Universität KonstanzExzellenzcluster „Kulturelle Grundlagen von Integration“

European Urban Spaces after the Cold War (1991-2016).

Search for an identity or commodity?

Dr. Piotr Kisiel


This project analyses changes in cityscape in the period after the end of the Cold War. The aim is to identify narratives used to guide and justify the changes as well as to examine the extent to which these strategies were understood and shared by local populations. The comparative perspective allows not only to compare and contrast the similarities and differences, but also to verify if there is any meaningful “European” trend in this regard. 

The end of the Cold War, intensification of European integration and increasing migrations on the continent meant not only profound changes of social fabric but also of hegemonic social narratives. Mass tourism within Europe flourished, many historical monuments were renovated, museums refurbished and new ones opened. In that process the same symbolic items were used to enshrine the past as well as to commodify it in order to sell as the product of the heritage industry.

Scholars who have investigated recent developments (i.e. mass tourism and state directed identity politics) have shown that they changed how objects have been placed in European memory landscape. These studies are important to deepen our insight into the dynamics of memory culture. However, they usually focus on official narratives. Doing so, they assume that memory culture translates one-to-one into people’s perception of symbolic actions, which however should not be taken for granted. This tension between commemoration and commercialization of social environment is not a new phenomenon. On the contrary, well before 1914 such conflicts frequently occurred in the symbolical sphere.

An underlying objective of my proposal is therefore to grasp the specificity of different local communities within the framework of European patterns at the turn of the millennium. I strive to find how different groups have perceived the use of the historical past and to what extend it actually matters to the people. The leading questions to be examined are: what narratives were used to justify and promote transformation of historical urban spaces? How were industrial past and heritage interwoven with other elements? To what extent they influenced understanding of the urban identity by different segments of the society?

The point is to develop memory study narrative in which relative importance of symbolic tokens is assessed against other points of reference such as: deindustrialization, mass tourism, heritage industry, European Union, or rise of the neo-liberal order. In other words, this project focuses on examining the narration concerning “significant” spaces in three major European cities. I would investigate what central and local authorities as well as activist groups were planning to do, and whether such management of the memory landscapes actually worked as well as how it has been understood by the people on the ground.

The overarching argument is that the transformation of urban spaces after the Cold War has been driven by various forces, and in particular: (a) state’s geopolitical memory politics, (b) municipal pursuit of financial resources, (c) inhabitants’ strive for beautification of their surrounding, and the finally (d) by interests of the capitalist economy. The rhetoric, however, has been largely dominated by the identity issues and concerns for well-being of the citizens. These claims have often masked the contradictory interests and have been used to gather support or defuse opposition. The interest and voices of the actual people living in the affected areas have been far less heard than one would suspect.

The three cities have a similar population both in absolute numbers as well as in their relation to other urban centres in respective countries. Germany, Poland and Ukraine have different experiences of the Cold War: Essen was located in (capitalist) Western Germany, Poland belonged to the communist bloc and Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union. These differences influenced not only the physical space of the city (e.g. communist housing estates), but they also the memory landscape. The question of heritage of the Cold War will be an important part of this project: what is the attitude of the authorities and the populations to that past and how does it function in each context?

The project is set to examine not only historical centres, but also less prestigious parts of each city. Examination of the urban landscapes is aimed at determining what past(s) have been the focus of the popular attention, i.e. which periods were highlighted, which architectonic styles has been employed in gentrification projects etc. Last but not least, how has the industrial past been reused in the new socio-political order after the end of the Cold War? The projects and their justification will be closely examined, together with media coverage of those developments.