Religiöse Kulturen im Europa des 19. und 20. Jahrhunderts




Forschungsprojekt: Leben und Tod im Kommunismus (Life and Death in Communism)

The research project, tentatively titled, Life and Death in Communism, examines the development of secular rituals connected to rites of passage in Hungary and East Germany from the establishment of Communist regimes until their fall in 1989. Focusing primarily on rituals connected to birth and death, the project looks at the ways in which the development of socialist alternatives to baptism and a religious funeral reflected and shaped the larger discourse on socialist biography—a primary locus where the relationship between citizens and the Communist state was formulated.

The comparison between East Germany and Hungary has several advantages. First, it allows to look at the development of socialist secularity against two different religious backgrounds. East Germany: predominantly Protestant, having to deal with Catholic migrants from the east and the difficult legacy of the Protestant church under the Nazi regime. Hungary: a mixed religious landscape, with over 60% of the population being Roman Catholic. The comparison allows to understand how liturgical traditions and the institutional structure of the churches influenced putting “socialist humanism” into practice. Secondly, the comparison helps to distinguish between developments that characterized the Eastern bloc in general from other, regionally specific, characteristics of ritual practice.

The study is based on archival sources, published propaganda material and interviews. The archival sources include the files of ministries and offices that were responsible for developing and overseeing secular rituals. For Hungary the relevant files of the Népművelési Intézet and the Állami Egyházügyi Hivatal will be consulted, while for East Germany the research focuses on the files of the Staatssekretariat für Kirchenfragen and the Institut für Kommunalwirtschaft, Dresden. The readily available printed propaganda material will allow an insight into the ideal types of rites suggested by the state and interviews with a select few, who officiated such rituals (for example funerary orators), will help to balance the theory with some insights on practice. As a corrective to the interviews ethnographic studies from the period will be consulted, which describe contemporary ritual practice.

The research is divided into five broad areas, which will be the individual chapters of the final book. The first chapter presents the authors of socialist rituals. The primary research results suggest that a broad range of people were involved in creating new scripts from self-taught high school teachers to grave yard managers. What was their background? What do their stories tell us about the creation of a socialist identity? The second chapter looks at the people who officiated the ceremonies. Again, the question is: what is their background? What did they think about the rituals? How did they conceptualize their own role in socialist society? Also here, the primary research results suggest a most heterogeneous picture. The third chapter examines the places of socialist ritual. The aesthetic elements played a key role in shaping socialist sensibilities and were considered essential in making the new rites a success. This chapter thus looks at how the conscious construction of public space influenced and was in turn shaped by socialist rituals. 

The fourth and the fifth chapter focus on the scripts of socialist ritual, on name giving ceremonies and funerals respectively. These chapters examine the way the scripts developed over time and contrast them to actual practice. Theory and practice can be hardly divided from each other, because, as the evidence suggest, practical faux pas were taken seriously and used to hone the ideal types. These chapters show that secularism took many different forms both within individual countries and also across the Eastern bloc.

Overall, Life and Death in Communism explains how in the aftermath of the Second World War both the communist parties and populations in Eastern Europe came to terms with the fact of communist rule. This process forced communist parties to venture into various territories of everyday life they were not prepared for. Rituals for ordinary citizens form one such area. The result of applying “socialist humanism” in everyday life created a complex secularity—many different shades of gray. The study shows how these different shades of gray reflected and shaped the relationship between citizens and socialist states across the Eastern bloc.