Objectives and Research Topics

Focus Group project at Collegium Budapest financed by Fritz Thyssen Stiftung 
Convened by Jerzy Axer, György Karsai and Gábor Klaniczay 

I. Preliminary Considerations

In the Eastern part of Europe the study of classical Antiquity (philology, archaeology, history, etc.) has been a most successful and worldwide acknowledged field of research since the nineteenth century. In Hungary, for instance, the interest in the Roman imperial period (first to fifth century AD) took its origin in the history of the Roman Empire, where the provincia Pannonia played an important role as the North-Eastern limes, the border-territory of the Empire. Just to illustrate the complexity of the meaning of the term “classical philology” in this part of Europe, the same period – and even the one preceding it - became an essential field of research in Romania, where the ideology of Great Romania was founded on the basis of the so-called “Daco-Roman theory”, trying to prove that the territory of the present state had belonged since the early Antiquity to the ancestors of the Romanian people. This question, among others, became a crucial point in the discussion between the two countries throughout the whole twentieth century.

The arrival of Soviet-Communist dominance fell on different soil in different countries, and the strategies that the new authorities applied towards studies of antiquity were also different. Conducting the research planned in the program, we will obtain not only knowledge on the community professionally involved in studying antiquity, but also a very interesting and as yet unutilized tool for identifying the similarities and differences in the cultural tradition of the nations that were driven into the “camp of socialist countries”. 

Let us take the example of Hungary: the numerous archaeological sites (Aquincum, Brigetio, Sopianae, Savaria, etc.) have provided here – and are still providing even nowadays – an abundant materials for historians, archaeologists and researchers of ancient cultures. Furthermore, in Hungary the Latin language has been the official language in state administration as well as in several educational institutions until the mid-nineteenth century, therefore the knowledge of Latin facilitated considerably the approach of a wider public to the literary works written in this language. It is also important to note that, since the Hungarian Electra (Magyar Elektra) of Péter Bornemisza (1558) the translation and transliteration of classical literary works of Greek and Roman authors has been a significant territory in Hungarian culture until today. During the 19th century the best poets gave a privileged place in their activities to the interpretation of classical, Greek and Roman authors: Mihály Vörösmarty, János Arany, Sándor Petőfi praised the quality of their predecessors, such as Homer, Sophocles, Virgil or Ovid.

This special interest towards the classical antiquity remained almost intact until the end of the Second World War. But with the arrival and then the predominance of the Soviet-Communist ideology in Hungary the position of classical studies changed radically. For instance it became a clear obligation to “reorganize” one of the most prestigious Hungarian institution, the Eötvös Collegium (the Hungarian equivalent of the French École Normale Supérieure): since the beginning of the 19th century the best scholars of almost all fields of research passed by this unique high level formation-giving institution. As a first step, not later than in 1946, it was closed and condemned as an “elite-training institute”, then reopened in 1948-49 on a quite new ideological basis. The Eötvös Kollégium (note the different spelling!) received the task to assure an exceptionally high level formation of “the most talented young students of the Hungarian people”. It meant that a large preference has been given for students coming from poor peasant or worker families.

In a similar manner, during the Communist rule in Poland the classical culture was attacked (and eliminated) from the “class struggle” stand as a vehicle for a tradition which was considered ideologically hostile; the Latin culture was also destroyed as a medium of the Western culture and as a language of the Catholic Church. On the other hand, some components of it were used by the authorities as valuable and effective arguments for spreading materialism and atheism. Specific for the Polish situation was the struggle with the Latin culture as alien and antagonistic to Slavdom and the “Slavicness” (which was an old and important element of the Russification and pan Slavism). 

Our project aims to discover and explore the history of classical philology after the second world war not only in Hungary, but also in the whole “camp of socialist countries”. Working together with colleagues in other ex-Socialist countries, sharing our common experience – and also attentive to the differences in our results – we may uncover the history of this important domain of European culture under the Communist period; a subject not examined in details until now.  

In all Socialist countries there were eminent scholars who – because of ideological reasons, their supposed or real opposition to the Communist system - were banished from the institutional frames of classical philology (universities, academies), if not even from their country: Károly Kerényi in Hungary, Jan Patočka in Czechoslovakia, etc. A set of comparative case-studies is to be envisaged to discover the mechanisms adopted to put an end to the career of the classical philologists who were judged dangerous for the development of Communism.

For Poland, a good example could be the case of Prof. Kazimierz Feliks Kumaniecki, an outstanding Ciceronian scholar, soldier of Armia Krajowa (Polish resistance force during the II World War) and the role he played in maintaining the Polish academic milieu under the Communist rule. At the same time, he was “used” – because of his international position – by the authorities as an “ambassador” of the Polish scholarship in the West, a sort of legitimization for them. As regards the DDR, we would suggest to describe the case of Prof. Johannes Irmscher. Besides his activity as “secret agent”, he served as a promoter of the new vision of the classical antiquity in the “real” socialism as well as an alibi for the Communist authorities in the Western eyes. In the People Republic of Poland, Prof. Bronislaw Bilinski was supposed to play a similar role, however, after 1956 the government changed its strategy and placed Bilinski at Rome to watch and inform about the Polish communities in exile and their contacts with the country. For Russia, the person of Prof. Jakov M. Borovskij (1895-1994), one of the last disciples of Tadeusz Zielinski in Sankt Petersburg, a great Latinist and poet, can serve as an example of the continuity and discontinuity of the Russian culture from the pre- to the post-Soviet period.

The case of the Czech philosopher Jan Patočka (1908-1977) is maybe the most emblematic career of a classical philologist during this period. One of the best specialists of ancient philosophy from the second half of the 1930’s, he was expelled from the university of Prague in 1950 and remained sentenced to silence until 1968. During the ‘Prague Spring’ he finally regained his place at the university as professor of ancient philosophy. But after the Soviet occupation he was expelled again. He continued to teach unofficially, his legendary “Plato seminars” became the meeting places of democratic opposition; he got arrested several times by the police. It was only long after his death, from the ‘90s on, that his studies and books could be published in his homeland. Patočka was, of course, exceptional, but his fate can be called unfortunately rather typical in the Socialist countries after the Second World War. But why could such a discarded scholar become a leading moral authority in one country and remain in the background or in the total oblivion elsewhere? A comparative research in this field would put such prominent cases in context.   

There was one pioneering enquiry in our field: Victor Bers, Gregory Nagy (eds.):  The Classics in East Europe: Essays on the Survival of Humanic Tradition. From the End of World War II to the Present. Worcester, Mass. 1996. (American Philological Association Pamphlet Series), an various research initiatives have been indicating the timeliness of the subject (such as the researches on the  historical prosopography of Sankt Petersburg classical philologists by Alexander Gavrilov at the Bibliotheca Classica Petropolitana, the Multiple Antiquities – Multiple Modernities project at Collegium Budapest, or the researches on the history of Classical Culture in the Centre for Studies on the Classical Tradition in Poland and East-Central Europe, University of Warsaw (Osrodek Badan nad Tradycja Antyczna w Polsce i w Europie Srodkow-Wschodniej, Uniwersytet Warszawski). The alliance of the latter two institutions in designing this project, and the hopeful adhesion of the third one to this project could create the basis of a systematic comparison in this field.

II. Possible Research Fields

1. Prosopography: An overview of the fate of  classical philologists in the countries concerned during the post-war period; their biographies, their professional  and/or political cursus, a research based on personal legacies recently opened to the research in national archives, interviews. Some  eminent philologists of this category: Johannes Irmscher (Berlin, GDR), Rainer Müller (Berlin, GDR), Nikober Günther (Leipzig, GDR), M. Kumanieczky (Warsaw), P. Salac (Praha), J. Oliwa (Praha), Imre Trencsényi-Waldapfel (Budapest), Árpád Brusznyai (Veszprém), Janku Fischer (Bucarest), R. Pippidi (Bucarest), N. Delkov (Sofia), G. Georgijev (Sofia), A. Gorton (Split); Jakov M. Borovskij (Sankt Petersburg/Leningrad).
2. Institutional history - repression and political control: The national and international organizations and the after war restructuration in the field of classical philology. The impact of the political authority and the secret services in the socialist countries. Research in the national archives and the recently opened secret service files, in the academic and university libraries. 
3. Internal and external outcasts: The fate of the scholars who had to leave their profession and work in insignificant auxiliary positions or outright as physical workers; informal private circles of former leading scholars; the career of those who went in exile and their relations with their homelands.
4. The broader cultural context of the uses of classical culture: “Mediterranean archeology” understood in the context of socialist-communist ideology as a tool for proving the historical continuity of a culture (and a nation) in a given territory Examples will be analyzed in the case sudies on Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary, that is territories inside the limes Romanus, but also outside the limes, e.g. in Poland and Ukraine, where the archaeology served to justify that the given region belonged to West or East; the primaeval archaeology “entered” the classical antiquity; Roman law -- the legal legacy of the classical Antiquity, and its fate under Socialism;  Ancient - Greek and Roman – philosophies -- modern philosophers who used classical texts to express their thoughts; socialist realism and the authorities’ ideological manipulation concerning the use of the existing ancient tradition in a given country
5. Architectural influence of the Antiquity in the socialist countries: socialist- imperialist ideology and the architectural environment; „archaistic” monuments, their construction and their ideological background;
6. Museums- their political vision concerning the Ancient cultures;
7. Modern culture (theatre, cinema, TV, literature) and the principal directions of the interpretation of Antiquity.

III. Country Studies

Among the methods of the research a particularly important accent should be laid on oral history: interviews – as detailed ones, as possible! – should be made (sound and/or film) with those philologists who where present in their countries academic life during these years and whose career, even life has been defined by the effects of Communism.
This part of the research should include the biographies of leading scholars from each country, alongside with those philologists who emigrated or remained in their home-land on different degrees of inner emigration.