By Ruth Leiserowitz

The Postwar Period in Eastern Europe

The starting point of this new project is the observation that it is especially the first postwar decades in the eastern countries of Europe, with the war’s long-term and numerous consequences, which is an area that has been under researched and that particular developments in that history have up to now been portrayed from strictly ethnic perspectives. There were two clefts which preceded the new beginning that came with the postwar period. The first, mostly in juristic form, took place before or during the war. What happened was that for a large part of the citizenry along with their families, the occupation revoked their citizenship, their right of residence, their right to continue living in the old ways. The second (geographical) break was something experienced by the migrants when they had to leave behind their home territory (most of the time being compelled to do so.) Although it is commonly maintained that given all the reconstruction efforts, there was little space left for an intensive examination of the memories of the terror and the sacrifice of the war, here the thesis will be put forward that these topics were consciously allowed to fade from view in order to create a future; otherwise no surge forward into a new life would have been possible.

If we resolve to recognize the eastern part of Middle Europe as a field of research, then that is based on two different reasons: on the one hand, in the first postwar decades there were radical political changes – there were no continuities with the prewar political order. On the other hand, the totality of the all the relocations of the populations within Eastern Middle Europe was significantly greater than in the Western part of the continent. (Here the intention is, over and above the cross-border and forced migrations, to also include the numerous measures at relocation within the respective countries. Up to a certain degree one can include in these processes those people who returned to where they had lived previously, but who were not allowed access to their original houses, causing them to have to search for alternatives.) Many displaced people in the postwar period only arranged their lives provisionally, because they were hoping to return. With the passage of time, they had to learn that there would be no return, whether from a geographical or social perspective. Eastern Middle Europe of the postwar period seems at first sight to be a region full of profound and fundamental changes. Yet, without a doubt, people did develop strategies in order to maintain some continuity and slow the pace of change.

From a political perspective, the early postwar period has been well researched, but when it comes to questions such as: How did the populaces come to terms with the new situations? How did they adapt to the new circumstances? How did they create new “private spheres”? So far, we have just a few answers. We know too little about how the populaces reacted to the major political decisions, and what private strategies they developed. Was it clear to the people in the countries of Eastern Middle Europe that the process of events would inevitably result in changes or did they hope that their private lives would gradually come back onto the tracks of the prewar period. In order to provide answers, it is appropriate to turn to the “safely preserved place of the private sphere” – the family. We can ask the following questions about that:

What short-term and what long-lasting consequences of the war negatively impacted the families? How long were these factors felt? At what point can one speak with reference to the private sphere about an ‘initial’ postwar period?

So, this concerns families and thereby the relationships of the different generations and genders to one another. One can already determine here, without a major analysis, that there were major areas of opposing tensions for the families, regardless whether they were able to remain in their home area, whether they were bombed out, or deported, or forcibly resettled. These tensions rested, on the one hand, on the fragmentation of the families and with that a new understanding of gender in the family. On the other hand, the tensions increased through the role which the state and administration assigned to the younger generation, the young people. Thirdly, ideological based measures issuing from the state had their effects on the families.


The majority of families had been decimated by the war; for many families the fathers had died at the front, or as forced laborers, or in a camp. Others after the war had to serve a prison sentence, or were deported to Siberia, or were away from their families, because they were actively involved in the political underground. So what came about was a massive unbalanced distribution of the sexes within the family. The essential decisions in the family in the initial part of the postwar period were made primarily by the mothers, who also bore most of the workload so that they could feed their families. In this context, the following questions arise:

What images of masculinity were created after the war and what kind of impact did they have? How did the women understand these? Were boys raised differently than before the war?

Of course, in this context one can point out that in the Soviet republics and in the people’s democracies, at a formal level, equality of the sexes was the rule and a focused advancement of women was introduced. However, it is still not really known to what extent a reciprocal influence developed between the state propaganda and the family situations, or whether the end result was that women were simply urgently needed as workers, both by the state as well as within the family.

Young People

The end of the war, despite the immeasurable losses, spawned a wave of euphoria especially among the younger generation. There was a multifaceted experience of an awakening and an unconditional new beginning. This early period in the life of the generation who at the end of the war were young people (about 14-21 years of age), has not yet been the focus of any investigations, because the history (among other things) of the migrations and arrivals was predominantly written and dominated by their parents’ generation. So far, historians, sociologists, and anthropologists have asked more intensively about the feelings of being uprooted and the “psychosis of temporariness”, describing the situation of “sitting on one’s suitcase.” That has been the focus rather than looking into the feelings of those coming to terms with the new challenges. There is a presupposition that optimism and a mood of moving forward in the generation of young people played a far stronger role for them than the rest of the age groups. Added to that was that the new political systems turned their attention more strongly to the younger generation; the young people of both genders received significantly more state funding for careers than others had in earlier social orders . These processes belong to the phenomenon of the “youthification” of the postwar period described by Tony Judt. In that sense, the questions arise:

What were the consequences for relationships within the family that resulted from the state’s interest in young people and from its specific support of the career advancement of this generation?


From the multiplicity of political measures introduced in the people’s democracies and the Soviet republics, I will mention only three representatives ones which had a significant influence on private life, that is, on the family. For one thing, there was the state control of what one owned, which was true in the realm of the collectivization of agriculture as well. Secondly, the active effective zones of the churches were frequently restricted, along with the vilification of churches’ work and those who were believers. Thirdly, ethnic minorities were frequently discriminated against. Such measures were introduced in all the countries of Eastern Middle Europe; however, they differed from one another quite a bit both in timeframes and geographically and they were different from one another in their respective degrees. In this context, the questions arise:

Did the collectivization processes in the countryside lead to a breaking up of family bonds? What role did the church play with regard to the families? Were the emerging generational conflicts aggravated by questions about religious connections? Can one in general suppose that the social consequences of the processes of “sovietization” were a phenomenon of Eastern Middle Europe, which could be researched and described from a transnational perspective?


In order to find answers, we need sources. One of the problems lies with the fact that we have only a few written, private sources at our disposal. In contrast both to the period of the war itself and to when people were fleeing, (these are times when it is demonstrable that many women were keeping diaries), it seems that later during the period of reconstruction there was apparently no time for that. The official publications of that time period reflect just official positions. It is only with real difficulty that we can cast some light on the private sphere. For that reason, I am resorting to photographic sources, to private family photos from that time period. In doing so, I am rather sure that there were significant differences in the actual practice of photography in the various regions of Eastern Middle Europe during this time period. After the war was over, the cameras in use came primarily from the prewar period. The prints were frequently developed privately in somebody’s own provisionally set up darkroom. So in that sense this is about a totally private sphere, over which the state had no influence whatsoever. To that extent, the private photo can be taken as a medium which was expressing private attitudes, such that one could pursue the hypothesis that the production and distribution of these photos had to do with counterpoints to the official social forms that dominated back in those days.

Many photos represent valuable sources, because they provide content about the cultural and social milieu of the time period being study. However, in that sense it is necessary to describe the context of that period. If we, say, want to talk about the example the Lithuanian Soviet Republic, which is the national region from which the pictures come, (and which I am offering you as an example), then it must be noted that in such an investigation of a decade and a half, we are dealing with a time period in which there are very few pictures. There was as yet no television and very few magazines. The photos appearing in newspapers and journals were of very low quality. It almost seems that hidden behind this was a political intention to avoid divulging pictorial material as little as possible. (Even if one leafs through magazines and photo albums from the interwar period, published in the exact same places, you are astounded at the steps “backwards” that the polygraph industry experienced.) However, in order to get a better handle on the context, it is appropriate to also investigate which visual media were in circulation at the time and what kind of images they provided. What role did photography itself play; how were pictures passed around; and was there at the time a censorship of pictures functioning in the private or semi-public realm?

What is generally known is that private photo albums from the National Socialist period were frequently handed down in rather incomplete versions. It was not uncommon to find pages ripped out or heads cut out. In these cases, the goal was primarily to eliminate after the fact images of those who were wearing Germany Army uniforms or to get rid of the memories of National Socialist insignia. There did not seem to be similar “clean-up efforts” with images of people in uniform or wearing insignias.

Research into the Sources for Images

The photos from the analyzed holdings come from private albums and collections, and that means that (as a rule) the same people appear in them many times. It is also possible, when looking at different pictures from different times, to determine the relationships of those in the pictures and as such tell the family history over the course of many years. These family connections make the analysis easier (whereas with other holdings of pictures, it could be local or institutional connections).

The next thing to do is to ask a series of questions about the whole collection:
– What meaning did the photos have in that period of the peoples’ lives?
– What were the situations which were photographed?
– What was the dominant interest?
– Can one discern gender-specific differences?

The answers go as follows: photos at that time had a powerful function, namely, to demonstrate the self-awareness of the family or the social group. Over and above that, they also served as information and news for family members who (either willingly or unwillingly) were staying in other places. Through these photographs, celebratory moments, especially of religious events, but also graduations and completion of the harvest were preserved. Moreover, the practice developed of recording special moments of leisure time spent together. Such a preserving of these situations was intended as a way of holding onto private memories. As well, there were many photos of families, family celebrations, and farewell parties.

To delve into the individual details, one needs to analyze individual pictures more carefully, which includes inquiring into the setting of the photo, the photographic content, the appearance of the people, and the arrangement of the rooms. At the same time, however, one must recognize that not all the questions about every picture can be answered conclusively.

Using here the “Four-Sided-Model” (or the communication quadrate) from Friedemann Schulz von Thun, we can say we are dealing with messages that are being conveyed on four levels. These are: the factual level, the relationship level, the appeal level, and the self-revelatory level.

At the factual level, one can grasp what is supposed to be documented or depicted; the reference can be to new or unknown states of affairs. These have to do primarily with content-related messages. At the relationship level, the viewer can grasp what relationship the photographer has to the people in the picture (and in this way, the photographer is sending indirect messages). And beyond that, he is expressing what the people looking at the photo should be experiencing. (A prompting content). It can also make an appeal, provoke, or suggest some reflection (but by a wide margin, not all photos have this characteristic.) Finally, it has to do with a level of self-revelation, that is, of a self-perception, of one’s own attitude toward life which is supposed to be expressed here.

In this way, it is possible to make photographs accessible as a kind of window to a past reality. Moreover, at these levels, material culture and (within limits) social circumstances can also be determined. Wolfgang Ruppert says that “pictures can serve to create visual perspectives. They sharpen the perception of social conditions; they could possibly engender shock or concern and bring about“closeness” to the subject matter being investigated.”

To this extent, the evidence is provided that visual sources (family photos) can be helpful in answering the questions being asked.


Can we now on the basis of these theses and assumptions proceed to saying that these phenomena so described have to do with transnational developments and processes?

Up to this point we have look at the early postwar history primarily from the viewpoint of national histories. I would gladly discuss in the course of the project whether and to what extent we can speak of a transnational history of the initial postwar period in Eastern Middle Europe. Where would the additional value lie? The mooring of transnational perspectives and issues would provide here possibilities for working out new facets of this history and to place this in a broader European context. From the transnational viewpoint and in the context of the Eastern Middle Europe, the dominance of national histories could be dissipated.

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