Silesia: simultaneously present and absent

One of the less known regions with which the Tandem project is concerned is Silesian. This Central European region with a volatile past, marks an area where Bohemian, Moravian, German, and Polish spheres of influence converge, both historically and contemporaneously. Despite the aspirations of some, Silesia has never managed to become a state in its own right, leaving it vulnerable to the territorial ambitions of the states in which it has existed. Throughout most of the last millennium, Silesia has been a constitutive part of the Czech Kingdom and the Habsburg Empire and in the eighteenth century, after the Silesian Wars, it was divided between Austria-Hungary and Prussia. Prussia expanded significantly as a result of its conquest of seven-eighths of Silesian territory in the 1740s, later called Prussian Silesia. From the total area of Silesia of 40,625 sq. km, Prussia gained 35,786 sq. km. The Prussian military’s conquest of Silesia entailed a dramatic increase in the territory of the Prussian state by a little less than fifty percent, and the Prussian population of 2,240,000 was also increased by the addition of 1,160,000 Silesians, who thus constituted nearly a third of Prussia’s population following the conflict. Austria-Hungary, on the other hand, was left with only a narrow south-eastern strip of Silesia, consequently named ‘Austrian Silesia’, and constituting only one-eighth of the former Silesian Land.

Writing about Silesia is a challenging task for a number of reasons. For example, having disappeared from the present-day map, where is Silesia? It clearly exists in the minds of its inhabitants, as well as those of the relevant nation-state authorities. How, then, should one deal with a missing land that never really went away? One possible solution would be to go ‘back in time’ and use the geographical traces of the past to reconstruct the borders of Silesian land. The result could be a map, such as the one below, showing the borders of Austria Silesia and Prussia Silesia superimposed on the modern-day Central European states.

For open access academic resources, go to:

Displaced Memories & Memories of Displacement

The international workshop Displaced Memories & Memories of Displacement: Vanquished Others, Silenced Past, and the Burden of Implication in the 21st Century will take place on 9th-11th June 2021 in Prague.

This workshop seeks to provide a comparative, collaborative, and interdisciplinary platform to discuss many cases of how the supressed heritage of the displaced populations in Europe and beyond is being negotiated in the present day. Given the nature of the historical imagination, the dissolution of social spaces can potentially lead to the belief that the history of those who ‘lost’ cannot be afforded memorial sites as they are no longer represented by a symbolic or geographic region. Countries that re-hosted the expellees believed that the expellees’ former sense of belonging would not be an issue in the present. However, the expellees often considered themselves expatriates and transformed their former local and regional places of settlement into homelands, cultivating a ‘retrotopical’ attitude (Bauman, 2017). 

At the same time, the newcomers who repopulated the left behind spaces, that were previously inhabited by the vanquished other, also found themselves in difficult position. While some of them took an active role in the expulsion as perpetrators, many of them could be seen as ‘implicated subject’ (Rothberg, 2019). How do the newcomers understand and negotiate their role and positionality in the context of forced displacement? 

The memories of displacement as well as displaced memories concern people in between several places, across different temporalities, and with multiple belonging. As such, they are notoriously difficult to grasp and therefore severely understudied. To amend this void in our knowledge and to question our taken for granted assumptions in this workshop we advocate multidirectional approach to memories of the displaced populations to answer these questions: 

  • How are social spaces redefined by their new inhabitants?
  • What happens with the heritage of the vanquished Other?
  • How has the heritage of displacement itself been ignored, forgotten, memorialized, transplanted duplicated, and recreated and commemorated, despite the dispersion of people and the lack of material artefacts?
  • Which sites of memory and what memorialization practices for these pasts are no longer associated with their former ‘milieux de memoire’ (Halbwachs 1941; Lavabre 2007)?


The Notion of Silence vs the Act of Silencing

Silence is often associated with an absence or a void. However, in many cases, silence is in fact a powerful means of communication. For example, it is often used as a highly emotional tool in commemorative rituals, like the two-minute silence held to remember victims of war. It can relate to the desire to achieve peace and to connect with the divine through meditation and prayer, as is the case in Buddhist or Quaker silent practice. Silence can be also an active way of resistance, where the decision to refrain from talking requires a considerable amount of willpower, such as not to divulge a hiding location of political prisoners. However, silence can also tell us about a culturally tabooed subject of which one is not meant to speak publicly, such as menstrual cycle; or indicate danger and fear, as is evocatively described in Harry Potter novels featuring “You-Know-Who”. As such, it does not exclusively belong to a singular domain, rather it oscillates between liberty and restriction, conflict and reconciliation, presence and absence, as well as hope and fear. The type of silence that I am particularly interested in is ‘historical silence’, referring to fragments of the past that is available and meaningful in the present day (people know about it/remember it either personally or vicariously), however we do not officially talk about it or commemorate it. It is silenced.

Silencing is an active attempt of a social actor (individual, group, or institution) to directly or indirectly assert their power to silence another social actor. Silencing is thus fundamentally different to forgetting, which, in my reading, is not prescriptive. If a social actor is forced to refrain from remembering, it is a form of silencing, not forgetting. Silencing, as an act of causing another social actor to fall silent, can also take multiple forms. For instance, a religious group can attempt to silence marginalized groups, such as LGBTQ+ by the threat of excommunicating them from the church they belong to; totalitarian regimes can silence their opponents by imprisonments or by sending political prisoners into labour camps; criminal organizations like the mafia can be silencing their victims by killing them; or nation states sanitize their past wrongdoings by silencing compromising narratives in the national school curricula, such as the case of whitewashing the USA’s history textbooks, as one example among many. Silencing is always political, serving particular purposes, and reflecting current societal power dynamics.

hegemonic narratives

Memory politics worldwide is often shaped by the dynamics of relations and tensions between hegemonic narratives, counter-memories and silent communities at the global, national and local levels. Transnational advocacy movements, international agents and organizations influence the application of terminologies and frameworks in which global hegemonic narratives operate. State actors influence and shape hegemonic narratives, silence others or deny their existence in order to legitimize their incumbency and state/nation-building efforts. Local actors – from civil society groups to individuals – often counter top-down efforts of hegemonic narratives by the creation of their own narratives, memories or by silence. In post-conflict and conflict societies the relations between different groups and actors advocating hegemonic narratives becomes all the more acute and tense as the social and political fabric is eroded and in flux by the conflict-generated transformative changes.

How do we understand hegemonic narratives in post-war societies? What do we know about them? How can we conceptualize hegemonic narratives in research inquiry? What constitutes such narratives in societies emerging from conflicts or in the midst of conflict? What is their role in relation to other mnemonic practices such as silencing, forgetting, neglecting, amnesia, or denial? And if they are, in what way do they differ? Find out more via the link below:

The ‘Shoes on the Danube Bank’ memorial erected in 2005 dedicated to the memory of the Jews shot into the Danube river by Fascist Hungarian militia in 1944-1945. The victims were ordered to take off their shoes, were shot at the edge of the water and their bodies fell into the river. The memorial represent their shoes left behind on the bank.

Stones do not Forget: Forgetting and Being Forgotten in Czech Silesia

by Johana Wyss was published in

On Commemoration

Global Reflections upon Remembering War

Edited by Catherine Gilbert, Kate McLoughlin and Niall Munro

How, in the twenty-first century, can we do commemoration better? In particular, how can commemoration contribute to post-war reconciliation and reconstruction? In this book, a global roster of distinguished writers, artists, musicians, religious leaders, military veterans and scholars debate these questions and ponder the future of commemoration. They include the world-renowned architect Daniel Libeskind, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Tony Horwitz, the award-winning novelists Aminatta Forna and Rachel Seiffert, and the human rights lawyer and Gifford Baillie Prize-winner Philippe Sands. Polemics and reflections together with poetry and creative prose movingly illuminate a subject that speaks to our common humanity.

A tombstone in the village of Třebom, the Hlučín area. ©Johana Wyss 

After the forced displacement of the German speaking native inhabitants of the Třebom village in 1945, the symbolic landscape was also ‘de-Germanised’. Interestingly, the newcomers who repopulated the village decided not to destroy  the tombstones in the village cemetery but ‘only’  to cover the German inscriptions with metal plaques (already removed in the picture).

Johana Wyss

Johana Wyss is a research fellow at the Institute of Ethnology, the Czech Academy of Sciences and a research associate at CEFRES. Currently, she works with Michèle Baussant and Maria Kokkinou on the TANDEM project ‘Europe: a Resentful Confederation of Vanquished Peoples? Raw and Lapsed Memories of Post-Imperial (European) Minorities’.

Johana completed her doctoral research at the University of Oxford in 2018 with a thesis entitled Silesian Identity: The Interplay of Memory, History and Borders. Where she provided an ethnographic account of contemporary Opavian Silesian identity (or identities) and its negations. In particular, her thesis concerned the question of how Silesian identity is being negotiated by various social actors in and between the town of Opava and the neighbouring area of Hlučín. The competing representations of Silesian-ness and competing reconstructions of the past related to it were considered through Gerd Baumann’s theoretical framework of ‘dominant v. demotic discourse’ and Sharon Macdonald’s ‘difficult heritage’.

Keywords: Social and Cultural Anthropology, Cultural and Political Sociology, Memory Studies, Identity, Contemporary History, Ethnicity and Nationalism, Populism, Borderlands, Official and Vernacular Memories, Migration and Forced Displacement, Qualitative and Mixed Methods and Methodology, Central Europe.