Shadow Places: Return to Warsaw

By Gruia Badescu


How strongly do historical shadows cling to a place? Who determines which are the “light” and which are the “dark” chapters of history ? These were some of the questions at the core of the conference Shadow Places. Urban Strategies of Dealing with Painful Pasts , which took place in Warsaw between March 7th and 10th, co-organized by the German Historical Institute in Warsaw and by the Centre for Contemporary History Potsdam. The concept of shadow places was developed by historian Martin Sabrow (2015, 2018), and refers to places that are confronted with a historical burden and which have been memorialized, but also touristified. Sabrow distinguishes, however, shadow places from dark history and dark heritage, as the term “shadow” would imply also positive interpretations of the past alongside the negative ones. This distinction was unpacked in the discussions of the conference, which aimed to engage the concept of shadow places with a series of international situations. As such, it included papers covering geographies ranging from Northern Ireland to China and pasts from war and political violence to drug-related deaths. The participants came from several disciplinary backgrounds, with historians and heritage scholars in a majority. The conference included speakers who are very connected with related concepts such as dark tourism (Philip Stone), dark public history (Jessica Moody), and traveling memory (Astrid Erll). Several presentations engaged with Sharon McDonald´s dark heritage, also exploring hidden forms of shadow heritage (for instance, Margaret Comer and Julie Deschepper´s paper on the heritigization of the Chekists town in Ekaterinburg ).

The various situations analysed put forward the frictions of specific contexts rooted in distinctive memory cultures and regimes with the German-originated shadow places, particularly in the connection that Sabrow made to the emotion of shame. As Julie Deschepper pointed out, the translation of the concept can be challenging- how could one translate the concept in the romance languages without implying an external actor which shadows ? (cf. lieu ombragé/ assombri (by someone/something)? This related to the enduring question of the conference on whether places are projecting the shadow of the past or they are shadowed by the past. As Margaret Comer put it, can this concept be related to situations existing within constellations of memory and political contexts that are quite distinctive from the German approach on dealing with the past (eg. Russia; a multitude of post-colonial contexts). The geography of the conference applied indeed to mostly Eurasian situations, with a dash of the US and Australia. Moreover, what about the scale of shadow places? In their final discussion, led by Stephanie Eisenhuth and Hanno Hochmuth, it was pointed out that most papers concentrated on specific sites- eg. Prisons, public spaces, memorials, with little discussion was on cities as a whole, something that my paper on Sarajevo´s contemporary ambivalence between cosmopolitanism and antagonisms has discussed.


While the debate was exciting, I underlined in the closing discussion that what was missing in the debate was place itself. Perhaps from a disciplinary bias, historians tended to take place for granted as a static, background category. Yet a two-term concept such as shadow places needs to engage more with place, with various understandings from human geography and other spatial disciplines; from the humanistic emphasis on the meanings of place (Edward Relph, Yi Fu Tuan) to the understanding of space and place as relational (Doreen Massey). More discussion is needed with regards to what extent is place essential and constitutive in the shadow places concept. Furthermore, another important question is to what extent does place communicate- something that I pointed out in the final discussion with reference to Roma Sendyka’s paper, which richly brought forward readings of landscape. Sendyka´s intervention was welcome presence in the conference, opening up these questions about agency of materiality so important in geography, archaeology as well as humanities and social sciences having embraced the so called material turn, not excluding memory studies. In reaction to Sendyka´s paper which highlighted the sensorial experience of past events by contemporary witnesses of landscape, I questioned, however, whether one needs knowledge of the history of a place before experiencing affect. I pointed towards Fredric Jameson’s discussion of the unconscious and the allegorical frames of reading architecture and the built environment. In my opinion, these are questions that the discussions on shadow(ed) places should tackle in order to develop the concept further and also distinguish it more conceptually from dark heritage in its ambivalent relationship to the past.



As part of the conference, four parallel tours of topical issues in Warsaw took place. I attended an excellent tour by Anna Mieszko, one of the curators of the Monument: Central and Eastern Europe 1918-2018 exhibit. I recommend everyone visiting Warsaw who is interested in memory , representations and the Central and Eastern European 20th century to visit it.

Fragile monuments: Skopje souvenirs (depicting the controversial Man on the Horse/Alexander the Great statue on the main square, part of the city’s recent makeover), broken on the way to the exhibit.

Man in the shadow: Renegade statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, first leader of the Soviet secret police, the Cheka


The conference was not only an occasion for me to engage with the concept and exchange with a group of wonderful scholars, but also to be back in Warsaw, a city deeply connected to my main research topic of the last 15 years. It was a visit to Warsaw in 2003 that made think for the first time about the connection between urban reconstruction and dealing with a difficult past. Seeing Warsaw’s Stare Miasto, rebuilt brick by brick, and thinking of the resilience of Poles, I started asking myself how did the process occur in neighboring Germany. After all, Germans destroyed Warsaw and several other cities, had most of its cities destroyed on its own, but , as I was thinking as a then 18-year old, the situation was strikingly different: how could reconstruction along similar lines (ie. restorative reconstruction) work in a country that had a different responsibility? How are the political emotions of guilt and shame connected to urban space rebuilding? That became a central question of my research, with my BA at Middlebury College dedicated to the German reconstruction, and my PhD in at the University of Cambridge examining reconstruction after the recent wars of the former Yugoslavia, framed by some war scholars as embodying the changing character of war, ie. “new wars”. Being in Warsaw now, that I am finalizing my book manuscript on architecture and dealing with the legacy of war , also meant revisiting many of my thoughts of my first visit. I had a chance to get to some of the rich new research on Warsaw’s reconstruction, pointing out to its complexity and actors, beyond older Manichean interpretations. I got the chance to see intriguing projects such as the Woło neighbourhood reconstruction by Simon and Helena Syrkus experimenting with modern form while the new authorities wanted socialist realism. On Marszalkowska and at Boya, the contrast between the Stare Miasto reconstructions and the operations of removal of the “bourgeois layer” of 19th century Warsaw by demolishing still standing structures came to light. Warsaw´s reconstruction, portrayed as the city´s deathknell by some, and deemed a liberating modern project by others, opened up its many complex meanings, but also became somehow related to a shadow place of its own. The trip ignited new reflections and a drive to revisit categories and frames I associated with Warsaw on my first, pre-research trip.


Post-war and post-socialist makeovers of the Warsaw city core, with 1950s-built Palace of Culture and Science towering over the Plac Defilad

The new old town- a corner of the rebuilt Warsaw Stare Miasto

Destroying Warsaw: exhibiting the city’s destruction and reconstruction at the Monument Interpretation Centre

Wolo district: Modern vision of early reconstruction projects in Warsaw


Sabrow, Martin. “Schattenorte.” (2015) Merkur, 77-83.

Eisenhuth, Stefanie and Martin Sabrow (2018). Schattenorte: Stadtimages und Vergangenheitslast. Göttingen: Wallstein.