Koval on Rychterová and Klaniczay and Kras and Pohl, 'Times of Upheaval: Four Medievalists in Twentieth-Century Central Europe. Conversations with Jerzy Kłoczowski, János M. Bak, František Šmahel, and Herwig Wolfram'

Author: 
Pavlína Rychterová, Gábor Klaniczay, Paweł Kras, Walter Pohl, eds.
Reviewer: 
Matt Koval

Pavlína Rychterová, Gábor Klaniczay, Paweł Kras, Walter Pohl, eds. Times of Upheaval: Four Medievalists in Twentieth-Century Central Europe. Conversations with Jerzy Kłoczowski, János M. Bak, František Šmahel, and Herwig Wolfram. Budapest: Central European University Press, 2019. 390 pp. $40.00 (paper), ISBN 978-963-386-305-3.

Reviewed by Matt Koval (Valencia College, West Campus) Published on H-Poland (April, 2020) Commissioned by Anna Muller (University of Michigan - Dearborn)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=54452 

In Times of Upheaval: Four Medievalists in Twentieth-Century Central Europe. Conversations with Jerzy Kłoczowski, János M. Bak, František Šmahel, and Herwig Wolfram, readers are provided with a glimpse into the lives of four of the most iconic medieval historians of the twentieth century. This privileged access is mediated to us not through a journalist but through those most influenced by these giants, namely, their students, who themselves have now, in turn, achieved international acclaim. The details of the lives of these historians, both personal and professional, unfold through four separate interviews, or perhaps more accurately conversations, in which the interviewer covers the course of the interviewee’s life in a roughly chronological order. All topics are open for discussion, including family, experiences, scholarly career, historiographical influences, and larger political and social events/movements. Despite being noted as historians, we find that these four men not only reflected on events from the deep past but were also active participants in the making of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

It is, perhaps, the stories associated with these four scholars as they navigated their tumultuous milieu that will most impress readers, as they encounter historians who by no means fit the stereotype of an ivory tower recluse, detached and irrelevant. Jerzy Kłoczowski stands out in this regard from his peers. While still a clandestine secondary school student in occupied Poland during the Second World War, he was also a commander in the Home Army and in performing this role was wounded during the famous Warsaw Uprising against Nazi occupation in 1944, with the result that his right arm had to be amputated. Escaping arrest by Soviet authorities for his service with the Home Army, Kłoczowski studied at the newly resurrected Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań and was later employed at the Catholic University in Lublin beginning in 1950, a rare Catholic organization that found a way to balance cultural resistance against the communist government with official acquiescence to it. While Kłoczowski’s career survived his past, František Šmahel was not so fortunate. His associations and publications caused him trouble in the long “normalization” process after the Prague Spring and he was terminated from his position as researcher at the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences’ Institute of History in 1974, and for the next five years he worked as a Prague tram driver, where he remained until he could secure a job at the Tábor Museum. He was not restored to the Institute of History until 1990, when he, in a rare turn of fate, became its director. Of all medievalists in the book, János M. Bak faced the most extreme consequences of authoritarian attitudes. Despite being an early member of the Communist Party, his bourgeois family background and his connections with prominent rebels made his academic situation in Hungary untenable after 1956, and seeing choice between professional failure or flight, he chose the latter. After additional schooling in Germany, as well as holding a job as a Morse code operator on a ship, Bak ended up as a professor at the University of British Columbia for twenty-five years. The fall of the wall created a new opportunity for him to return to his homeland, where he helped to build a medieval studies program built on Western models at the remarkable and increasingly controversial (under Viktor Orban’s government) Central European University. While Herwig Wolfram’s life featured much less drama than the other three scholars, surviving both war and occupation with little tragedy or hardship, he nevertheless had opportunities to participate in events of regional and national significance, such as when in 1981 he organized the massive exhibition on the late medieval Austrian family Kuenringer. This event drew over four hundred thousand people, featured spectacular treasures, and, having political overtones, was attended by such exalted figures as Austrian president Rudolf Kirchschläger.

While the biographical portions of these interviews clearly have much value, they also have much to contribute to discussions of historiography. Each of the four historians is questioned about the major influences on their work, ranging from the broader philosophies and methodologies of history to specific mentors and teachers in their education. These often prove to be very different. For example, while Bak was steeped in German language in youth and later learned meticulous social and cultural history of ritual and symbol while studying under Percy Schramm at Gottingen, Kłoczowski adhered closer to the French, and incorporated the Annales thinking of Marc Bloch, Georges Duby, and Jacques Le Goff into his research on Polish church history. Wolfram, as an Austrian, had a very different intellectual legacy to navigate, as his country and scholarship came to grips with its associations with Nazism, for scholars like Otto Höfler, a Nazi sympathizer infamous for his philological and ethnographical Germanic nationalism, were still teaching after the war. Scholars like Wolfram and Reinhard Wenskus had the monumental task of engaging with and working within the historiographical tradition they inherited while steering it away from its discredited ideological underpinnings. A different problem was faced by Šmahel, who bemoaned his personal misfortunes, often results of political run-ins with communist authorities, which derailed his educational and professional life at key moments and prevented him from mastering a major international language. Professional meetings and connections among the four scholars are remarkably rare in the book, but it is, ironically, in the interview of supposedly linguistically challenged Šmahel that the most significant of these meetings appear. For Šmahel, Poland was a “promised land” for scholars escaping the stifling grip of ideological censors, and Kłoczowski stands out as one who reached out to him (pp. 272-73). The general lack of engagement among scholars of central and Eastern Europe receives its share of criticism in the book, with Bak especially complaining about it.

Just as the four medievalists interviewed in the book differed in their influences and life history, so also the interviews differ in tone and focus. Part of this is due to the fact that there is a different interviewer for each medievalist, and the relationship of interviewer and interviewee is significant in shaping the conversation, especially since the interviewers are often former students or colleagues. Paweł Kras, for example, occasionally seems to be speaking almost as much as Kłoczowski and strongly guides the conversation, though he is not able to force Kłoczowski into conversations he is not willing to have, such as an evaluation of the accusations of dictatorial behavior by Józef Piłsudski. On the other end of this spectrum, Bak not only dominates the conversation with Gábor Klaniczay but is also more active in steering its direction to topics of interest to himself. Šmahel’s and Wolfram’s interviews fall in the middle, for they both speak as much as Bak, though they allow themselves to follow their interviewers’ questions more closely. As both interviewers and interviewees are professional medievalists, the conversations, though they by no means steer away from personal topics, nevertheless remain rooted in the trajectory of a scholarly and intellectual career. This can occasionally create the impression that certain aspects are under- or overemphasized. For example, personal life stories may cover remote ancestors who influenced family or academic history, but the more immediate spouses and children are usually mentioned only in passing. This is, of course, natural considering the scope of the book but can disrupt and frustrate readers who are trying to understand these scholars on a deeper level.

A book of this kind, featuring senior scholars at the later ends of their careers, allows for the insight provided by mature historians reflecting on the nature of the historical profession, its place in society, and the dangers of its abuse. The book introduction emphasizes that this reflection is especially necessary at this time in history, when “alternative facts” are on the rise in politics and media (p. 1). All four historians interviewed show concern about, as Kłoczowski puts it, the “alliance of history and power” (p. 82). Kłoczowski is deeply concerned about how uninformed and simplistic narratives spread around by news media could come to dominate discourse and how attempts to avoid purportedly toxic national, racist, or sexist histories of the past could backfire into a rejection of the historical discipline generally, leaving people susceptible to falsehood. Wolfram agrees with Kłoczowski and goes further, arguing that historians should not dodge the “questions of the people” in regard to their history and identity, but instead must attempt to provide sophisticated, careful, and scholarly answers, and to teach non-academics to view all theories and explanations as tentative and in motion (p. 367). He notes that we cannot forget that medieval history is “contemporary history” (p. 365). In regard to this issue, Šmahel argues that the central role of the historian is to ask interesting and relevant questions, and that this spirit of freethinking and questioning is one of the greatest gifts historians can bestow upon the public. While both Kłoczowski and Šmahel agree that academic history and the special teacher-student mentorship approach used in its propagation are essential for helping society to question power, Šmahel is discouraged about the prospects for future academics. On the other hand, Bak, while agreeing with his peers in the book on the previous themes, adds another dimension to the conversation when he addresses the dual idealizations and denigrations of the Middle Ages in modern society. Medieval times can represent both a golden age and dark age depending on the audience and context. Bak suggests a middle way, in which we recognize that the Middle Ages were indeed a “terrible time” of squalid living conditions of mass oppression, but we should also not forget that the Middle Ages can highlight the failures of modern society (pp. 191-92).

Despite the general agreement of these four historians concerning the rejection of nationalist ideology and the role of the historian, the issue of geography remains a point of confusion and contention among them. The title of the book refers to “central Europe” as its region of coverage, and the introduction further specifies this as the region “united under a large extent under the Habsburg monarchy” (p. 2). In reality, this definition has no discernible relevance to the works of any of the included historians, except perhaps tangentially Wolfram, considering his role as compiler of the massive multivolume book series of Austrian history, though his personal work, on the Goths, does not reflect this territorial limitation. In contrast, the work and scope of Šmahel is focused on Czech phenomena of the Hussite era and more generally with broader Europe trends as opposed to some construct of central Europe. He himself bemoans his “Czech parochialism” and wishes for broader abilities beyond his own region (p. 302). The other two medievalists often show more interest in connections with the east of Europe rather than the west. For example, Kłoczowski, while showing an awareness of a number of schemes for defining central or east central Europe, is much more interested in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth as a social-cultural unit, and on multiple occasions he brought up the Vatican symposium on religious history in this region convened by Pope John Paul II in 1990. Of all the interviewees, Bak shows the most skepticism toward attempts to carve up medieval Europe into any sort of regions, beyond serving as basic heuristic tools. He concludes that most regional models are products of modern rather than past politics and argues that comparative history should be conducted on the basis of similarity in physical environments, rather than on some assumed cultural, social, religious, or political spheres of the past. In short, the issue of medieval geography is far from consensus.

As one might imagine, the considerable range of topics covered by this book means that it has a rather broad potential appeal. Both laymen and scholars interested in medieval and modern history will find this book insightful. Medievalists are allowed access to the lives and influences of some of the greatest names in the field, and the value of the historiographical reflections and commentary will help anyone trying to find their way in the discipline. On the other hand, modern historians can benefit from the memories of four great members of their field in their dealings with the results of war and totalitarianism. This is, indeed, part of the broader appeal of the book to the general public, for in its pages readers can see into how intellectuals struggled to follow their passion for truth and knowledge even under the shadow of the twentieth century’s catastrophic wars and totalitarian horrors. Despite this focus on the past, this book in many respects looks to the future and the central role historians must play in making sure history remains the domain of inquiry and questioning and not the playground of propagandists.

Citation: Matt Koval. Review of Rychterová, Pavlína; Klaniczay, Gábor; Kras, Paweł; Pohl, Walter, eds., Times of Upheaval: Four Medievalists in Twentieth-Century Central Europe. Conversations with Jerzy Kłoczowski, János M. Bak, František Šmahel, and Herwig Wolfram. H-Poland, H-Net Reviews. April, 2020. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=54452

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