13th Genealogies of Memory: Pandemics, Famines and Industrial Disasters of the 20th and 21st Centuries

Ewelina Szpak Announcement
Subject Fields
Environmental History / Studies, Health and Health Care, History of Science, Medicine, and Technology, Eastern Europe History / Studies, Holocaust, Genocide, and Memory Studies


How individuals cope with the memory of traumatic and large-scale events (such as wars, famines, pandemics, natural and industrial disasters) is of great interest to social scientists, working in areas such as psychology, psychotraumatology and sociology. Since the Great War and what was then described as a ‘shell shock’ and is now better known as PTSD – i.e. an individual’s bodily response to trauma – the study of trauma has developed enormously. But how is the memory (and experience) of dramatic past events, which are not only the direct consequence of armed conflicts or bloody revolutions, experienced and worked through at a collective level?

Repressing, silencing and forgetting unpredictable yet present threats – part of the phenomenon of tabooisation as Mary Douglas pointed out years ago – in pre-industrial societies was aimed at protecting communities and societies from excessive fear and chaos (disorder) resulting from the unpredictability of the world. In the 21st century, societies with highly specialised medical and technological knowledge have proved relatively helpless in the face of large-scale disasters and pandemics – as we have seen with Covid-19 in 2020 – and have had to look to the state to manage the safety (and health) of the population.

Yet epidemics and pandemics – such as the medieval plague, 18th-century smallpox, 20th-century polio, tuberculosis or AIDS – are an experience embedded in the collective memory of many generations, not only of this region of Europe but of the entire globe. Similarly, famines – no matter whether caused by the consequences of armed conflicts (as after the Great War) and natural disasters or by internal criminal state policy (e.g. the Holodomor) – were a particular generational and collective experience of everyday life in East-Central Europe (although not exclusively). 

Do the protective (security) strategies generated by the experience or, on the contrary, the defence mechanisms created (such as denial, forgetting or tabooisation) also influence our contemporary memory of these events and historical phenomena? Might they also be the main reason why in Central Europe – in contrast to Western countries – it is so difficult to find memorials to the victims of the 1918 influenza pandemic and polio?  

Why do the societies of most post-communist countries, which in the second half of the 20th century were regularly subjected to regional industrial catastrophes resulting in ecological degradation – though concealed in public discourse through censorship, perceive the problems of contemporary environmental threats and global warming in such an ambivalent way today? 

Why do many narratives concerning these past phenomena still divide European societies? (An excellent example of which is the Chernobyl disaster, which in popular memory, if only due to film productions, is still identified with a massive biological calamity, while in expert discourses, years later, the threat was assessed as minimal.)

The aim of the conference – carried out as part of the 13th edition of the ‘Genealogies of Memory’ project – will be an attempt to draw attention to the discourses of memory and non-remembrance of large-scale natural and human-induced disasters in 20th-century Europe. We want to bring to the fore the perspective of diverse social actors – both individual and collective, thus thematising the presence of such events in individual (family), regional and collective memory. For these an important area of expression were the changing public narratives (of both authoritarian and communist, as well as democratic governments of 20th-century Europe) as well as popular ones, present particularly in cultural texts (film, literature, etc.). We are also interested in reflecting on the presence of these issues in contemporary public spaces – material and artistic (monuments, memorials, exhibitions, etc.) as well as in open debate.

To what extent is/has the memory of these population-threatening phenomena been influenced by the political and social transformations of the 20th century in East-Central Europe? And how does this region differ from Western European countries? This is also one of the important questions we will try to answer.

In the discussions, we would like to focus on four selected aspects of 20th-century natural and man-made disasters:

  1. Epidemics: Spanish flu in East-Central Europe and other interwar and post-war epidemics of infectious diseases (e.g. polio, diphtheria, tuberculosis and AIDS) and contemporary discourses of memory and their visual and textual representations.
  2. Famines – crop failures – food rationing – memory/commemoration of victims and humanitarian aid, food distribution and class/social inequalities, nationalisms/imperialism – how does the memory of famines and food crises in East-Central and Western Europe function – in grassroots (private, family) and public memory.
  3. Human-induced industrial disasters – ecology – fear versus ideology of progress – modernity (industrialisation) – communist censorship versus discourses of memory – industrial disasters in people’s democracies versus practices of tabooisation (and censorship); environmental activism in East-Central Europe (especially in anti-communist opposition circles versus contemporary memory and public discussions of environmental threats).
  4. Practices of constructing memory of man-made/natural disasters – changing memories, shifting agencies, human and non-human aspects of memory (as objects, industrial landscapes, etc.), 20th-century memory patterns versus the discourse of the Anthropocene, the discourse of the apocalypse and the future of memory.

However, we are also open to other approaches to the issues described above, going beyond the framework outlined here.
The conference language is English. The organisers provide accommodation for the participants and there is no conference fee.

Contact Information

European Network Remembrance and Solidarity (ENRS)

• European Society for Environmental History
• Faculty of Sociology, Warsaw University
• Herder Institute for Historical Research on East Central Europe, Marburg 
• Institute of History, Jagiellonian University, Krakow
• Society for the Social History of Medicine
• The Tadeusz Manteuffel Institute of History, Polish Academy of Sciences, Warsaw
• Welcome Centre for Cultures and Environments of Health, University of Exeter

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