Who decides the history we remember?
In the early 90s, the collapse of the Soviet Union opened up the Eastern Block. Where was once a powerful communist state a series of newly independent countries began to question their identity and recent history. Left behind were the politics of a complex communist system and decades of myopic urban landscapes and monuments. Today traveling through this region, we can find the monuments from communism and for communism that tell a complicated story of life and memory behind the iron curtain. On this program we will travel through Central and Eastern europe to explore how cultural memory and monuments tie together. We will seek out the narratives of communism and consider how current politics are still impacted by the history we are taught to remember.
From the remnants of the Berlin wall to the eclectic evolution of the capital, we will get a taste for modern East and West Berlin. In Prague, we will explore the old city and visit Europe’s largest castle, before meeting with young people who’s childhood were shaped by communist values. In Budapest we will pay a visit to some of the old (and new) Soviet Monuments which capture this changing story and investigate how the current political climate is a direct result of the spheres of influence from the 20th century. Of course, we will take time to enjoy the incredible castles, urban parks, local bakeries, and stunning waterways that shape this story and also make these some of Europe’s most amazing cities. At the end of our program we will think about how the creators of monuments (and the stories of history) still play a role in shaping our collective cultural memory.
This program was conceived of by two history teachers, Megan Jones and Julia Dunbar, from the Pingry School in New Jersey. Atlas Workshops collaborated to design the program, itinerary, and logistics.
We will begin in Berlin, the infamous divided city of the 20th century and the capital of Germany. Though Berlin is changing rapidly the signs of the division still show throughout the city’s different districts and especially in the architecture and monuments.
We will trace the story of the wall as we visit key remnants of the barricade in parks around the city. As we cross the old border lines we will compare the style and impact as we hear stories from local experts. We will visit key sections of the old East Berlin, like Alexanderplatz and Treptower Park to see the remnants of communism and the monuments of the time. We will also explore the center of the city and think about how Germany grapples with its history, especially during WWII, as we visit key sites around Mitte.
We will reach Prague by train where we will get to enjoy this spectacular city. We will spend time in the Old City tracing the history of the city and country throughout different kingdoms and governments. We will visit some of the newer districts to think about how public art and monuments play a defining role in modern Czech life and meet locals to discuss the transition from life during communism to capitalism has impacted the city.
We will also seek out some of the oldest restaurants and hippest cafes in the city as we get a taste for life in this city and the changes underway.
Our final stop will be in Budapest. In Budapest we will take a similar lens to explore the key historical sites and monuments in the city. From the Castle overlook to the house of Terror we will again explore how historical narrative is constructed. We will take a cruise on the Danube at sunset and seek out the best Paprika dishes we can find. We will then head out of the city center to Memento Park to see a collection of Soviet monuments from all around the the city in their new home.
We will also meet with local organizations and see key monuments that are grappling with the current political shift epitomized in Hungary. As we end our program in Budapest we will be in a perfect position to discuss how history and cultural memory is a story and a tool and the role public history is currently playing in Europe and around the world.
The Atlas Workshops team has traveled and worked extensively in central and Eastern Europe. While this version of the program visits some of the most well-known central European capital cities, we could easily adapt this program to visit other nearby countries and cities such as Krakow, Poland or Bratislava, Slovakia. We could also continue further east into the Baltics or other former Soviet states.
We could also adapt this trip to have a stronger focus on public art or look at other time periods and themes related to WWII and communism times. For example, the program could focus on narratives, economics, or post-communist ideologies.
We could also run other programs about cultural memory and monuments about this time period elsewhere in Europe, perhaps make this the focus of a trip to the Balkans or look at different monuments and historical sites in Greece or Bulgaria.