Shadow Places. Urban Strategies of Dealing with Painful Pasts

Martin Sabrow / Hanno Hochmuth / Stefanie Eisenhuth, Humboldt University Berlin, Centre for Contemporary History Potsdam; Sabine Stach, GHI Warsaw
07.03.2019 - 10.03.2019
Anne Marie Van Broeck, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven

The German Historical Institute (DHI) in Warsaw hosted from March 7th to March 9th 2019 the Conference co-organized by the Leibniz Centre for Contemporary History Potsdam (ZZF). At the start MARTIN SABROW (Potsdam), SABINE STACH (Warsaw) and MAGDALENA SARYUSZ-WOLSKA (Warsaw) welcomed the participants and introduced the central concept of “Shadow Places”, referring to the historic burdens that hang as a shadow over certain (for this particular congress: urban) places. The papers presented cases in the different contexts in which the painful past shed a shadow over the present, such as in postcolonial spaces, post-disaster spaces, postwar and post-communist spaces. As such, several places were discussed, though mainly in Europe: Berlin and Belfast, Sarajevo, Vienna, Kraków, Bucharest, Tallinn. Besides, there were cases from Vietnam (postwar space), China and Chernobyl (post-catastrophic space), New Zealand (postcolonial space). A very broadly presented topic was also the (re)use of former prisons. The whole morning of the second day of the conference was centered on prisons and prisons memorials, with examples from Belfast, Yekatarinburg, Barcelona, Warsaw, Lviv, Romania (cases Sighet and Pitesti Prison Memorials).

ASTRID ERLL (Frankfurt/Main), keynote speaker, opened with her paper on the recent migration-crisis, as if we were already looking back from the future. She reflected on how we will consider the way we dealt with this crisis as a historic burden, a shadow hanging over the beginning of the 21st century and places such as Calais’ Jungle. Erll made suggestions to proactively document the things occurring, creating an archive for the future. Her paper even more than several others, showed the partiality of “shadows”: historical “burdens” are neither inherent nor fixed at historical events. It demonstrated the fact that someone or some group determines a past event is to be interpreted negatively, casting a shadow, and the importance of the ethical stance in making a shadow place. Another given is the importance and significance of memory and remembering which has risen over the last few decades within both the academy and the civil society (“memory boom”). A reconsidering of the term, shadowed places instead of shadow place was suggested, in as such that the active process and the actors, i.e. the man-made-ness, are reflected in the concept.

The conference discussed strategies to deal with the past, partly about how local people reflect upon their painful history and the shadowed places, e.g. NIGEL BOND (Auckland), and how the society as a whole deals internally with this past, and related the guilt / responsibly. What are the internal discourses and narratives? How do they bring the painful past in (or out) the memory? Over time different places and different persons (specific actors, heroes or victims) have received attention and memorialization. An interesting paper in this respect was the paper of PETER PIRKER and PHILIPP RODE (both Vienna) on the layers of memorialization of the Nazi rule and the Second World War in Vienna. The paper and interesting website [1] demonstrated the politics of remembrance in Vienna. Frequently civil initiatives bring new memorialization sites to the foreground to come to terms with (painful) historical places, even sometimes in a different or opposite way as the official instances, for example SIMON YIN’s (Hefei) paper on Wenchuan, China.

The contributions of DOROTA SAJEWSKA (Zurich) (during the public discussion on the first evening) on nekroperformance, Erll’s reference to the Refugee Tales, and ROMA SENDYKA’s (Kraków) link with architecture and design in a memorial site in Krakow have two elements in common. The presenters each mentioned how artistic creation deals or can help with dealing with the painful past, and each one referred also to sensory experiences as important component in this.

A great amount of case studies dealt with the external narrative of the painful past, such as in city marketing and even more so, in tourism. The central question here was how does one use, commodify and touristify this past, to present it towards visitors. Disneyfication and histotainment were concepts that passed the revue. The evening debate on “Dark Public History”, in which PHILIP STONE (Lancashire), JÖRG SKRIEBELEIT (Flossenbürg), JESSICA MOODY (Bristol) and DOROTA SAJEWSKA participated, turned very quickly around the concept of dark tourism.

Besides the managerial side (e.g. promoting the city by tourism boards), the representation of the past and the interpretation of the related heritage by the tour guides was mentioned several times (Belfast, Berlin, Vietnam). The locals were also here brought into the equation, when comparing their attitude with the tourism driven remembering, memorialization and use of shadow(ed) places. Frequently the locals oppose the presented vision by tourism, having a more ambivalent stance toward the past , for instance GRUIA BADESCU’s (Konstanz) paper on Sarajevo.

Interesting papers and discussion were also those focusing on the way tourists deal with these places and their affective experiences: How do they expect to feel, how do they actually feel and even more how they behave in these shadow places, for instance: SIRI DRIESSEN (Rotterdam); ELIZABETH CARNEGIE/JERZY KOCIATKIEWICZ (Sheffield); SCOTT LADERMAN (Duluth); the discussions on selfies taken in places such as Auschwitz.

It was a small conference, with mainly the presenters as participants. Therefore, the sessions could line up and everybody was able to hear all contributions. The presenters were from different institutions, different disciplines, different countries, and as demonstrated above with different viewpoints on the topic. Not only colleagues from academia but also professionals in management and policy contributed to the debate with their expertise and experiences. There was ample opportunity for sharing and discussing this new concept in the different contexts, after the sessions, but also during the excursion.

While the final round table tried to bring the conference to a closure, it was also clear that there were more questions left than answers found, related to many of the interesting cases, but also to the central concept of “shadow places”. The conference offered a very stimulating environment: enough food for thought and further research.

Conference Overview:

WELCOME & INTRODUCTION: Miloš Řezník, Martin Sabrow, Magdalena Saryusz-Wolska, Sabine Stach


Teresa Walch: The “Liberated City”: Transforming Berlin from Red to Brown in 1933

Gruia Badescu: Towards Syncretic Place-Making: Urban Interventions in Post-War Sarajevo between Cosmopolitan and Antagonistic Imaginaries

Brent McKenzie: Reval to Tallinn to Talsinki: The (Dark) Evolution of Estonia’s “Capital Brand”

Panel Discussion, Host: Annika Wienert


Nigel Bond: Emperor’s New Clothes: Museums as In Populo sites of Dark Tourism

Panel Discussion, Host: Stefanie Eisenhuth


Round Table Discussion with Philip Stone, Jörg Skriebeleit, Jessica Moody, Dorota Sajewska; Host: Hanno Hochmuth

Astrid Erll: Shadow Places of Migration


Henriette Bertram: Shadow Places in the Post-Conflict City: Transforming Crumlin Road Gaol in Belfast

Julie Deschepper / Margaret Comer: The House of the Chekists in Yekatarinburg: “Dark” Past and Unique Architecture. How to Deal with Shadow Heritage?

Panel Discussion, Host: Achim Saupe


Felix Ackermann: The Afterlife of Prisons: Reusing Infrastructures of Solitary Confinement in Barcelona, Warsaw, and Lviv

Ciprian Niţu: Dark Tourism in Romania. The Cases of Sighet and Piteşti Prison Memorials

Panel Discussion, Host: Achim Saupe


Siri Driessen: Summers of War. Volunteer Tourism to Former War Sites in Europe

Corinne Geering: Lingering Heroin Dust in European Cities: Urban Tourism and the Public Trauma of Drug Abuse in the 1980–90s

Elizabeth Carnegie / Jerzy Kociatkiewicz: Dances with Despots: Reinterpretation and Recontextualization of Urban Monuments and the Conflicted Role of the Engaged Tourist

Panel Discussion, Host: Sabine Stach


Peter Pirker / Philipp Rode: From Palimpsest to Memoiré: Exploring Urban Memorial Landscapes of Political Violence

Roma Sendyka: Landscape of Manhunts: Designing Commemorations for KL Płaszów in Krakow

Scott Laderman: Imagined Memory. Tourists and Painful Pasts in Postwar Vietnam

Panel Discussion, Host: Felix Ackermann


Emily Mannheimer: Space and Politics in Troubles Tourism Representation in Belfast

Hanno Hochmuth: Berlin’s Shadow Places: Authenticity and Histotainment in the “Rome of Contemporary History”

Susanne Muhle: Constructing Historical Places of the Cold War Era: The Examples of Bernauer Straße and Checkpoint Charlie

Panel Discussion, Host: Irmgard Zündorf


Heidi Gordon: Sense from Absence: Creating Emotional Connection in Shadow Places (Reflections on Chernobyl)

Simon Yin: Post-Earthquake Wenchuan as a Shadow Place. Focusing on Conflicting Narratives

Panel Discussion, Host: Magdalena Saryusz-Wolska

Host: Martin Sabrow, Hanno Hochmuth, Stefanie Eisenhuth)

[1] Politics of Remembrance,,6143598/all/1933-2016 (11.06.2019)

Tagungsbericht: Shadow Places. Urban Strategies of Dealing with Painful Pasts, 07.03.2019 – 10.03.2019 Warschau, in: H-Soz-Kult, 17.06.2019, <>.