society, and the youth? What advices do you have?

I think I am not familiar enough with the political situation so I cannot refer to it. But, as I was telling you, I was for the first time in Romania and Bulgaria in 1966, coming from Germany to Greece, Turkey etc. This was the kind of tour young people made at that period.

But I have been here quite often in between. I was in the hard times of the late ’80. I remember quite clear that I came by train from the Soviet Union and it was for the first time that I had to pay money for the border control, because he asked for them and I gave it. The period was very hard, it was winter, in the hotel there was no heating, in the shops there were queues for products.

The main thing I would like to say is that Romania for me seemed always to be a Europe en miniature. You have so many different landscapes and cultures. I was several times to Iași, which I know is in Moldova, and you have an unbelievable University there. And the northern Moldavian monasteries represent an entirely different culture. In Transylvania you have this Saxonian culture with beautiful cities, like Sibiu. This is a culture which, in a certain way, in Germany disappeared: the villages with their architecture, the houses and the churches. When you cross the mountains to Bucovina, you come to places like Suceava and Câmpulung and sometimes I have a feeling that they have preserved a character of the landscape which, in other parts of the Europe, has entirely disappeared. In the South, to Danube, you have an entirely different landscape, which I enjoyed.

Bucharest, about which I wrote a piece, Divided city, because it’s a very unique concentration of character of the 19th century wealth and power which can be seen in all these villas, the banks, the hotels in the French styles on the Calea Victoriei. I was very impressed by the architecture of the ’20s and ’30s, these American style skyscrapers on Boulevard Magheru and Boulevard Brătianu. In the ’20s and ’30s this was unique in Europe, you have no other cities with this type of modern architecture and that’s why I’ve written about this, because I was fascinated. I think there’s a unique tradition in the Romanian architecture, both modern and contemporary. You can see the traces of this very strong and specific tradition. I have the impression that Bucharest is very vital and there is lot of construction going on, lots of international business going on.

I’ve been in the Old City and at the Casa di Popolo and it has entiely changed. I was there at a time when there was an empty space with a lot of demolished buildings and now it’s becoming obviously the center of tourism and lot of people from Europe go there.

What I want to emphasize is that Romania comprehends in the borders of this country a lot of different cultures and, in this way, Romania is a kind of mirror of Europe at large. I hope that Romania will make it, because there are a lot of hardships, of transforming, in building institutions and infrastructure.


[1] You can read more about this hospital here

photo source