Within the Europe for Citizens programme the students of Polytechnic of Economics Alternative Secondary Grammar School study how civil society contributed to the fall of dictatorship and the transition to democracy. In the project, called Let’s Build a Democratic Europe Together they examine the question in five European countries: Hungary, Germany, Poland, Slovakia and Greece. Besides the programme events, the era was also presented through video interviews made by the students, as well as questionnaires and exhibitions. We asked Adrienne Varga project coordinator about the experiences.
HISTORY AT CLOSE QUARTERS
Applicant organisation: Közgazdasági Politechnikum Alternatív Gimnázium és Szakközépiskola
Project title: Building Democratic Europe Together
Action: European remembrance
Year of application: 2016
Why did you consider it important to apply for the European Remembrance project?
Our school runs a number of international projects; we want our students to gain intercultural experience, meet other young Europeans and to learn about other cultures and the history of other countries. In this project, the partners address various issues from the last decades of the dictatorial regimes of their respective countries. We are the main beneficiaries of the programme; our topic is the struggle for the freedom of press in the 1970’s and 80’s and the appearance of samizdat.
What topics did your foreign partners choose?
The Polish partner focuses on the Solidarity union movement, whereas our German and Slovakian partners study the civil actions supported by the Church in the German Democratic Republic and Czechoslovakia, respectively. Greece had a military dictatorship between 1967 and 1974; our Greek partner studies the university strike and demonstrations of autumn 1973, which eventually led to the fall of the junta. Our foreign partners are not schools, but civil organisations; however, they, too, laid great emphasis on involving young people in the programme. With the exception of Slovakia, each country organises a public event, where we seek to involve not only the project partners, but also the local citizens.
What joint efforts had preceded these events?
In each country, a questionnaire was completed about how people had lived in the era of dictatorship, how they assessed the given period in retrospect, and how much they knew about their partners’ topics. The questionnaires were processed in an analysis, summarised by a sociologist, and the description of the historical background to it was written by a history teacher colleague of ours. Besides, the students made video interviews with civilians who had participated in the struggle against the dictatorship and contributed to its fall. In Hungary, we interviewed six former activists who had written, edited, printed or distributed samizdat in the 1970’s and 80’s.
What were the findings of this research?
In each country, we had 50-60 respondents, so the survey can’t be regarded as representative. Its primary goal was to educate young people about life under dictatorship – travel opportunities, consumer goods, trust towards authorities and the direct environment, listening to the broadcasts of Free Europe Radio, contact with members of the resistance, the regime change and its retrospective assessment. Based on the responses given in each country, a nearly 30-page-long analysis was prepared. We asked the respondents, budet.poli.hu for example, what goods were in short supply in the given period. The Hungarian respondents primarily missed durables such as cars, whereas the Polish mostly mentioned certain foods, such as sugar, meat, flour, as well as medicines. Mistrust towards authorities and institutions was a common experience; in the GDR, people didn’t even trust their neighbours, acquaintances or relatives very much.
What do you think the students will benefit from the programmes and their involvement in the research?
They can learn a lot from them, since at school, in history classes, there’s just not enough time to study dictatorship and the transition to democracy in detail. We prepared them for the respective events of each country at afternoon sessions before the event. Due to their age, certain expressions needed explanation: they hadn’t heard about samizdat, scarce commodities or border guards. We shouldn’t forget that these young people have spent most of their lives as EU citizens.
How many Hungarian students were involved in the project?
There were twelve students who attended the events abroad. However, a lot more students were involved in various elements of the project, and, according to our plans, our event to be held next March will already affect every student at the school. For example, we’re planning a “treasure hunt”: at various locations related to samizdat and the freedom of press, they’ll need to read a code, and their smart phones will display information about that particular location.
What are your further plans for the Hungarian event next March?
It will be a shared event with our Slovakian partner. They’re planning a virtual walk, for example, at the venues of the Candle demonstration of 1988 in Bratislava, and they seek cooperation with the Slovak Cultural Institute. There will be an exhibition of the students’ posters, and we’re also planning an exhibition of contemporary photos related to our partners’ respective topics. For our foreign partners, we’re organising a thematic walk in Budapest through samizdat locations. We have also contacted the Open Society Archives, where various samizdat materials from the other Eastern European countries, as well as from the former Soviet Union can be found. With the help of our students, they will organise an exclusive exhibition of these materials for us, and we’re also planning screenings and an international round-table talk.
What were the most memorable elements of the former events held by your foreign partners?
In Dresden, for example, our guide was a lady who had been personally involved in the demonstrations which eventually led to the fall of the Berlin Wall. So she didn’t only speak about historical facts at the venues, but also shared her personal memories with us. In Poland, we met an old lady, a former Solidarity activist, who had spent years in prison for her participation in the movement. In Greece, we were shown the original prison cells and interrogation rooms at the Museum of Democratic Resistance, and we also had an opportunity to talk to former participants of the anti-junta uprising. At each location, the most exciting and memorable elements for the students, too, were the personal ones.
What long-term benefits may the project have?
In the case of young people who were born in a democracy, the most important benefit is that the project makes them interested the given era and issue, and calls their attention to the importance of democracy and civil movements, as well as the dangers of dictatorship. And as far as our school is concerned, we have built working relationships with foreign civil organisations which may lead to further cooperation in the future. Our Greek partners, for example, are very experienced in Erasmus+ youth exchange programmes, and we would gladly join one of their projects of this kind.
Interview: KATA SZABÓ
Last modified: 10-04-2018