How to write (about) historical events? In recent years, this question has become increasingly topical as wars, pandemics, and climate change generate new conflicts between stories in the realm of historical narratives. In narratology, an “event” is the central element that brings about change in the plot of a story. Depending on different regimes of representation, disciplines, media, and spatial perspectives, the narrative construction of an event not only determines its particular features, but also lends the event a certain agency by influencing our perception of historical actors, actions, and experiences. The Baltic Sea region is particularly promising for investigating the complexity of historical events and “eventfulness”: marked by past and current challenges and turning points, it calls for new ways of writing a narratology of events.
To discuss the vast toolkit of conceptual and methodological approaches to narrations of historical events, the International Research Training Group “Baltic Peripeties. Narratives of Reformations, Revolutions and Catastrophes” (Greifswald – Tartu – Trondheim) organised a three-day interdisciplinary workshop at the University of Tartu in December 2022.
Writing narratives about narratives was the guiding theme of the first workshop day. In pre-circulated papers, doctoral fellows of the IRTG “Baltic Peripeties” reflected upon the analytical potential of conceptualisations and narrative constructions of “event” across disciplines.
VICTORIA OERTEL (Greifswald) shed light on the interpretive processes of diagnosing or constructing events and diseases. She argued that such processes are inherently narrative activities, consisting of observing and assembling certain phenomena into a coherent plot, before formulating a hypothesis about the structural role of the observed phenomena for said plot. A heuristic of narrative abductive reasoning that applies the Aristotelian concept of “peripety”, a change of events into their opposite as part of a plot, Oertel proposed, could be a versatile tool for analysing and comparing diagnosis formation as well as competing narratives in different contexts. DOUGLAS ONG (Greifswald) reflected on the conceptualisation of the city of Wrocław as a cultural “meeting point.” Analysing the permanent exhibition on Lower Silesia in the local Ethnographic Museum, Ong made the case that the Second World War and the subsequent expulsion of Poles from the Kresy to the city, despite their condensed presentation, were central events for configuring Wrocław as a historical as well as contemporary meeting point, as evidenced by the exhibition’s ethnographic focus on objects from Kresy Poles and other ethnic groups arriving after 1945. NATALIA IOST (Greifswald) investigated the features and explanatory qualities of interdisciplinary concepts used to describe political events and narrative shifts. Whereas she identified turning points and “peripeties” as primarily narratological concepts referring to decisive changes in a story’s plot, critical junctures or benchmark dates treat real-life events that generate lasting institutional change, making them particularly fruitful for political analyses. Iost emphasised the applicability of “critical junctures” for the analysis of conflicts involving Russia and related security discourses in the Baltic states by introducing a three-step model examining political and security narratives, changing threat perceptions, and behavioural outcomes. REZEDA LYYKORPI (Greifswald) then engaged with the post-war transformation of Prussian Königsberg into contemporary Kaliningrad and different modes of silencing and preserving this history. She advocated for understanding the silenced German past as a “hidden peripety,” which obstructs the synthesis of the East Prussian and Soviet pasts in Kaliningrad’s cultural memory through its lack of recognition or commemoration of its victims. As unresolved and barely tellable historical turning points, Lyykorpi cautioned, such “hidden peripeties” may harbour potential for future conflicts over the interpretive sovereignty and appropriation of historical narratives.
In the afternoon, two masterclasses shed light on practical techniques of academic writing. With KĀRLIS VĒRDIŅŠ (Riga/St. Louis), participants discussed different stages of developing an academic paper with regard to argumentation, while a virtual masterclass by JEROME DE GROOT (Manchester) focused on the roles of metaphor and multiplicity for pitching one’s research to various audiences.
The international workshop was kicked off with a warm welcome by ANTI SELART (Tartu), who demonstrated the relevance of event narratives with the 2020 pandemic and Russia’s war against Ukraine. MARINA GRISHAKOVA (Tartu) then reflected on how extreme events, i.e. extraordinary or catastrophic events, shape post-factum narrations and their level of complexity. In a sense, events are “unexperienceable,” as they are brought to awareness and experienced only in retrospect. Grishakova highlighted the impact of different timescales, as narrated attributions of meaning often establish a habituation or new normalcy with regard to an event, and influence the scope for future agents to narratively reshape our understanding of it.
The first keynote by ROY SOMMER (Wuppertal) addressed how narrative dynamics model events. Defining a narrative as a change with an impact (real or imagined), Sommer emphasised the constructive activity behind the narration of events, as shaped by both retrospection and the prediction of new events. Since the imagination of possible futures, like the past, is often subject to an illusion of causality, Sommer proposed a flexible transdisciplinary approach to the study of narratives that accounts for their complex interlinkages. Predictions about the future of Brexit and framings of migration then served as examples for analysing the dynamic quality of narratives based on various rhetorical phenomena that can influence their configuration, such as aggregation, alignment, selection and composition of narratives, as well as the interruption or unification of communication systems that produce narratives.
The depiction of the collapse of the Soviet Union in Finnish parliamentary talk since the 1980s was discussed by MARI HATAVARA (Tampere). The experience of the “time of the told” as mediated in plenary statements and interviews, she argued, and especially the distinction between foretellings, tellings, and retellings with their shifting attributions of meaning, diversify our understanding of an event. The turning point in the transition from a predicted but uncertain change to the certainty of the collapse of the Soviet Union should therefore be located not only in the retrospective constructions of this event, but rather in its predictions.
When will the great novel about the fall of the Berlin Wall be published? Taking literary critics’ demands for a so-called “Wenderoman” in the 1990s as a starting point, ECKHARD SCHUMACHER (Greifswald) examined narrative interpretations and constructions of this historical event in the context of a more general “turn” in German literary criticism towards politics and real-world events. Schumacher then proceeded to outline differing expectations for a “Wenderoman,” concluding that even potential candidates such as Nox by Thomas Hettche and Helden wie wir by Thomas Brussig (both 1995) negate the expectations of this genre by overfulfilling them and treating them ironically, thereby also counteracting notions of the historical event itself.
Discussing conceptualisations of events in (and for) literary history, ANDREAS OHME (Greifswald) differentiated between “event” as any change from status A to B – every sunrise is an event in this sense – and a narrower understanding that arises when focussing on a specific event in its textual representation. While in fictional texts all events are relevant, he cautioned that their historiographical use depends on selection according to their “eventfulness” as determined by the cultural-historical context and normative dimensions such as their violation of expectations. Through such procedural and linear systematisations of event narrations, time is divided into a before and an after, setting the basis for narrative plot construction. This results in the unrepeatability of a peripety in non-fictional texts and the simultaneous repeatability of the same peripety in a fictional text.
For STEPHAN KESSLER (Greifswald), the nature of an event is inseparable from semiosis. Defined as the process in which a sign unfolds its effect, it is semiosis that turns a mere occurrence into a meaning-bearing event with the properties of an indexical sign. Crucial to this process is communication, which retroactively mediates the event by forming narratives consisting of causal orders. Events thus represent how time and occurrences become meaningful experience. Since humans lack an organ for perceiving time, Kessler concluded, events function as a compensator for grasping the temporal dimension of experience.
The second keynote by MARIA TAMBOUKOU (London) examined genealogical entanglements of gender and science against an understanding of event as part of a biographical “becoming.” As such, an event must be understood as a point of emergence; a critical, unexpected moment in a non-linear historical process leading to new openings of the possible. Pursuing a feminist “automathography,” Tamboukou applied this perspective to six female mathematicians of the 18th and 19th centuries and outlined the conditions of eventfulness necessary to categorise these cases as exceptional, which she attributed to individual attitudes rather than external factors.
The Roundtable welcomed MARINA GRISHAKOVA (Tartu), MARI HATAVARA (Tampere), ROY SOMMER (Wuppertal) and MARIA TAMBOUKOU (London) to a discussion on transformative events and the limits of both narrative and narration. In response to moderator ARTIS OSTUPS’ (Tartu) opening question on the role of events in narratives, participants critically reflected on the importance of central, disruptive, or hybrid components in a narrative, before moving to the necessity of paying attention to the limitations of a narrative and the function of its elements, as well as their facets in everyday life. This was carefully exemplified by the distinction between fiction, which functionalises events, and the non-fictional world, in which humans constantly search for linearity. Discussing approaches of literary studies and historiography, different points of view were exchanged on the attributed importance of major historical events, on the coherence required for a logical story, as well as on the possibility of understanding literary texts as art.
The last workshop day was opened by ANTI SELART (Tartu), who discussed the narrative construction of historical determination based on a singular event. Taking the 13th century Baltic Crusades as his case study, Selart highlighted how Estonian and Baltic-German narratives on the effects of conquest and Christianisation have produced a post hoc fallacy about similar longue-durée developments in the Baltic Sea region. Indeed, critical comparison to Finland, Lithuania, Prussia and Pomerania reveals significant differences regarding social structures, language, urbanisation, and methods of Christianisation, with serfdom standing out as the greatest commonality. Scholarly and fictional narratives of the Baltic Crusades as a turning point, Selart argued, should therefore be viewed with greater differentiation.
Commemoration of martyrs in interwar Estonia was examined by RIHO ALTNURME (Tartu). After the execution of Russian Orthodox Bishop Platon of Reval, Lutheran Baltic German theologian Traugott Hahn, and other clergymen in the basement of the Tartu Credit Union in January 1919 by Soviet Bolsheviks, their national and religious differences led to different narratives of remembrance: whereas Bishop Platon, as a proponent of Estonian independence, has been commemorated ecumenically in Estonia since the 1920s and was canonised by the Russian Orthodox Church and the Patriarchate of Constantinople in 2000, Hahn’s martyrdom, although used by Baltic Germans to stabilise Lutheranism and their threatened national identity, does not feature in Estonian historiography.
MICHAEL LOADER (Glasgow) then used Latvian and Russian archival material, memoirs, and interviews to re-evaluate a common historiographical narrative about the downfall of the Latvian national communist party. Despite a lack of evidence, Nikita Khrushchev’s visit to Riga shortly after reports had accused Latvian party leaders around Eduards Berklavs of nationalist tendencies in June 1959 was soon seen as the cause for the subsequent purge. As Loader pointed out, the high cogency of this narrative was a main reason for its false assumption and continuing circulation. Thorough re-examination of the sources, he observed, instead demonstrates effective promotion of the purge by pro-Soviet forces within the Latvian party itself.
With the central theme “The Same Event?,” the workshop provided space for intensive discussions on the multiperspectivity of event narratives in and beyond the Baltic Sea region. Demonstrating that the “sameness” of an event goes hand in hand with its contestedness, the contributions emphasised the contingency of events in terms of their spatial and temporal location and narrative traditions. The theme also allowed for self-reflective discussions of the relationship between narrative constructions of an event by historical or literary observers and our own scholarly narrativisations thereof. However, the workshop did not make full use of the rich potential of interdisciplinary exchange, as most contributions remained entrenched in their own methodological and conceptual approaches. In this regard, it might be worthwhile to look at expectations and experiences as possible cross-disciplinary “meeting terms.” Against the backdrop of intensifying conflicts between stories, scholarly reflections on reactions to unforeseen ruptures of expectations and orders, experiences of crisis and immediacy, and strategies of prediction and anticipation could provide crucial insights into the narrative constructedness of our past, present and future realities.
PhD Workshop Day: How to Write Narratives about Narratives?
Hella Liira (Tartu) / Krista Anna Zalāne (Greifswald): Words of Welcome
Victoria Oertel (Greifswald): Diagnosing Events. Observations about ‘Event’ and ‘Disease’
Moderation: Krista Anna Zalāne (Greifswald)
Douglas Ong (Greifswald): The City as Meeting Point: How Wroclawian Museums Reshape Urban History by Representing Alternating Stories of Expulsion
Moderation: Nina Pilz (Greifswald)
Natalia Iost (Greifswald): “Explaining Major Changes”. The Theoretical Framework for International Relations
Moderation: Nina Pilz (Greifswald)
Rezeda Lyykorpi (Greifswald): The Explosive Power of Hidden Peripeties – the Application of the Concept of Peripety and Memory of Königsberg in Kaliningrad
Moderation: Laura Tack (Greifswald)
Masterclasses in Academic Writing
Kārlis Vērdiņš (Riga/St. Louis): Stages of the Development of an Academic Paper
Jerome de Groot (Manchester): The DNA Event: Thinking around Metaphor and Multiplicity
Moderation: Krista Anna Zalāne
Anti Selart (Tartu): Welcoming Address
Marina Grishakova (Tartu): Introductory Lecture
Roy Sommer (Wuppertal): The Politics of Event Modeling: Narrative Dynamics in Theory and Practice
Moderation: Martina Zagni (Greifswald)
Mari Hatavara (Tampere): Polyphony and Hindsight in Narrating a Historical Event. The Collapse of the Soviet Union in Finnish Parliamentary Talk from 1980’s until Today
Moderation: Margit Bussmann (Greifswald)
Eckhard Schumacher (Greifswald): Narrating the Fall of the Wall. Versions and Inversions of an Event in Contemporary German Literature
Moderation: Margit Bussmann (Greifswald)
Andreas Ohme (Greifswald): The Same Event? The Concept of Event in Literary History
Moderation: Clemens Räthel (Greifswald)
Stephan Kessler (Greifswald): The Event and Semiosis – A Few Amazing Parallels
Moderation: Clemens Räthel (Greifswald)
Maria Tamboukou (London): Tracing Events in Entanglements of Gender and Science: A Feminist Genealogical Perspective
Moderation: Hella Liira (Tartu)
Roundtable “Transformative Events and the Limits of Narrative”
Discussants: Marina Grishakova (Tartu), Mari Hatavara (Tampere), Roy Sommer (Wuppertal), Maria Tamoukou (London)
Moderation: Artis Ostups (Tartu)
Krista Anna Zalāne (Greifswald) & Alexander Waszynski (Greifswald): Wrap-Up Days 1 & 2
Anti Selart (Tartu): Baltic Crusades: The Fatal Turning Point of Estonian History?
Moderation: Paul Kirschstein (Greifswald)
Riho Altnurme (Tartu): Martyrs – Christian or National? The Case of Tartu in 1919
Moderation: Martin Nõmm (Tartu)
Michael Loader (Glasgow): The Narrative of Khrushchev as the Culprit of the Purge of the Latvian National Communists
Moderation: Martin Nõmm (Tartu)
Artis Ostups (Tartu) / Martina Zagni (Greifswald): Concluding Remarks
 Andrew Abbott, Time Matters. On Theory and Method, Chicago 2002.